SAN FRANCISCO — NASA plans to take another look at one element of the criteria used to determine the winner of a vigorously contested space communications network contract worth as much as $1.26 billion over seven years, according to government officials and space agency documents.

NASA’s decision first announced in October 2008 and reiterated in April 2009 and July 2009 to award the Space Communications Network Services (SCNS) contract to ITT Corp.’s Advanced Engineering and Sciences division in Herndon, Va., has drawn congressional ire and repeated protests by Honeywell Technology Solutions Inc. of Columbia, Md., the firm that holds the current contract to operate and monitor NASA’s space and near-Earth communications network. In repeated protests over NASA’s selection of ITT, Honeywell officials have questioned whether the competition was conducted fairly and whether space agency officials were able to rely on an accurate representation of the past performance of both companies in determining who should be awarded the SCNS contract.

Those concerns were echoed in a report by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology. “We believe that staff at [Goddard Space Flight Center] have engaged in conduct that is inconsistent with either the provisions of the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) or the agency’s own rules,” said the July 13 report written by the committee’s majority staff. “The result is that the SCNS competition has been skewed in such a fashion that, at a minimum, creates the appearance of the agency favoring one bidder over another.”

In response to Honeywell’s protests and congressional concerns, NASA has repeatedly reviewed how well both firms carried out their responsibilities under previous government contracts, a key element of the SCNS selection process. That issue will be scrutinized once again, according to a Sept. 9 letter from NASA to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

In the letter, NASA conceded that the decision to award the SCNS contract was based on an incomplete analysis of ITT’s performance operating the U.S. Defense Department’s Data and Analysis Center for Software (DACS). As a result, the space agency’s Past Performance Evaluation Team will “reconsider the overall past performance rating for the ITT Team,” according to the letter signed by NASA senior attorney Alexander Bakos. In addition, the Past Performance Evaluation Team plans to “verify the period of performance of all other contracts being evaluated by both offerors” and to re-evaluate the relevancy of those contracts to the ongoing competition, the letter said.

Once that review is completed, the Past Performance Evaluation Team will present its findings to William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for space operations, who is responsible for making the final decision in the SCNS competition, the letter said.

NASA’s decision to review the DACS contract prompted GAO to dismiss Honeywell’s most recent protest related to the SCNS contract. “We dismiss the protest as academic because the agency has decided to take corrective action by reevaluating the offerors’ past performance and making a new source selection determination,” said the GAO’s Sept. 16 decision signed by Acting General Counsel Lynn Gibson.

Still, Ralph White, who heads GAO’s bid protest unit, said NASA’s most recent move is unlikely to lead to swift conclusion of the matter. “Given that [Honeywell] has fought this hard over it and has been right several times, and given that more than $1 billion is at stake, I can’t image this is the last we will hear of this,” White said.

Until the SCNS contract issues are resolved, Honeywell continues to operate NASA’s space communications network under an extension of the Near Earth Networks Services contract, the precursor to SCNS.

“SCNS continues to be under a stay of performance because of protest, and subsequent corrective action,” said NASA spokesman Michael Curie. “Under governing statute, a stay of performance remains in place while a protest is pending.”

NASA officials declined to comment on pending corrective action or on the possibility of future protest.

ITT officials declined to comment on the SCNS program, company spokeswoman Leah Lackey said.

Honeywell officials remain optimistic that they will prevail in the SCNS competition. “The House Science Committee’s report underscores why this decision should be revisited and reversed,” said Honeywell spokeswoman Carrie Sinclair. “Our bid is the best value for NASA and the American taxpayer, and our experience controlling critical NASA satellites and networks is unparalleled. We remain hopeful that an unbiased procurement decision can ultimately be made so Honeywell can continue to provide its expertise in support of this critical mission.”

The company that wins the SCNS contract will support the networks NASA relies on to communicate with space agency science missions, the international space station, the Hubble Space Telescope and Earth-observing satellites for five years. The five-year contract includes two one-year options that, if exercised, would make the total program worth $1.26 billion.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...