This just in from outer space: The race to win a $3.1 billion NASA-funded contract to supply the International Space Station (ISS) just took a turn for the surreal.

In the works for more than a year, NASA's Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) competition has three firms vying for five-year contracts to provide "cargo upmass, disposal, and return to and from the International Space Station, nonstandard services and special studies" to the ISS:

  • Orbital Sciences (NYSE:ORB)
  • Privately-owned Space Exploration Technologies ("SpaceX") of Hawthorne, California
  • And, also private, Chicago-based PlanetSpace

Of the three, chances are you've only heard of Orbital, which is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation, and SpaceX, famously founded by Elon Musk, the PayPal pioneer who's plowing the profits he earned from selling to eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY) into (a) SpaceX and (b) Tesla Motors -- the electric car company that's aiming to make General Motors (NYSE:GM) and Ford (NYSE:F) obsolete. But it's the third "virate" in this triumvirate that we're talking about today: PlanetSpace.

You may not have heard of the company (and I certainly had not), but PlanetSpace is already on the rolodex at Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT), Alliant Techsystems (NYSE:ATK), and now Boeing (NYSE:BA). Last week, PlanetSpace announced that it had added Boeing to its CRS team -- a case of the tail wagging the dog if ever I saw one.

In this lopsided alliance, Alliant would build the launch vehicle, while Lockheed and Boeing would develop, produce, and operate "modular Orbital Transfer Vehicles" -- the cargo boxes in this cosmic choo-choo train. And PlanetSpace? As prime contractor, they'd mainly be responsible for cashing NASA's checks.

Where to from here?
Final bids on CRS are due November 7, with a decision due out December 23. While PlanetSpace has bulked up its allies considerably, odds seem to favor Orbital and SpaceX for winning the two contracts said to be on offer. After all, both firms have already received funding from NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program -- $171 million and $278 million, respectively.

Alphabet soup in space
However, NASA says that winning funding from COTS is no guarantee of CRS success, and from what I have heard, only two of the teams will be awarded contracts. If adding Boeing to its team helps PlanetSpace snag one of them, or even convinces NASA to pick a third winner (not unheard of in the government contracting sphere), PlanetSpace could become the space majors' new BFF.

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