Antarctica opportunity beckons contractors

Scientific support work attracts a bevy of big names

Wanted: A contracting team that can build roads and remote campsites, maintain information technology systems and complex scientific equipment, support laboratory and field research tasks, efficiently transport cargo, fly fixed-wing aircraft, prevent and fight fires, cook meals, cut hair, and plan fun and morale-building activities while working in a sometimes sunless environment at sub-zero temperatures.

Does that sound appealing? Maybe not for everyone, but the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Support Contract has drawn the attention of a large number of traditional defense and IT contractors. The contract is in the competition phase and is scheduled for award in early October.

Although NSF won’t divulge the names of the bidders, Computer Sciences Corp. has formed a joint venture with EG&G to pursue the contract, and incumbent contractor Raytheon Co. is bidding, too. Other major contractors that have expressed interest include Lockheed Martin Corp., Science Applications International Corp., ITT Corp. and KBR Inc.

“They’re all hungry right now because there aren’t a lot of large opportunities out there,” said Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president and chief knowledge officer at FedSources.

Infrastructure and more

The Antarctic opportunity has a base period of four and a half years and an estimated value of $576 million, but as much as another $1 billion is possible if NSF exercises all of the optional eight and half years.

Bjorklund said the contract is technically considered a traditional but highly specialized base operations award. The winning bidder will operate the infrastructure at the McMurdo, South Pole and Palmer stations in the Antarctic, in addition to other smaller remote bases in the Antarctic and staging areas in Chile and New Zealand.

The contractor also will support scientists involved in NSF-sponsored research activities that cover everything from the big-bang theory and global warming to the behavior and population patterns of penguins and seals.

The contracting team is also responsible for ensuring the physical safety and emotional well-being of scientific personnel working under the U.S. Antarctic Program.

“Any time you see something like this with the potential for bringing in steady money for a decade-plus, you’re going to get interest,” Bjorklund said.

“It might not seem like an extraordinarily large number, but it’s a nice income for a long period of time,” he added. “It’s certainly a good chunk of revenue for any one company and one that will definitely support a business unit.”

The Antarctic Support Contract is not new. NSF has had a contractor team in place since the late 1960s when it first decided to build its chalet at McMurdo station.

Raytheon Polar Services, the incumbent on the contract, has been working in the Antarctic since 1999 and is, not surprisingly, also bidding on the new contract. This unit of Raytheon Technical Services received $576 million for its initial base contract and took in another $546 million when it was awarded follow-on work in 2004, bringing the total value of the contract to nearly $1.2 billion and extending the company’s work there for another five years. The current support contract officially ends in March 2010.

Rick Yuse, president of Raytheon Technical Services, said the focus of the bid of the company, which has partnered with AECOM, a global provider of technical and management support services, will be “to continue to provide efficient, cost-effective operational support, enabling and enhancing the NSF’s goals to expand knowledge in the region; foster research on global and regional challenges of current scientific importance; and use the region as a platform to support research.”

Bjorklund said defense contractors facing proposed cuts in the Defense Department’s budget are right to be looking at this contract. “People can take a lot of defense qualifications, particularly in things like operations and technical support, and parlay them into this kind of a contract,” he said. “The environment is a little special, but, you know, so is the desert.”

Emerging market

Many companies are pursuing the Antarctic Support Contract because they recognize that working in the Antarctic is likely a key stepping stone to what could be a new, potentially lucrative line of business, Bjorklund said.

NSF received $3 billion in stimulus funding under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to bolster its research facilities, in addition to money to conduct new scientific research into topics such as climate change and alternative energy products.

Bjorklund said the money set aside for upgrades to buildings and equipment “might add another burst of activity to this contract.” The winning bidder on the Antarctic Support Contract could have the new work added to the contract or, if another specialized construction contract is awarded, provide additional support services to that effort.

CSC announced in March that it was forming a joint venture to bid on the Antarctic Support Contract and provide integrated operations support to the science and research communities.

“International focus on science, energy and the environment, which CSC has a shared interest, is sharpening and the polar regions play a vital role,” said Conrad Lautenbacher, retired Navy vice admiral and president of Antarctic Research Support LLC, a joint venture CSC formed with EG&G, a unit of URS Corp.

EG&G partnered with Holmes and Narver Inc. to support NSF’s Antarctic program in the 1990s before Raytheon won the contract.

“This is a special mission to support people who are conducting crucial research and need access to the latest technology, all the while working in a harsh environment,” Lautenbacher said. “They deserve and need the best, and we believe we can provide it.”

NSF’s new stimulus funding and the Obama administration’s emphasis on spending money on the sciences to spur innovation and improve the nation’s economic competitiveness could open a new avenue for traditional defense and IT contractors, Bjorklund said.

“Companies that start playing in this area of providing the higher-end level of services at NSF and other scientific agencies are going to be a bit better positioned for this future specialized scientific work that’s going to be coming down the pike,” he said. “For many of these companies, this Antarctic contract represents a good first place to start.”

About the Author

Heather Hayes is a freelance writer based in Clifford, Va.

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