Teams Compete to Build Upper Stage of NASA’s Ares I Rocket

WASHINGTON- The competition is on for two aerospace industry teams vying for the contractto build part of NASA's next astronaut-launching rocket.

Boeingunveiled its team March 28 in the competition to build upper stages for NASA'splanned Ares I crew launcher, a program that represents the company's lastchance for the next several years to win a major hardware-building role in the emergingU.S. human space exploration program.

Bids aredue April 13 for the estimated $900 million contract, scheduled for award latethis summer, to produce the hardware based on NASA specifications. Thecompetition pits Boeing's team, which includes Northrop Grumman, against oneled by Alliant Techsystems.

"We intendto have the upper stage award by late August," Steve Cook, NASA'sdirector of exploration launch projects at Marshall Space Flight Center inHuntsville, Alabama, said in a telephone interview.

The Ares Iupper stage contract will be followed by one other award to build the rocket'savionics system as NASA works towards the firsttest flight, dubbed Ares I-X, in April 2009.

"Two of ourmain objectives for the calendar year are to complete those two acquisitions,"Cook said.

Boeingweighs in

Boeingbuilt NASA's fleet of space shuttles and is prime contractor on theinternational space station. But the company has yet to land a big piece ofProject Constellation, which encompasses the hardware NASA will use to ferryastronauts and associated cargo to low Earth orbit starting in 2015, and to the Moon by 2020.

"It's veryimportant for Boeing to be a part of Constellation, we've been part of humanspaceflight since the beginning," John Elbon, vicepresident for Boeing's Constellation program, in a telephone interview."Constellation is the next chapter in NASA's story."

In August,a Boeing-Northrop Grumman team lost out to Lockheed Martin Space Systems ofDenver in the competition for Project Constellation's biggest plum so far, the$4 billion OrionCrew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) contract. Orion capsules will be launched bythe Ares I expendable rocket, whose main stage is being developed by Alliant Techsystems LaunchSystems Group based on the space shuttle solid-rocket motors that the companybuilds.

"We were ofcourse disappointed that we were unsuccessful with our teammate NorthropGrumman in winning CEV," Elbon said, adding that theAres I upper stage is NASA's last major exploration procurement in thenear-future. "After that there won't be procurements for three, four or fiveyears."

Boeing andNorthrop Grumman billed themselves as a team of equals in the Orioncompetition. For the Ares I upper-stage work, Boeing is clearly the teamleader, with Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman identified as a supplierresponsible for producing the composite interstagehardware.

"We are thelow-risk offer as everyone on this team has the experience in the jobs we'regoing to do on Ares I, so we're keeping the risk to NASA low and we think we havea very competitive offer," Jim Chilton, vice president of Boeing ExplorationLaunch Systems, Huntsville, Ala., said. "Our team was built around NASA'srequirements."

The othermembers of Boeing's team are: Hamilton Sundstrand, Windsor Locks, Conn.; Moog,East Aurora, N.Y.; Orion Propulsion Inc., Madison, Ala.; SUMMA Technology Inc.,Huntsville; Chickasaw Nation Industries, Ada, Okla.;United Launch Alliance, Denver; and United Space Alliance, Houston. UnitedLaunch Alliance and United Space Alliance are Boeing-Lockheed Martin jointventures that operate expendable rockets and the space shuttle, respectively.In its press release, Boeing described Chickasaw Nation Industries as "atribally-owned small business" that specializes in logistics support andinventory control.


Alliant Techsystems' competing team, unveiled in September,includes Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyneof Canoga Park, Calif., which is under contract to produce the Ares 1'supper-stage engine, the J2-X.

NASAexpects to award the upper-stage production contract in August. The rocket'savionics system is being acquired separately, with a request for bids due outthis spring, to be followed by a contract award late this year.

Chiltontold reporters during a March 28 conference call that the company decided tohold off finalizing its team membership until after NASA had released the finalsolicitation for the upper-stage work, which occurred Feb. 23.

In contrastto the Orion program, NASA is not asking industry to propose designs for theupper stage. Instead, the agency is seeking only plans for how the bidderswould manufacture the NASA-designed hardware reliably and affordably.

"This isnot NASA buying a designer. NASA is actually the designer," Chilton said. "Wechose to wait to make sure we built our team around NASA's requirements."

Among thoserequirements is concentrating the engineering work force in Huntsville to workalongside NASA's civil servant-led design team at Marshall Space Flight Center,and using the Michoud Assembly Facility outside New Orleans for final assemblyof the flight hardware.

Anotherrequirement handed down by NASA is that the winning contractor share nearly afifth of the work with businesses classified as small or disadvantaged.

"This workstatement is a natural for small business," Chilton told reporters.

The Alliant TechSystems team alsoincludes small businesses, including some of the same ones on Boeing's roster,said Ron Dittemore, president of Alliant'sLaunch Systems Group of Promontory, Utah.

"Many ofthose that you heard today in [Boeing's] announcement are merchant suppliersthat will provide their services and products to both teams just as a matter ofcourse, whether they are small disadvantaged businesses or whether they aresomebody like Hamilton Sundstrand or Moog who are known in the industry fortheir products and will be suppliers to both teams," Dittemoresaid in a March 28 interview.


The Ares Iupper-stage production contract is the biggest award remaining under ProjectConstellation for the next few years. NASA does not anticipate awardingcontracts for AresV, the heavy-lift vehicle that will be needed to loft cargo in support ofastronaut lunar landings, until sometime after 2010.

Cook andhis team have drawn up plans to reserve space at NASA's New Orleans-basedMichoud Assembly Facility, where the agency's shuttle fuel tanks areconstructed, for use on Ares boosters, with the Ares I preliminary designreview to be completed by the end of summer.

While thefirst Ares I test flight, Ares I-X, will carry a simulated upper stage, thesubsequent Ares I-Y flight test will feature a full-up version lacking only itsJ-2X engine, Cook said. Orbital test flights are expected to then follow, headded.

NASAintends to order two upper stages per year during the early years of the Aresprogram, and has asked the contractor teams to show how they would ramp up tosupport a production rate of six per year.

Chiltonsaid the contract could be worth as much as $900 million initially, andpotentially much more over the long run. "This could be in production for along time," he said. "This is how the United States is going to put people intospace."

SPACE.comstaff writer Tariq Malik contributed to this story from New York City.  

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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.