WASHINGTON -- NASA awarded contracts worth $5 billion Tuesday for construction of a manned space station, a project that will create 12,000 jobs in the agency's most ambitious venture since the glory days of the Apollo moon program.
Gambling on an uncertain budget, NASA Administrator James Fletcher ended months of suspense about the immediate future of the costly project, saying, 'The best minds of the nation went to work on this competition and all of the proposals that we received were outstanding.'
'Needless to say, we expected the best in all aspects ... and I'm sure we have the best,' he said. 'The nation can rest assured the top people in the American aerospace industry will design and build the space station, which in my mind is so vital to our country's future in space.'
The space station, a giant 445-foot-wide orbital outpost, is scheduled to be assembled in space starting in 1994 with permanent operations beginning in 1996. The project is expected to cost at least $23 billion over the next 10 years when transportation and administrative costs are figured in.
The award of design and development contracts Tuesday marked the most significant step yet in the station's evolution since President Reagan endorsed the program in 1984.
At a news conference held at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., Andrew Stofan, associate administrator for the space station project, said that while the contract amounts will be refined in coming weeks, they will create about 12,000 jobs across the United States.
At the Johnson Space Center in Houston, a contractor team led by McDonnell Douglas Astronautics Co. won a contract worth an estimated $1.9 billion and possibly up to $2.04 billion to build the station's framework and a variety of subsystems. Stofan said the work will create about 4,050 jobs, most in California and Texas.
In winning the contract, the St. Louis company defeated a team led by Rockwell International Corp. of Downey, Calif., which currently holds a contract to build a new space shuttle to replace Challenger.
In the only other hotly contested contract, a group headed by Boeing Aerospace Co. of Huntsville, Ala., beat out a team led by Martin Marietta Corp. of New Orleans to build the station's crew modules. The contract is valued at some $750 million with an option for an additional $25 million if the space station is upgraded at a later date as NASA wishes.
The Boeing package will create about 2,900 jobs, with most in Alabama and California.
'I think this announcement today signals the start of a new golden age of exploration in space,' said Alabama Gov. Guy Hunt. 'And to borrow and paraphase a comment from that last golden age, this is one small step for man and one giant leap for Alabama.'
The two other major contract packages went to Rockwell International's Rocketdyne division and General Electric Co. and its subsidiary RCA Corp., which were awarded contracts worth $1.6 billion and $800 million, respectively, to build the station's power systems and an orbital science platform.
Stofan said the Rocketdyne package, which will be managed by the Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, will create about 3,230 jobs, most in California. Another 1,540 jobs will be created in Pennsylvania and other states under the General Electric work package, managed at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.
Overall management responsibility for the project rests with the space station program office in Reston, Va.
One potential stumbling block for the project is participation by the European Space Agency, Canada and Japan, but Fletcher said he is optimistic negotiations will prove successful.
'We are prepared to go ahead with the space station with or without our European, Canadian and Japanese partners,' he said. 'I think the odds are high that all three partners will come aboard. But at this time, it's not clear when they'll make the decision.'
NASA's international partners have expressed concern in the past about possible military use of the orbital laboratory but Stofan said he believes agreements will be signed by the end of the year.
The space station, originally estimated by NASA to cost $8 billion, has been beset by budget problems that continue to threaten it.
Questions about NASA's ability to deliver are especially acute since development ofthe 320-ton station dwarfs the shuttle's development and even the Apollo moon program when it comes to sheer managerial complexity.
Fletcher said he does not yet know how current budget negotiations will affect the space station contracts and the overall schedule.
'Our guess at this point is there will be enough to go ahead with these contracts but we don't really know how much,' he said. 'So it took a little bit of courage on our part to say, yes, we're going ahead (with the contracts).'
The agency asked for and received about $767 million in the House version of the fiscal 1988 budget while the Senate version was $208 million less after an attempt to kill the program outright. The impact of potential deficit reduction measures is not yet known.
'There are some that feel we ought to stand back and review where we are and perhaps come up with a different timetable,' Fletcher said. 'There are others who feel we ought to get going right away on the original plan. I think at this point we're assuming the latter.'
As currently envisioned, the space station, orbiting 250 miles up, would be made up of a 445-foot truss-like beam with giant solar panels stretching 100 feet to either side at both ends.
Four crew modules would be anchored to the center of the truss, two provided by the European Space Agency and Japan. This concept, approved by the White House, is called the 'revised baseline design.'
NASA ultimately wants to expand the orbital outpost to include additional electrical generators and a rectangular framework the size of a football field to support experiment packages.
While the Soviet Mir space station already is operating in orbit, few doubt NASA's version will represent state of the art when -- and if - it flies.
'The space station we have proposed is going to be a far better space station than the Sovet Union has today,' Fletcher said.
Reagan called for the permanently manned space station in his 1984 State of the Union address to serve as a base for scientific investigations and to support industrial ventures expected to stimulate growth of new technologies and strengthen international cooperation in space.
Since then, the project has been wracked by criticism of management and the station's overall design. As a result, NASA overhauled the station's management structure and the design ran through several versions before the current concept was approved.
The National Research Council says the final price tag will be on the order of $25 billion to $30 billion when such factors as a yet-to-be-approved crew escape vehicle are figured in. The cost of the flight hardware alone, the figure NASA typically quotes, is around $14.5 billion.
But Stofan said the effort must be made if the United States is to remain a leader on the high frontier.
'If we want to have manned exploration anywhere beyond this planet, the space station is an absolute essential element to that,' he said. 'If this country wants to remain in space, if we want to remain the technological leaders of the world it is absolutely essential that we do the space station.
'I cannot imagine this country walking away and turning space over to some other nation,' Stofan said.