Given a go-ahead from Congress, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on Friday invited aerospace companies to submit bids by July 21 for the detailed design and construction of the manned space station that the United States is to launch in the mid-1990s.
Space agency officials said the proposals should be evaluated by the space agency in time for the four major contracts for the $10.9-billion orbiting platform to be issued next November.
The long-delayed milestone in the controversial space station project came three weeks after the Reagan Administration, confronted by dramatic escalation in cost estimates, approved a design substantially scaled down from NASA's original concepts.
After the Administration decision to proceed, the formal invitation to contractors was held up until congressional committees responsible for the civilian space budget gave their go-ahead. Concerned that there might not be enough early scientific return from the station, and further worried about the rising cost, Congress last year blocked NASA from issuing its request for proposals until the committees gave their approval.
Meanwhile, competition for the lucrative contracts already has shaped up, with Rockwell International Corp. and McDonnell Douglas Corp. expected to submit bids for the station's framework and the air-locks where the space shuttle will dock and transfer astronauts into the station.
Boeing Co. and Martin Marietta are considered the chief contenders for the contract to build the station's two main modules, storage facilities and environmental equipment.
In its notice to potential bidders, NASA told them to plan for the first launch of station components in January, 1994, the first manned operation in January, 1995, and a capability for permanent manned operations in late 1995.
When assembled and in full operation, a crew of eight scientist-astronauts will work aboard the station, supplied by the space shuttle fleet. The European Space Organization, Japan and Canada will join in the station's operation and scientific observations.