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Boeing wins a piece of NASA’s moon rocket

An artist's conception shows NASA's Ares 1 rocket ascending from its launch pad. The upper stage is the orange part of the rocket, above the first stage and below the Orion crew capsule.
An artist's conception shows NASA's Ares 1 rocket ascending from its launch pad. The upper stage is the orange part of the rocket, above the first stage and below the Orion crew capsule.NASA
/ Source: The Associated Press

NASA awarded a contract worth up to $1.13 billion Tuesday to aerospace giant Boeing Co. to build a key part of its multibillion-dollar rocket system to send astronauts back to the moon.

The Chicago-based company, which had worked on every NASA manned spacecraft in the past, had been shut out of three earlier large contracts for NASA’s new spaceship and its plans to return to the moon. The new base contract is worth $514.7 million with another $610 million in options.

The new contract is to build the Ares 1 upper stage of the rocket, which would take astronauts on a short but crucial second phase of their trip to the moon.

Subcontractors include Summa Technology Inc., Hamilton Sundstrand, Moog Inc., Northrop Grumman, Orion Propulsion, United Launch Alliance and United Space Alliance.

Most of the upper-stage work will be done at the Michoud assembly plant in New Orleans and other work will be done near Huntsville, Alabama. That will mean about 250 new jobs in the New Orleans area starting in late 2008, said NASA program manager Danny Davis. Boeing, in a press release, said the number of New Orleans production employees will be “several hundred.”

Already 600 people throughout NASA are working on the program, and the entire project will employ anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 people, Davis said. Another 100 employees will be hired in Huntsville, where the program will be designed and managed, for a total of 700 in Alabama, he said.

“NASA is committed to staying in the New Orleans area,” NASA Ares project manager Steve Cook said.

Boeing officials hailed the contract award.

“We have a proven team that is eager to help NASA and the nation write the next chapter in the history of human space exploration,” former NASA shuttle manager and astronaut Brewster Shaw, vice president of Boeing’s St. Louis-based exploration launch systems, said in a press release.

This is the fourth of the giant contracts handed out by the space agency in its multibillion-dollar plan to return astronauts to the moon by the end of the next decade. NASA has already promised up to $10.5 billion in work to aerospace companies. A fifth large contract, for shuttle electronics, will be awarded in December.

The upper stage contract is only the second one put up for public bidding.

Two teams, one headed by Boeing Co. and the other by shuttle booster maker Alliant Techsystems of Minneapolis, competed for this contract. Both teams were headed by veteran NASA shuttle program managers. Boeing and Northrop Grumman lost the Orion contract last year.

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The biggest chunk of money — up to $7.5 billion — last year was promised to Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Md. It is to build the Orion capsule and the service module. Lockheed Martin was also a member of Alliant's team for the Ares 1 upper-stage bid.

Earlier this month, NASA announced it was giving Alliant a $1.8 billion contract to build the first stage of the Ares 1. The contract was given to Alliant without bidding because the company already makes the space shuttle boosters, which is what the first stage is based on.

In July, NASA announced a $1.2 billion contract for $1.2 billion to Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne of Canoga Park, Calif., to build the Ares rocket engines. That company also got a no-bid contract because the rocket engines on Ares were modeled after the Apollo-era Saturn rocket engines that originally sent astronauts to the moon.

But building the Apollo version of the moon rocket — a system described by NASA’s chief as “Apollo on steroids” — didn’t work for Boeing last year.

The future moon mission calls for the upper stage of the Ares 1 rocket to power the rocket and crew capsule for a lift of 147 miles (235 kilometers) in altitude. The 84-foot-long (26-meter-long) upper stage of Ares 1 would take over about 150 seconds after launch, flying the astronauts from 38 miles (60 kilometers) above Earth into orbit.

Those first 38 miles of altitude would be provided by the first stage of the Ares 1 rocket, the part of the system awarded to Alliant. Once in orbit, the Orion crew capsule and a service module would take astronauts to the moon and back to Earth.

NASA has yet to award contracts for a heavy-lift rocket, the Ares 5, that would boost larger-scale payloads into orbit as part of the moon effort.

This report was supplemented by