WASHINGTON – General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems underbid its competitors to win a $116 million fixed-price contract to build the spacecraft for the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM), securing its first major piece of new NASA business in nearly six years.

The Gilbert, Ariz.-based small satellite maker beat out offers from three other firms, among them Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., which just two years ago appeared well-positioned to take home the lion’s share of the contract funding associated with the United States’s next moderate-resolution land imaging satellite.

As it stands, Ball Aerospace will still build LCDM’s key instrument, the Operational Land Imager, under a $127.9 million cost-plus-award-fee contract it won last July by beating out ITT Space Systems Division of Rochester, N.Y.

But the job of building the host satellite platform and integrating that instrument onto it is going to the General Dynamics team, which put forward what NASA judged to be the best deal, all things considered.

NASA source-selection official George W. Morrow noted that Ball Aerospace and another bidder, Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif., had stronger technical proposals and better overall track records. However, these advantages were not enough to offset the “significant price advantage” offered by General Dynamics, Morrow wrote in the April 15 decision document, a copy of which was obtained by Space News.

“Accordingly, I conclude that the [General Dynamics] offer represents the best value to the Government,” said Morrow, director of flight projects at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Dennis Lowrey, vice president of space systems for General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems, told Space News in an April 30 interview that his team viewed Ball as its
toughest competition for the bus contract, which was made via NASA’s Rapid Spacecraft Development Office (RSDO) Rapid 2 catalog of pre-qualified spacecraft platforms.

“Both Ball and us have strong relationships with the RSDO office,” Lowrey said. “We’ve built three vehicles in roughly this class for RSDO and so has Ball.”

Ball had long been positioning itself to build the nation’s next Landsat spacecraft. After the U.S. government abandoned a plan to incorporate a land-imaging instrument on its new
generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites, Ball helped convince NASA to pursue a stand-alone Landsat mission using a fixed-price contracting approach.

Having studied in detail the Landsat mission requirements in support of two rival bids in a since-abandoned effort to commercialize the program, Ball was seen as well-positioned to land the full mission contract with a fixed-price bid.

NASA, however, was forced to overhaul its LDCM acquisition plans in 2006 to appease U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who wanted to see Goddard take a more hands-on role in the high-priority mission. In place of a single fixed-price contract for the entire mission, NASA adopted an approach in which LDCM was broken into three separate contracts: one for the instrument, one for the satellite, and a third, yet to be awarded, for mission operations.

The loss was a heartbreaker for Ball.

“We are very disappointed, as Ball has had a strong track record on fixed-price contracts,” Ball spokeswoman Roz Brown said in a May 1 e-mail.

Among the four bids, Ball’s proposed price was the second lowest, closely followed by Space Systems/Loral. Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp’s bid was “significantly higher than all other offers,” NASA’s decision document said.

“Overall, our satellite business is very robust,” Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski said. “We bid the program at what we felt would get a reasonable return considering it is a fixed-price contract that included development work.”

Lowrey stopped short of characterizing LDCM as a must-win, but said the General Dynamics team “strove very hard to provide the best value to NASA.”

“NASA is core business for us,” he said.

General Dynamics has no NASA satellites in development at its Gilbert plant now that the Gamma-ray Large Area Telescope is on the launch pad in Florida awaiting a late May liftoff.

But General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems had not been entirely winless in the NASA arena since nabbing that contract in 2002. In fact, the company was tapped to build two NASA satellites – only to see one of those, a soil moisture mission called Hydros, canceled and the other, a space telescope called NuStar, restructured and reassigned to rival Orbital Sciences.

LDCM will be built using the same basic platform General Dynamics used for the gamma ray telescope, according to Lowery. Ball is expected to deliver the instrument to Gilbert in 2010 for integration with the spacecraft bus. Launch of the LDCM, the latest in a series of land-imaging spacecraft the United States has been flying since the early 1970s, is slated for July 2011.

Comments: bberger@space.com

Brian Berger is editor in chief of SpaceNews.com and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined SpaceNews.com in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. His reporting on the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident was...