NASA Altering Its Contract Approach For Procuring Landsat Replacement

NASA is overhauling its Landsatacquisition strategy to appease one of its key supporters in the U.S. Senate.But the U.S. space agency is no closer to moving out on development of a newland-imaging satellite than it was two months ago when Sen. Barbara Mikulski(D-Md.) first objected to the fixed-price approach the agency had intended totake and asked NASA to halt the procurement.

NASA, which manages and funds thedevelopment of Landsat satellites on behalf of the U.S. Geological Survey, isunder pressure from Landsat's myriad government, academic and private-sector users to field areplacement for the old and ailing Landsat 5 and Landsat 7 spacecraft by 2011.NASA had been expected to release a draft request for proposals for a so-calledLandsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) this fall, but those plans were thrown for aloop when Mikulski threatened to withhold funding unless the agency abandonedits plan to award a single fixed-price contract for the spacecraft andinstrument.

Mikulskiraised her objections in report language accompanying the Commerce, Justice,Science spending bill the Senate Appropriations Committee approved July 13.Mikulski told Space News in a statement at the time that she favored a morecustomary acquisition approach for the next Landsat, one that "fully competedindividual segments with NASA serving as the project integrator."

While acompanion spending bill already approved by the U.S. House of Representativescontained no such Landsat provision, NASA opted to modify its acquisitionapproach rather than get into a fight with Mikulski, an influential NASAsupporter who is championing a $1 billion emergency supplemental the agencysorely needs.

Governmentand industry sources said NASA has agreed in principle toabandon the fixed-price approach it had been pursuing, procure the spacecraftbus and instrument separately, and give the agency's Greenbelt, Md.-basedGoddard Space Flight Center a central role in the project. Mikulski, thesesources said, is still waiting for NASA to communicate the details of itsnew LDCM acquisition approach before lifting her objections.

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin toldGoddard personnel Sept. 12 that the field center was being given the "systemsintegration responsibility for the Landsat Data Continuity Mission." He madethe announcement during a wide-ranging address meant to allay worries about hisadministration's stewardship of the agency's science portfolio.

Aside fromGriffin's brief remark at Goddard, NASA officials remain reticent to talk about the LDCM procurement until theagency reaches an agreement with Mikulski on a new approach.

ProvidingNASA's official comment on the matter, Ted Hammer, acting associate flightprogram director for the Earth Science Division of the agency's Science MissionDirectorate, said in a Sept. 20 written statement prepared in response toquestions from Space News that "NASA Headquarters is still reviewing the LandsatData Continuity Mission procurement process."

Other NASAofficials familiar with the matter, speaking on the condition of anonymity,said NASA is not willing to risk alienating Mikulski over LDCM and is trying tofinalize a procurement approach that meets her approval.

While NASAis willing to procure the bus and instrument separately, these officials said,the agency has not finalized such details as the role industry will play in theinstrument development and whether to hold an open competition for the bus orselect one from a Goddard's so-called Rapid catalog of pre-qualified busdesigns.

The Rapidcatalog, established to speed spacecraft procurement, includes pre-negotiatedbus offerings from Boulder, Colo.-based Ball Aerospace, EADS Astrium, Dulles,Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp., General Dynamics' Gilbert, Ariz.-basedSpectrum Astro division, Europe's EADS Astrium and the United Kingdon's SurreySatellite Technology Ltd.

Mikulskispokeswoman Melissa Schwartz declined to comment on the LDCM matter beyondsaying that the senator "is waiting for NASA to communicate their plan."

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Editor-in-Chief, SpaceNews

Brian Berger is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews, a bi-weekly space industry news magazine, and He joined SpaceNews covering NASA in 1998 and was named Senior Staff Writer in 2004 before becoming Deputy Editor in 2008. Brian's reporting on NASA's 2003 Columbia space shuttle accident and received the Communications Award from the National Space Club Huntsville Chapter in 2019. Brian received a bachelor's degree in magazine production and editing from Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.