LOS ANGELES -- NASA has taken the next small step toward reshaping its future in space travel by awarding five contracts worth as much as $250 million to aerospace companies for researching and developing propulsion systems.
Although NASA hasn't laid out how it will use such technology, officials from the contract winners -- three of which are based in California -- say they envision their work being used on a broad range of missions: sending research equipment deep into space; building thrust engines for robotic Mars landers; or developing boosters for spacecraft to explore far-flung asteroids.
The news comes as the Obama administration is pushing NASA to trim costs, an effort that agency staff and aerospace industry officials say could serve as a boon to space entrepreneurs in the private sector.
In February, the president called on NASA to pull the plug on its plans to put astronauts back on the moon. The administration's proposed cuts, outlined in its 2011 budget, came after the federal government had already poured $9 billion into the lunar program.
The agency, however, has also taken other cost-cutting measures, as in the March 26 propulsion contracts, said Karin E. Huth of NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.
Under the contracts, NASA will deal exclusively with the companies on developing the propulsion systems for a variety of tasks. Each company can secure as much as $50 million. It's a more efficient procurement method for NASA to pursue, rather than issue contracts one task at a time, she said.
"We're saving the taxpayers a lot of time and money," Huth said. "We're taking a process that may have taken months and shortening it to weeks."
But there are potential drawbacks to such a plan, said William Watson, executive director of the Space Frontier Foundation, a Nyack, N.Y., commercial space advocacy group.
The five latest contracts were given to Aerojet in Sacramento; Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne Inc., which has production facilities in Canoga Park; Northrop Grumman Corp., which has a space manufacturing center in Redondo Beach; Alliant Techsystems Inc. of Minneapolis; and Orbital Technologies Corp. of Madison, Wis.
For the staff at Aerojet, the award was a welcome reprieve.
Earlier this year, the company had been working on a propulsion system for NASA to use in its Constellation lunar-landing program. But those plans were scrapped after President Obama announced his budget cuts.
Now, the company's staff is giddy at the chance to possibly power NASA into deep space.
"I'm totally psyched," said Joe Cassady, 51, the company's director for emerging space system exploration.
Aerojet will use the money to further enhance and develop its thruster technology, which is already being used to reposition commercial satellites in space.
But Cassady sees the new technology as having the capability to power NASA spacecraft for several decades to come.
"I've been waiting my whole life for a chance like this," he said.