Ares upper stage contract keeps Boeing in the Moon mission picture

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Boeing has won a place on NASA's return-to-the-Moon programme after losing the competition to build the USA's next manned spacecraft to Lockheed Martin. NASA has awarded a Boeing-led team a $515 million contract to produce the upper stage for the Ares I crew launch vehicle.

The company was selected over Alliant Techsystems, already under contract to develop and produce the Ares I first stage, which is derived from the Space Shuttle solid-rocket booster. ATK's team included Lockheed, which is prime contractor for the Orion crew exploration vehicle that will be launched by the Ares I, and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, already under contract to develop the J-2X liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen upper-stage engine.

Boeing's team included a number of small businesses as well as major suppliers Hamilton Sundstrand, Moog and Northrop Grumman. Shuttle operator United Space Alliance and Delta rocket manufacturer United Launch Alliance are also part of the team.

Under the contract, Boeing will support NASA-led design of the upper stage then be responsible for production. The company will provide technical support personnel at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, which is responsible for design of the Ares I, and production support personnel and NASA Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana, where the upper stage will be assembled.

NASA is leading overall integration of the crew launch vehicle under the model used for the Apollo programme's Saturn V booster. With ATK supplying the first stage, Boeing the upper stage and P&WR the upper-stage engine, the only major element left to be selected is the instrument unit avionics, which will provide guidance and control of the Ares I, with a contract award expected by year-end.

Boeing's cost-plus contract covers manufacture of a ground test article, three flight-test units and six production units to support NASA's flight manifest to the end of 2016, but Boeing says it could produce 23 upper stages by the end of 2017 if all contract options are exercised. The first Ares I test flight is scheduled for April 2009, the first crewed flight for no earlier than September 2013.

Initially Ares I and Orion will be used to carry crews to the International Space Station, but NASA plans to launch the first manned mission to the Moon by 2020. Boeing says it expects regular production of two to six upper stages a year to meet NASA requirements.

Jim Chilton, Boeing vice-president exploration launch systems and upper-stage programme manager, says subcontractors will deliver components and subassemblies to Michoud for assembly and integration. The Boeing team will be responsible for the friction-stir-welded aluminium-lithium upper-stage structure LOX and LH tanks with common bulkhead hydraulic thrust vector control hydrogen reaction control system composite inter-stage and welded instrument unit ring. The team will also install the engine and avionics and check out the completed upper stage at Michoud.

Chilton says Boeing has not seen NASA's upper-stage design since the rival teams entered the competitive "blackout" late last year. "Now we will get a new look at the design and develop the production system," he says.