With Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) proposals finally in hand, NASA is expected to decide by early fall whether it will be Lockheed Martin or the team of Northrop Grumman and Boeing that helps the U.S. space agency design and build the key element of its next human space transportation system.

The Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman-Boeing teams have been under contract since July when NASA gave each team $28 million to help refine their respective CEV concepts. A follow-up solicitation was issued in January and both teams submitted their final proposals to NASA by the March 20 deadline.

NASA has not said how much it expects the CEV to cost, but the agency has included over $20 billion in its latest five-year budget for Constellation Systems, the program that encompasses development of the CEV, two new launch vehicles and other hardware NASA needs to return to the Moon by 2020.

Jeffrey Hanley, manager of NASA’s Constellation Program, said the agency expects to select a single CEV contractor team by early fall .

While Lockheed Martin has announced publicly where it would locate its CEV work force if it wins the competition, Northrop Grumman has provided its CEV work-force plan only to NASA.

Lockheed Martin announced in late February that if it wins, it would do final assembly and checkout of the vehicle at Kennedy Space Center, bringing about 300 to 400 new jobs to Florida. Lockheed Martin followed up its Florida announcement with a March 24 announcement that it would put about 1,200 mostly engineering jobs in Houston in order to be close to Johnson Space Center, the NASA center running the CEV program. John Karas, Lockheed Martin’s vice president of space exploration, said in an interview prior to the announcement that a CEV win would mean about 300 to 400 new jobs at the company’s facilities in Denver.

Since giving the two teams Phase 1 contracts last summer to help refine their CEV concepts, NASA has decreed that the CEV will be a ballistic entry capsule that NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has dubbed “Apollo on steroids.” NASA also has established that the CEV will be launched atop a taller, more powerful version of the solid-rocket booster that helps launch the space shuttle. NASA hopes to start flight testing the CEV and its launcher around the end of the decade and to put the new system in service no later than 2014.

When Griffin took office last year, he was determined to accelerate the development of CEV in order to field the new system as close to the space shuttle’s planned 2010 retirement as possible. Budget realities, however, have since forced Griffin to ease back on the throttle.

While the budget for Constellation Systems — the program that encompasses development of the CEV, two new launch vehicles and related systems — would jump 76 percent to $3 billion under NASA’s 2007 spending request and continue to grow through the end of the decade, NASA says it probably cannot afford to field the CEV and its shuttle-derived launcher in 2012 as previously forecast. NASA is back to shooting for 2014, the original date President George W. Bush set in his landmark Vision for Space Exploration speech at NASA headquarters here in January 2004.

While the CEV competition is the highest profile part of NASA’s effort to field its first new human transportation system since the space shuttle, it is not the only part.

Design of the Crew Launch Vehicle (CLV) is under way at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. NASA early this year selected ATK Thiokol to help develop the Crew Launch Vehicle’s first stage, which will be based on the space shuttle solid-rocket boosters the Promontory, Utah-based company has been building for the past quarter century.

Thiokol spokesman George Torres said the company is “helping NASA design the CLV by doing analysis on the requirements to support adapting the [reusable solid-rocket motors] for the CLV first stage.” A contract is expected later this year.

NASA also is preparing to go out with a solicitation for the Crew Launch Vehicle’s upper stage. Marshall Space Flight Center issued a request for information March 20 seeking input from industry meant to help the agency decide how to structure the CLV upper-stage acquisition. NASA plans to power the upper stage with an updated version of the J-2 engine originally designed for the Saturn 5, the workhorse of the Apollo program.

In parallel to the NASA-led CEV development, the agency plans to spend $500 million over the next five years on a demonstration program meant to coax into existence a low-cost alternative to the CEV for international space station resupply and crew rotation missions. Proposals were due March 3. NASA is expected to announce its selections in early June.

NASA spokeswoman Dolores Beasley said the agency received proposals “from a wide variety of organizations across the full spectrum of industry.” While declining to say how many proposals NASA received, she said the agency was “pleased with industry’s response” to the solicitation.

Sources following the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services competition said NASA received about 20 proposals. These same sources said NASA plans to inform the field of competitors in early April whether they made the short list for further consideration. Beasley would not confirm that a preliminary down-select was under way, saying that internal milestones and other such information is considered “competition sensitive” and would not be released.

Comments: bberger@space.com