NASA is set to announce Dec. 12 which contractor it has selected to produce the instrumented avionics ring for the Ares 1 crew launch vehicle.

The last major piece of the Ares 1 yet to be awarded, the avionics ring will be mounted to the launch vehicle’s upper stage and provide guidance, navigation and control for the entire rocket as it boosts the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle into orbit.

A total of five teams submitted proposals this summer for the nine-year Instrument Unit Avionics contract, but in early October NASA quietly and unexpectedly narrowed the field of contenders down to two: Boulder, Colo.-based Ball Aerospace and Technologies and Houston-based Boeing Space Exploration.

The three bidders that did not make the cut were BAE Systems, Honeywell Technology Solutions and Raytheon Missile Systems. That

decision came as a surprise to aerospace analysts who saw the three major avionics vendors as favorites heading into the competition. But the indication out of NASA, these analysts said, is that all three were underbid by Boeing and Ball, both of which have more experience winning NASA prime contracts.

The NASA source selection official responsible for deciding whether to give Ball or Boeing the contract is Doug Cooke, the NASA deputy associate administrator for exploration systems who has had the final say on all the major Ares and Orion contracts awarded to date.

One analyst closely following the competition said Dec. 4 that Boeing has promised NASA that the $1.13 billion contract it won this summer to produce the Ares 1 upper stage would create efficiencies that would allow it to do the avionics part of the job more cheaply than Ball, which so far does not have a role on Ares or Orion. Both the upper stage and avionics ring are due to come together at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

Ball, meanwhile, “did a good job building customer relations” in the lead up to the competition, the analyst said, and reassured program managers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center that the Huntsville, Ala.-based field center would be calling the shots on the design effort, just as it did when it worked with IBM during the Apollo program to produce the Saturn 5’s instrument rings.

Boeing spokesman Ed Memi

said Dec. 5 that Boeing’s proposal played to its strengths as an avionics integrator with well-established avionics supply lines. Memi

also said Boeing officials were “anxiously awaiting a decision” on the avionics work and were ready to hit the ground running should Boeing get the contract.

David Taylor, Ball Aerospace president and chief executive, said in a Dec. 4 interview that what NASA is looking for in an instrument unit production partner plays to the company’s strengths. “It’s a systems integration contract, not an avionics production contract,” he said, noting that one of Ball’s jobs, if it wins, would be to work with the avionics supplier base to find the best deals on the systems that meet NASA’s specifications.

Whichever company NASA chooses, the contract, to be announced

Dec. 12, is expected to be smaller than once envisioned, according to industry officials. Since releasing the solicitation earlier this year, NASA scaled back the base contract to cover only the design, development, test and evaluation phase of the project, restructuring most of the follow-on work as options.

So while the base contract is expected to be somewhat smaller than one time thought, the contract’s potential value should remain the same, industry officials said.

NASA’s avionics announcement is

happening on the heels of personnel changes within the Constellation Program, the agency’s back-to-the-Moon effort that encompasses Ares and Orion development.

Jeff Han

ley, Constellation program manager, announced Nov. 3, that his deputy, Mark Geyer, was taking over immediately as the Orion project manager. Geyer replaced Caris “Skip” Hatfield, who becomes International Space Station Program Manager Mike Suffredini’s special assistant for technical integration. Lawrence “Dale” Thomas, a veteran NASA systems engineer, was tapped as Hanley’s acting deputy.

NASA spokeswoman Melissa Mathews said Hanley, in announcing the personal changes, said they were made as part of “a strategic realignment to prepare the Constellation Program for the next phase of development, which will include Orion’s preliminary design review.”