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Tracking down local NASA stories as Curiosity roves Mars

mars rover

Photo by Flickr user NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

The Mars rover Curiosity touched down on the red planet early Monday morning and the $2.5 billion project aimed at finding building blocks of life is underway. 

Press and social media coverage of the mission is heavy.  The landing has its own Twitter account @MarsCuriosity and hashtag #MSL (for Mars Science Laboratory, the project’s name) and you might want to capitalize on it to find local ties to this mission or any of the pending NASA projects.

Curiosity’s mission is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology; here’s the JPL’s procurement site.  Skimming the supplier resources, you get  a sense of the labyrinthine character of government purchasing.  The JPL site unfortunately does not appear to offer a database of contracts or contractors, but contact information for procurement specialists is listed and if you want to do a story specifically about Mars mission ties to your region, I’d give them a call and ask them to search their records by state or ZIP code for you.

On a broader scale, the NASA procurement office does offer a pretty neat searchable database, the NASA Procurement Data View (NPDV) online, as part of an extensive portal that has a lot of background information you might want to peruse, including annual reports.  The NPDV includes a handy geographical query that lets you click on an interactive map to find contracts in your state; you then can select by congressional district or just the entire state.  I did a test on 2011 contracts for my state and came up with all sorts of interesting hits, from a $49,000 contract requesting unobtrusive ways to determine if astronauts in prolonged space flight were getting stressed out to $9,324 for HEPA filters and clean room curtains to million-dollar contracts for parts.  All in all, Michigan businesses appeared to gain about $10 million last year and universities and non-profits garnered about $17 million from NASA.

Unfortunately it does not appear that this tool will separate out Mars-related contracts, but you do get results displayed by categories such as large, small, women-owned and minority-owned businesses, which might suggest other angles.  It’s well worth a look to find companies that may never have made your radar screen before.  Here’s a neat Los Angeles Times story, for example, about an engineer whose job, among other things, was to create problems and obstacles for the Rover and its handlers to overcome, much as  a flight simulator tests pilots’ ability to deal with emergencies.  If you find area companies working on components or systems for space flight, you can similarly dissect the design and trouble-shooting process they go through.

An explainer on the government-procurement process in general might be of use to hopeful small businesses in the area, as well, though it’s a vast topic to tackle.  You can probably find some consultants or attorneys who specialize in facilitating things for government contractors as well as programs like NASA’s small business center.

And if your area was hard  hit by the cancellation of the Space Shuttle program, the hoopla about the Mars rover might prompt a contrarian story about the downside for those who lost jobs and contracts when the shuttle program ended. 


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