As NASA prepares to build a new generation of spacecrafts, the agency is becoming an increasingly attractive potential client for small businesses.

Anticipating a return flight to the moon and eventually a flight to Mars, NASA has begun designing new launch, exploration, and lunar-landing crafts. The Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. has been allocated $6.2 billion to develop a pair of crew and cargo launch rockets: the Ares I and V. 

Officials predict test flights for the rockets could come as early as 2009, and piloted test flights may come as early as 2014. That has opened up new opportunities for both prime contracts and subcontracts for small firms -- in industries ranging from hardware manufacturing and construction to IT and programmatic support. 

Almost every deal that large contractors make with NASA includes federally mandated small business goals, according to David Brock, a small-business specialist at the Marshall Center.

"Whenever a contract is projected to be awarded to a large business, university, or non-profit organization and that contact exceeds $500,000, they will be required to submit a subcontracting plan along with their proposal," says Brock.  "These goals are established up front -- prior to the solicitation."

Last year, $150 million in NASA contracts went directly to small businesses, and an additional $275 million went to small businesses through subcontracts.

NASA also has an office at its headquarters devoted to small business. In addition to posting information about contract procurement on its website, the Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization hosts events year-round to encourage small firms to seek business opportunities with NASA.

The next event is on Tuesday, when NASA will host its annual Business Opportunities Expo in Port Canaveral, Fla. In its 16th year, the trade show is designed to let businesses showcase their technologies and services while learning more about government contracting. 

The Marshall Center held one such event in Huntsville last month. Dubbed "Ares Industry Day," the event offered networking opportunities for companies interested in designing, manufacturing, and testing parts for the pair of new rockets.

For NASA's large contractors, including Huntsville, Ala.-based Teledyne Engineering, such events are an opportunity to connect with potential small-business subcontractors.

"Teledyne prides itself on meeting and exceeding NASA's small-business goals," said Mike Ogles, Teledyne's director of space exploration systems. The engineering firm has been working with NASA since the agency's inception in 1958 and is currently working on design and development for the Ares rockets. 

"We met quite a few new subcontractors at the Ares Industry Day," Ogles said. "In 2004 and 2005, over 90 percent of our outsourcing went to small businesses."