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Boeing Triumphs, Wins NASA Ares I Upper Stage Contract

By | August 29, 2007

      The Boeing Co. [BA] won a signal victory over a team of ATK [ATK] and Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] for a huge contract to develop and build the Ares I upper stage rocket that will lift the next-generation American spacecraft, Orion, into the heavens.

      The announcement by senior NASA officials capped a hard-fought competition that included the two biggest defense contractors on the planet.

      That announcement from NASA came almost a year after the space agency chose Lockheed Martin to build Orion, the crew exploration vehicle that will reestablish U.S. capability to lift its astronauts into space.

      As well, NASA earlier this month gave Alliant Techsystems, or ATK, a $1.8 billion sole-source contract to build the first-stage Ares rockets.

      With the announcement that a Boeing-led team will build the huge upper stage rocket, NASA now is left with only one more contract process to go through later this year, for avionics/instruments.

      Boeing will lead a large team of companies in the Ares I upper stage work.

      The team includes Hamilton Sundstrand, a subsidiary of United Technologies Corp. [UTX]; Moog Inc. [MOG.A and MOG.B]; Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC]; Orion Propulsion Inc.; SUMMA Technology Inc.; United Space Alliance; and United Launch Alliance.

      This system will provide the navigation, guidance, control and propulsion required for the ascent of the second-stage Ares I into low-Earth orbit.

      Boeing and NASA both issued statements estimating the value of the contract at $514.7 million.

      Boeing stated it will produce from two to six upper stages per year during regular production, depending on NASA requirements.

      The initial phase of the contract calls for several flight-test production units. If all options of the cost-plus performance contract are exercised through 2017, Boeing could produce as many as 23 upper stages.

      NASA stated that Boeing will provide support to a NASA-led design team during the design phase and will be responsible for production of the Ares I upper stage.

      Boeing will manufacture a ground test article, three flight test units and six production flight units to support NASA’s flight manifest through 2016.

      Final assembly of the upper stage will take place at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. That should be a plus for the local economy, still ravaged by Hurricane Katrina damage.

      The cost-plus-award-fee contract is effective from Saturday through Dec. 31, 2016.

      Ares I is an in-line, two-stage rocket that will carry to low Earth orbit the crew exploration vehicle Orion, which will succeed the space shuttle as the primary U.S. vehicle for human exploration in the next decade.

      The Ares I upper stage, with an engine and an avionics unit procured separately, will provide the navigation, guidance, control and propulsion required for the second stage of the rocket’s ascent.

      The Ares I first stage will consist of a five-segment solid rocket booster and motor similar to those used on the space shuttle.

      The second, or upper, stage will consist of a J-2X main engine, a fuel tank for liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propellants, and associated avionics.

      Under the contract, Boeing will employ up to several hundred technical support personnel at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The center has responsibility for design of Ares I, with Boeing providing production engineering support. Boeing also expects to employ up to several hundred production support personnel at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where the upper stage will be assembled. And other work will be performed at locations scattered across the continent.

      Boeing won the contract by submitting a proposal that was “innovative and well thought out,” said Doug Cooke, NASA deputy associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Mission, speaking at a contract-award announcement news conference.

      The two high-quality bids, from Boeing and ATK, proved “the value of open competition,” he said.

      By selecting the Boeing-led team and its proposal, “we have the best overall proposal,” Cooke said.

      Many of the elements of the planned new rocket system will have the low-risk benefit of being derived from successful systems on earlier space programs, such as the Saturn program, briefers noted. Also, Boeing briefers said they will bring to the program the benefit of their experience in rocket programs.

      The Constellation Program to develop Orion and Ares for crew and cargo transport missions should see first flight in 2013, according to Boeing briefers, with a return to the moon expected toward the end of the next decade. A permanent outpost on the moon is envisioned in the mid-2020s.

      But Orion and Ares can’t make their debut soon enough for NASA leaders: that’s because the United States, the nation that put men on the moon, will lose even the ability to put an astronaut or cargo in low Earth orbit in 2010, when the existing space shuttle fleet is due to retire. It might be 2015 before the first manned flight to orbit.

      That will mean a yawning gap of several years when Americans will be grounded, watching as other nations such as China take the lead. Beijing, which already has achieved manned space flight, may well place humans on the moon before Americans return to the pale orb.

      One major hope for the Orion-Ares asset is that it will be far safer than the problem-prone space shuttle fleet.

      Each shuttle is an immensely complex affair, with sensors that can misfire and stall launch countdowns.

      Then, once a launch commences, there is a problem with the basic shuttle system design tending to shoot itself in the foot.

      The issue here is that the external fuel tank, needed to give the shuttle the enormous thrust vital to lifting giant segments of the International Space Station (ISS) into orbit so the ISS can be assembled, is bigger than the shuttle orbiter vehicle itself.

      That means that a good bit of the external tank towers above the orbiter vehicle, and during liftoff and ascent, foam insulation that must be applied to the tank may rip loose and plunge down to strike the orbiter vehicle.

      In one instance in 2003, loose foam smashed an undetected hole in the leading edge of the wing on Space Shuttle Columbia. Later, during the fiery heat of reentry, that hole led to disintegration of the ship and loss of the crew.

      And just this month, a chunk of foam (perhaps regular foam and a more dense lower layer of insulation) ripped away from the external fuel tank, ricocheted and struck the underside of Space Shuttle Endeavour, punching a hole all the way through a protective heat shield tile.

      Hopefully, the far different configuration of the Orion-Ares system, with components stacked one on top of the other, will eliminate the foam-chunks hazard.

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