With the Ares 1 upper-stage production work under contract, NASA’s attention now shifts to the competition to produce the manned rocket’s instrumented avionics ring.

Mounted to the upper stage, the job of the avionics ring is to provide guidance, navigation and control for the entire rocket as it boosts the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle into orbit. NASA’s Huntsville, Ala.-based Marshall Space Flight Center is in charge of designing the avionics ring, but actual production of the hardware will be handled by whichever industry team NASA chooses this December for a nine-year contract initially expected to be worth roughly $300 million.

Whoever wins the avionics competition will work alongside NASA at Marshall, advising the engineers there on how their design choices would impact production considerations and ultimately cost. Production of the instrument rings, by NASA decree, will take place at the Michoud Assembly Facility, the sprawling New Orleans plant where Boeing

will soon begin gearing up to produce Ares 1 upper stages powered by J-2X engines supplied by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne.

The avionics ring is the last major piece of work on the Ares 1 program that is still up for grabs. Five teams submitted proposals this summer to be the prime contractor for the

Ares 1 avionics unit, work that would keep the winner

busy through at least 2016 building the six-meter rings and outfitting the quadruple-redundant systems with four sets of everything they need to perform reliably during launch.

The five teams that turned in bids by the July 30 deadline are BAE Systems, Ball Aerospace and Technologies, the Boeing Co., Honeywell

and Raytheon.

For Houston-based Boeing Exploration Systems, the avionics competition is a chance to add another piece of Ares 1 work to its portfolio. NASA chose Boeing in August over the team of Alliant TechSystems (ATK), Lockheed Martin

and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne to produce upper stages for the Ares 1 under a nine-year contract that could be worth as much as

$1.13 billion.

Dwight Potter, Boeing’s Huntsville, Ala.-based Ares 1 instrument unit avionics program manager, said in a recent interview that he did not think Boeing’s upper-stage win would help or harm its chances of winning the avionics work. “If there is any advantage or disadvantage to us that would imply that NASA has unstated evaluation requirements,” he said. “We don’t see this being a factor in the competition.”

To Potter, a key factor that sets Boeing apart from the competition is its unparalleled human spaceflight experience. Boeing is currently the prime contractor for the international space station and a major contracting force in the space shuttle arena. Boeing’s dominance as a systems integrator means that all of the companies competing for the avionics work have worked for Boeing as subcontractors and most if not all having supplied avionics-related hardware to Boeing-led projects in the past.

But Potter said that does not mean that Boeing does not know how to do the avionics work itself. “We offload a lot of things, but the avionics integration is something we’ve almost always kept in house,” he said.

Honeywell Aerospace is no stranger to human spaceflight either. The company worked under Boeing to outfit NASA’s space shuttle orbiters with modern glass cockpits incorporating up-to-date electronic displays and

currently is working with Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems on the avionics system for the six-person capsule.

Jerry Wellman, the Honeywell vice president leading the company’s avionics proposal, said in a recent interview that he was feeling pretty good about Honeywell’s chances in light of NASA’s stated reasons for picking Boeing for upper-stage production, even though Honeywell was supporting Alliant Techsystem’s rival bid.

“Boeing’s win over the ATK team reaffirms some of the strategies we deployed in our proposal,” Wellman said, such as emphasizing lean manufacturing approaches and keeping overhead low.

By bidding the avionics work out of Honeywell Technology Solutions, its Columbia, Md.-based government services division instead of its Clearwater, Fla-based space products group, Wellman said Honeywell was able to offer NASA lower overhead rates.

Because the vast majority of Honeywell Technology Solution’s 5,000 employees work at customer-owned facilities, Wellman said, the Columbia-based division’s overhead rate is half that of Honeywell Space, which must provide office space, laboratories and workshops for its employees and fund internal research and development efforts to stay competitive.

Wellman said

Honeywell would be able to draw upon the expertise resident in its space products division, as well as the best that other avionics houses have to offer, to produce an avionics ring that meets NASA’s needs.

Honeywell, like its competitors, is spending its own money upfront to improve its chances of not only winning, but making sure it can get off to a fast start should it get the contract. According to Honeywell spokesman James O’Leary, Honeywell has made an initial investment in Ares-specific information technology and engineering infrastructure of more than $3 million.

That is more or less the amount BAE Systems has made in similar upfront investments to make sure that it and its teammates can hit the ground running in the event of a win.

Douglas Tighe, BAE Systems vice president of advanced systems and its Ares instrument unit avionics program manager, said the company is spending $2 million to $4 million on a number of preparations, including getting its entire team to install the same management software systems NASA uses for the Ares program, and making an early start on an avionics test bed to allow NASA to get started on hardware and software integration earlier than planned.

Tighe said BAE Systems’ proposal drew heavily upon the company’s experience supplying the avionics for the U.S. Air Force’s C-17 cargo plane, as well as work the company and its teammates have done on the Joint Strike Fighter and Atlas and Delta rockets. The BAE Systems team includes United Space Alliance, General Dynamics, Harris Corp.

, Goodrich Corp.

, Wyle Laboratories, Arcata Associates Inc., Barrios Technology and AURA Instrumentation. “Everybody we highlighted ended up teaming with us exclusively,” Tighe said.

Bruce DeWitt, the Ares avionics unit program director at Raytheon Missile Systems, Tucson, Ariz., readily admits his company lacks experience working on NASA human spaceflight programs, but said he does not think that hurts Raytheon’s chances.

“We have not been working with NASA in this regime in the past, yet this is right up our alley,” DeWitt said. “We have been production assistants to design agents before with the [U.S. Defense Department]. We know how to work this,” he said.

Raytheon produces the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle and Standard Missile 3 for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency and Tomahawk cruise missiles for the U.S. Navy – complex systems built to exacting standards, DeWitt said.

“It may not be in space with astronauts today, but what it’s about is providing 100 percent mission assurance,” DeWitt, a former Tomahawk program manager, said of the relevancy of Raytheon’s missile work to NASA’s Ares program.

Raytheon already has a 600-person presence in Huntsville -thanks mostly to its missile defense work – and has two local subcontractors on its roster – Dynetics and Intergraph Corp.

– which he said “have high levels of competency in some of the engineering skills we are going to be looking for in designing for production.”

Boulder, Colo.-based Ball Aerospace and Technologies reorganized earlier this year to send Bill Townsend, a former deputy director of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, down to Huntsville to serve as vice president for exploration systems and lead the company’s Ares avionics capture effort.

“When we first looked at this, this really looked to be in our sweet

spot,” Townsend said. “It’s essentially

a spacecraft on a ring. It’s a ring some [6 meters] in diameter and [2 meters] tall and it has populated all around it electronic boxes. It’s a quad redundant system, so you’ve got everything multiplied by four … It’s the same kind of stuff you do on spacecraft. Instead of a spacecraft being in a vertical stack its spread horizontally along this circular ring, so it’s the kind of job we do all the time.”

While Ball is better known for building science satellites and instruments, its resume is not entirely without human spaceflight experience. The company supplies some components for the space shuttle, including a star tracker and an oxygen-generating propellant reactant storage system, and has been intimately involved in every astronaut-tended Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission. Ball’s two teammates are Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne and Hamilton Sundstrand. “Both have long and rich history in human spaceflight programs,” Townsend said.