WASHINGTON — Despite uncertainty surrounding NASA’s Constellation program, the U.S. space agency is forging ahead with a contract to manage ground systems and launch services in support of it.

In late October, Chicago-based Boeing Co. and United Space Alliance submitted separate proposals to NASA for the Exploration Ground Launch Services (EGLS) contract. The contract seeks industry support for ground processing and operations services for NASA launch vehicles, spacecraft and payloads in support of Constellation, the international space station and expendable launch services programs.

The contract also would require companies to help transition legacy assets supporting the agency’s space shuttle fleet, slated for retirement in 2010, and the space station.

In October, an independent review panel appointed by U.S. President Barack Obama released a report detailing the status of America’s human spaceflight program, and outlined possible alternate visions for Constellation, NASA’s 5-year-old effort to replace the aging space shuttle with rockets and spacecraft optimized to send astronauts to the Moon. The panel, led by former Lockheed Martin chief Norm Augustine, found the Constellation program’s Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares 1 launcher are not sustainable given NASA’s budget and goals. The president is reviewing the report and is expected to make a decision in the coming weeks about whether to proceed with the Constellation program or take the agency in a new direction. The report suggested Obama consider giving up on Ares 1 and instead urge private industry to step in and design a low Earth orbit vehicle capable of transporting humans and leaving NASA to focus on building a heavy-lift vehicle to take people to the Moon and Mars.

Despite doubts hanging over the program, NASA officials say they are obligated to focus on the task at hand. In a May 7 letter to White House science adviser John Holdren, acting NASA Administrator Christopher Scolese wrote that the Constellation program would continue as planned despite the presidential review.

“During this activity, the NASA workforce will continue to focus on the safe flight and operation of the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station and to move forward with the Ares I, Orion, and related elements to assure that we maintain the robust capabilities required for human space flight,” Scolese wrote in the letter, which was written in response to Holdren’s call for the presidential review.

In October, the Constellation program conducted a flight test of the Ares 1-X, an unmanned prototype of the Ares 1 rocket that officials said will provide a wealth of data for future launch vehicle development, regardless of which direction the agency is ultimately directed to take.

NASA spokeswoman Ashley Edwards confirmed Nov. 4 that until the agency is directed to do otherwise, spending on Constellation continues. “Until we get redirected, it would be breaking the law not to spend money on what they’ve told us to spend it on,” she said. “We’re being prudent about not trying to get ahead of anything. But we’ll work on the program of record until we can point to a change in policy.”

NASA is expected to award the EGLS contract in April 2010 through Kennedy Space Center, the agency’s main launch facility. In an Oct. 26 news release announcing its EGLS proposal, Boeing said the company stands ready to support Constellation. “New capabilities and cost-effective approaches, proven in our space, defense and commercial airplane programs, will enable us to provide safe and reliable ground operations for Constellation and help NASA achieve the United States’ space exploration goals,” John Elbon, Boeing vice president and EGLS team leader, said in the statement.

Boeing spokeswoman Susan Wells would not reveal Boeing’s partners in the EGLS proposal, but said a team of “proven performers” has been chosen. “Once the competitive phase is completed, we’ll announce our team publicly,” she said.

United Space Alliance spokeswoman Tracy Yates said her company also plans to compete for the contract with a team that includes Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin, Minneapolis-based Alliant Techsystems, which is building the Ares 1 main stage, and Tullahoma, Tenn.-based Jacobs Technology, a company that provides support and engineering services support to a number of NASA programs. “[United Space Alliance] recently submitted a proposal to NASA regarding the EGLS contract,” Yates said.