WASHINGTON, Nov. 11 (UPI) -- The decision by Boeing and Northrop Grumman to join forces in their bid to build NASA's next generation manned spacecraft, dubbed the crew exploration vehicle or CEV, significantly reduces the number of major aerospace players available to the agency.
This also forces NASA to make its choice from only two camps, neither of which is ideal: the oversized and experienced vs. the undersized and innovative.
The CEV is planned as NASA's primary manned spacecraft as soon as the space shuttle fleet is retired, probably in 2010. The agency's road map for building the CEV calls for proposals to be submitted early in 2005, with two companies then chosen to build a prototype that actually will stand for flight tests in 2008. NASA then will pick its prime contractor from these two companies.
The first manned mission is set for no later than 2014. After that, the CEV will be augmented so it can be used for all manned missions to the moon and beyond.
According to the Boeing-Northrop Grumman announcement, the two companies plan to alternate as prime contractor should they win the bid to build the CEV. In the early years, Northrop Grumman will take the lead, using Boeing as a major subcontractor as they construct the CEV's low-Earth-orbit version.
After the CEV's capabilities have been expanded for deep-space flights, the two companies would switch positions, with Boeing becoming the prime contractor and Northrop Grumman acting as a major subcontractor.
"Our goal is to put the best minds on the planet on the job, recognizing they all don't work for Boeing," said Boeing Vice President Chuck Allen during a news teleconference Tuesday.
To speed the CEV's development, NASA last September awarded $3 million in study contracts to eight different aerospace companies to do preliminary design work. Of these companies, NASA had hoped most if not all would follow through and put forth their own proposals for the CEV.
Following the merger of Boeing and Northrop Grumman, the list of eight now can be divided into two distinct groups -- the big and the small.
The big group is made up of the largest, most experienced NASA contractors. Of the companies awarded study contracts, four were from this camp: Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Orbital Sciences.
Boeing, for example, is the prime contractor for both the International Space Station and the space shuttle, and has had enormous experience building manned spacecraft for NASA.
Likewise, Lockheed Martin and Orbital Sciences have extensive launch experience as the builders, respectively, of the Atlas and Pegasus rockets, while Northrop Grumman has more than 20,000 employees working on space-related contracts.
Despite their size, experience and large resources, the companies in the big camp seem to be circling their wagons, joining forces to almost guarantee they each will get a piece of the pie, no matter who gets chosen.
Not only have Boeing and Northrop Grumman formed a single team, but Orbital Sciences also has stated it will not bid on the CEV contract and instead will work as a subcontractor under Lockheed Martin's leadership.
Moreover, their response to the challenge of building the CEV seems remarkably timid, considering their experience.
"The truth is that I don't think any single company or NASA can truly staff or execute something this large and this complex," Allen said. "It's going to take a whole lot more capability than I think resides in any one corporate or government entity."
Such timidity is particularly worrisome for NASA, considering how big government contractors such as these already had spent nearly $5 billion in government money trying -- and failing -- in the last two decades to build a variety of shuttle replacements.
For example, Lockheed Martin spent $1.2 billion trying to build the X-33 hypersonic plane, only to have the project canceled when cracks were found in the spacecraft's experimental fuel tanks. Similarly, Orbital Sciences' attempt to build the X-34 was shut down before any hardware was flown.
Of the remaining four companies doing study contracts, all fall into the small camp. None have ever completed an aerospace contract for NASA on a scale necessary for building the CEV. Moreover, two come from the alternative aerospace community that until now has done very little work for NASA, and third has said it has no plans to bid as a prime contractor.
Transformational Space Corp., or t/Space, for example, is a consortium of new and innovative space interests, including Burt Rutan, builder of SpaceShipOne and the recent winner of the Ansari X-Prize.
"t/Space was formed specifically to bid on the initial study contracts," David Gump the company's president, told United Press International. "We intend to follow through on the CEV bid as well."
Another is Andrews Space, based in Seattle. Formed in 1999 and having a total staff today of only about 30 employees, this small aerospace firm is led by husband-and-wife team Jason Andrews and Marian Joh, both in their early thirties. With revenues in the millions rather than billions, the company is so small that when it won a $2 million defense contract in 2003 -- to design concepts for a hypersonic cruise vehicle -- neither Boeing nor Lockheed Martin had even heard of it.
At the moment, Andrews Space is keeping its options open.
"We may bid," Eric Wetzel, the company's director of NASA programs, told UPI. "Or, we may line ourselves up with one of the mega-teams. We have not made a conclusive decision yet."
The remaining two companies, Draper Labs and Schafer Corp., both based in Massachusetts, are more established, though neither has ever been a prime contractor on a project this big. Furthermore, Schafer does not plan to bid.
"We hope to participate," Chief Executive Officer John Garcia told UPI, "but I'm not sure that Schafer as a small business would be credible as prime."
Whether NASA would be willing to take a chance on one of these newer players, or go with the increasingly limited pool of big-name contractors it has used for decades with mixed success, remains the big question.
That NASA appears willing to consider some of these new kids on the block, however, seems a refreshing change.
Robert Zimmerman covers aerospace for UPI Science News. E-mail email@example.com