WASHINGTON — The biggest acquisitions NASA has on tap for 2008 are satellite systems being procured largely on behalf of other U.S. government agencies, a circumstance industry analysts attribute in part to the space agency having most of its money already tied up in operations and existing development contracts.

In December, NASA expects to award the prime contract for the

next series of Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS) spacecraft. While NASA uses the satellites

to communicate with the space shuttle and international space station, most of their

bandwidth is devoted to the Pentagon, which covers

the lion’s share of TDRSS

operations costs and is driving many of the system’s

requirements, some of them classified


The competition pits incumbent Boeing Satellite Systems of El Segundo, Calif., against Northrop Grumman Space Technology of

Redondo Beach, Calif., which

built the first seven TDRSS craft

and would like to add the program back to its portfolio. At stake

is a firm fixed-price contract for at least two satellites, TDRSS K and L, with options to buy two more. NASA wants the first

spacecraft ready to launch before the end of 2012.

NASA also expects to decide in December among four companies competing to supply the spacecraft platform

for the Landsat Data Continuity Mission. Scheduled for launch in 2011, the land imaging satellite will be operated by the

U.S. Geological Survey, a division of

the Interior Department

. The four bidders

are: General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems of Gilbert, Ariz.; Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va.; Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif.; and Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. of

Boulder, Colo. Ball is building the spacecraft’s main sensor under a contract worth

nearly $128 million, awarded

in July


Rounding out the

acquisitions NASA is making

on behalf of other agencies is the next-generation geostationary-orbiting weather satellites for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a Commerce Department agency.

Boeing Satellite Systems, Lockheed Martin Space Systems

and Northrop Grumman Space Technology have been locked in three-way competition since 2005 to build the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R

series of satellites, the first of which NOAA would like to see launched in 2014. “Things are moving successfully through the process towards the planned release of the [request for proposals], with contract awards to be announced in the ’08 fall season,” NOAA spokesman John Leslie said Nov. 21.

Outside of the TDRSS, Landsat

and weather satellite

acquisitions, collectively worth at least a couple billion dollars, NASA does not have many

big-ticket procurements planned for 2008.

NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, for example,

has just one high-profile contest going: a Small Explorers Program solicitation

expected to result in a May

selection of

three $105 million mission proposals

that would be developed for flight opportunities starting in 2011.

Brett Lambert, managing partner of the Densmore Group, an aerospace consultancy here

, said he expects to see NASA buying “less of everything” during its 2008 budget year, which officially began Oct. 1.


has yet to enact 11 of the 12

U.S. government funding bills for 2008, forcing

NASA and every other agency besides the Pentagon to continue to make due with their 2006 spending levels.


back in January

passed an omnibus appropriations bill that kept 2007 spending for most federal agencies at prior-year levels.

For NASA, this peculiar budget situation means

the agency remains stuck at $16.5 billion, about $1 billion below where it expected to be by now.

Bill Adkins, a consultant and


staff director of the House Science space and aeronautics subcommittee

, said the odds are against Congress finishing work on the 2008 budget before the current stop-gap spending measure expires Dec. 14. However, Adkins said another year

long continuing resolution, while unlikely in his view, would be devastating to NASA.

“It would cripple their plans for exploration

in particular

because that is still locked in at the 2006 number,” he said




planned to spend

roughly $3 billion in both 2007 and

2008 on Constellation, the lunar exploration

program whose

near-term focus is

fielding the

space shuttle’s replacement:

the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and its Ares 1 launcher. Instead, Constellation’s funding has remained stuck at

the roughly $1.7 billion level approved for 2006, making it difficult

for NASA to keep Orion and Ares on track for their targeted

March 2015 debut. One analyst said the feeling around NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., these days is that Ares will not be ready to fly by 2015 if the

budget battles between the White House and Congress drag

into January


NASA headquarters officials, however, are not ready to concede defeat. NASA spokeswoman Beth Dickey said Nov. 20 that the Constellation Program was moving forward with

a number of planned procurements for 2008, the first

being a

planned December award of the Ares 1 avionics instrument unit contract. In mid

October, NASA quietly narrowed the field of firms competing for the work from five down to two: Ball and Boeing. Whoever

walks away with the contract, expected to be worth roughly $300 million initially, will be responsible for assembling the avionics ring and attaching it to the upper stage of the Ares 1.

Dickey said Constellation managers also are still shooting to award a contract this coming summer for the space suit Orion astronauts will wear on missions to the space station and eventually to the Moon and beyond. At least two bids are expected in that competition, with the Worcester, Mass.-based David Clark Co. assembling a team to take on incumbents Hamilton Sundstrand, Windsor Locks, Conn., and ILC Dover, Frederica, Del.

Constellation Program officials also hope

to award several

support contracts in the year ahead, with the first

slated for February. Around the same time, NASA expects to decide how to spend $175 million that became available when the agency terminated Oklahoma City-based Rocketplane Kistler’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services demonstration agreement. Proposals were due

Nov. 21 for companies hoping to use all or some of that money to help demonstrate vehicles capable of delivering cargo

or people

to the

space station.

Jim Muncy of Alexandria, Va.-based Polispace, another

congressional staffer-turned consultant, said one of the big unknowns heading into 2008 is

how soon NASA will

place orders for commercial space

station logistics services

it needs after the shuttle retires in 2010.

Dickey said

NASA tentatively plans

to have a draft solicitation for such services ready in the spring, to be followed by a summer release of the final solicitation. Awards could be made as soon as late 2008, she said.

Jim Cantrell, president of Strategic Space Development, a Hyde Park, Utah,

consulting firm, said he sees potential for NASA’s 2008 plans

to be upended by a rapidly changing domestic and geopolitical landscape. “I think we are in for an interesting year,” he said.

For starters, Cantrell said, growing political interest in climate change

likely will force NASA to

find rides for

instruments dropped from the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System as part of its

restructuring. He predicted, for

example, that

NASA will decide early next year to add a total solar irradiance monitor and possibly another

castoff sensor to Landsat.

Cantrell also

foresees “a lot more procurement activity relating to manned spaceflight” as cooling relations between Washington and Moscow force NASA to rethink its heavy dependence

on Russian Soyuz and Progress vehicles for space station crew and cargo transportation.

NASA will face mounting pressure to plow more money into Orion and the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services programs as alternatives to the Russian vehicles, he said.

At the same time, Cantrell predicted, NASA will abandon the Ares 1 effort and rely instead on the U.S. Air Force’s Atlas 5 or Delta 4 rockets to launch Orion.

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin made clear

as recently as Nov. 16 that while he finds it “unseemly” that the United States could soon depend on another nation for putting astronauts into orbit,

he does not see the Atlas 5 or Delta 4

as a viable alternative to Ares 1 for launching Orion. While those vehicles

might be suitable for launching a smaller-crewed capsule, he said, NASA analysis has found that their flight profile in an Orion launch would not allow for a safe mission abort procedure should something go wrong shortly after liftoff.