Ross Wilkers


How a new NASA satellite contract explains the renewed space push

NASA has chosen three companies for a potential five-year, $750 million contract to build small and medium-sized satellites and other platforms as part of a program that also supports the Defense Department’s push for more rapidly-developed space capabilities.

This contract is technically a consolidated recompete of prior awards made eight years ago. But even a cursory look at this new iteration called “Small Spacecraft Prototyping Engineering Development and Integration” helps illustrate the government's renewed focus on bolstering the U.S.’ space architecture, particularly amid the buzz surrounding a new “Space Force” service branch.

The space agency chose Orbital ATK (acquired by Northrop Grumman), Sierra Nevada and Space Systems Loral to compete for task orders to build the satellites along with payloads, spacecraft subsystems, buses, software and other ground platforms. Awardees will also bid to perform IT system operations work under the “SSPEDI SpS” contract.

NASA's source selection statement to explain its award decision also specifically mentions DOD's Space Rapid Capabilities Office. The contract "will provide specific elements of work defined in specific task orders" to the  office.

Only a month ago, DOD began to reveal what a Space Force service branch would look like and what its responsibilities would be. More information surfaced this week at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space, Cyber conference in National Harbor, Maryland as top DOD civilian officials offered further detail on the push.

Upwards of $13 billion is needed to stand up a Space Force, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said. And Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said the military is “wrestling with the how” as part of a “complicated process” to develop a legislative proposal by early next year, as reported by our sister site

As things stand, it appears that NASA’s role as the lead civilian agency on space would remain unaffected by standing up a Space Force although little has been said on that.

But the push to grow the U.S. space posture has affected strategies in industry and many of its largest players have made moves to bolster their position in this market.

Look at Northrop’s acquisition in June of Orbital ATK as maybe the most high-profile example of a government contractor doubling down on space as a growth channel.

A trio of deals by KBR over the past two years stood up a stronger footprint in NASA almost overnight, while Parsons Corp. has also made its national security space presence bigger through its June purchase of Polaris Alpha.

And then there are the investments made by the venture capital arms of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, along with Raytheon to look for the space technologies of the future they see as disruptive to themselves, the industry and customer base at-large. Raytheon also is touting a growing space pipeline they are saying little about.

NASA received seven total bids for the SSPEDI SpS contract, according to the source selection statement. Bidders not chosen were General Atomics, Lockheed Martin and Southwest Research Institute. General Atomics was an incumbent, as was Ball Aerospace but the latter did not submit a bid.

Northrop withdrew its bid from consideration on June 14 after it closed the Orbital ATK deal. The solicitation allowed only one proposal from each bidder and Orbital ATK submitted its proposal with the understanding that the contract would be transferred to Northrop.

Orbital ATK became a fourth segment of Northrop called “Innovation Systems.”

About the Author

Ross Wilkers is a senior staff writer for Washington Technology. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @rosswilkers. Also connect with him on LinkedIn.

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