The U.S. space station isn't scheduled to be operational for another decade, but two dozen companies already are jockeying for position in the bidding for the $14.4 billion worth of contracts to build the project and related components.

Bids were submitted last month on the four main segments of the project, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is expected to award the contracts in November.

Among the biggest winners could be some Washington area corporations and the local divisions of companies based elsewhere.

Bethesda's Martin Marietta Corp. is bidding against Boeing Co. for the contract to build the space station's living and working quarters, work that NASA estimated will be worth $2 billion.

But even as Martin Marietta, Boeing and the rest of the bidders await the outcome of the bidding, they are aware that the space station project may be different from previous NASA space programs.

For one thing, the space station is expected to be held to a tighter budget than any previous major NASA project. It has already gone back to the drawing board a couple of times to reduce costs.

"Our challenge in this new frontier is as much in a management sense as it is in a technical sense," said Thomas L. Moser, space station program manager for NASA.

In addition, in the wake of the Challenger accident, a much greater emphasis is being put on safety factors, resulting in design changes, more careful engineering and an effort by the companies vying to build the space station to seek more design input from current and former astronauts.

Taken together, these factors are likely to mean that the space station will be a less profitable program for its builders than previous projects, aerospace industry analysts say. That is expected to put greater pressure on the contractors to perform at maximum efficiency and reduce waste.

"The profitability of the business is cut very thin, largely because there isn't very much money," said Wolfgang Demisch, an analyst at First Boston Corp. "This means your margin for error isn't going to be very great. You sure hope these companies don't run into serious hassles."

Still, at a recent conference on local business opportunities from the space station, potential contractors spoke optimistically of the project.

"There's a great opportunity in the space station business," said Bill Smith, advanced systems manager for TRW Inc., which is involved as a subcontractor in two space station proposals.

Richard Calef, head of the space programs office at General Electric Co., another two-contract bidder, told the conference, "There will be plenty of subcontracting opportunities for the next 30 years."

And Doug King, vice president of the Potomac Regional Council of the American Electronics Association, which cosponsored the conference along with Washington Technology, a weekly newspaper, said: "Companies are starting to understand the incredible potential of the entire space station project."

More than a few have been seriously interested in it for some time.

Martin Marietta, for instance, has been working on the project for five years, and reportedly has spent more than $20 million pursuing the contract for the crew and laboratory modules.

"I think each one of our competitors looks at this thing the way I do, which is that it's the preeminent manned space program for the next 10 years," J. Richard Cook, Marietta's vice president for manned space systems, said in an interview. "We've been in the space program for the past 20 or 25 years, and we want to stay in it."

Martin Marietta's subcontracting team includes General Electric Co., Hughes Aircraft Co., United Technologies Corp., Wyle Laboratories, McDonnell Douglas Astronautics and Honeywell Inc.

It is pitted against the team assembled by Boeing, which is said to have spent $75 million in pursuit of the contract. Boeing's team includes Grumman Aerospace Corp., TRW, Lockheed Missiles and Space Corp. and Teledyne Brown Engineering.

The crew and work module segment of the program is not its most lucrative contract. Some analysts expect the job of building the framework, superstructure and major computers for the space station to cost as much as $3.7 billion; NASA's estimate puts it at about $2 billion.

Rockwell International Corp. and McDonnell Douglas are the lead contractors of the teams bidding for the framework, superstructure and computer contract. Rockwell's team includes Grumman Aerospace, Harris Corp., Intermetrics Inc., Unisys Corp., United Technologies and TRW, while McDonnell Douglas has signed up Honeywell, International Business Machines Corp., Lockheed Missiles and Space and RCA Corp.

The two smaller space station contracts, valued at about $1 billion each, have attracted only one bidding team apiece, and those teams will get the contracts unless NASA finds fault with the bids.

GE, with TRW as subcontractor, has bid for the contract to build a free-flying "polar platform" that will orbit apart from the space station and act as a sort of remote data-gathering outpost. GE eliminated its only expected competition for the contract when it acquired RCA in late 1985.

Rockwell's Rocketdyne division is the lead company on the team bidding for the fourth space station "work package," as NASA calls them: the contract to build the station's power system. Ford Aerospace Communications, Garrett Fluid Systems, General Dynamics Corp., Lockheed Missiles and Space, Sundstrand Corp. and Harris are the subcontractors on Rocketdyne's bid.

Because the space station is a large project being broken up into smaller packages by NASA, it is not likely to be identified as the project of any one company, as have most previous spacecraft. That, too, is likely to hold down profits from the program, Demisch said.

"You can't really identify a single contractor that is definitely the space station contractor," he said. "Everybody has a small enough share of the pie to be involved, but nobody has a large enough share to be prosperous."

Indeed, it appears that there's going to be plenty of work to go around. Experts say that even after the four major contracts are awarded, there are likely to be many smaller subcontracting and parts contracts to be handed out, and some key contracts to support the early development and management of the station program have already been let.

Future expansion of the space station -- which is scheduled to be in service for 30 years -- also is expected to create new business opportunities.

For Washington companies, there could be a particular boon. NASA has located the space station program office in Reston, and that is expected to generate many local services contracts and jobs.

"I think you're going to see an influx of companies moving to this area or starting up in this area directly as a result of the decision to locate the space station office here," said Francis DiBello, head of the commercial space spinoff program being operated jointly by Boeing and Peat Marwick.

Still, even with contractors lining up for the space station project, questions about its future remain. Congress still has to approve funding of the program through its projected launch date of 1995 and operational date of 1997.

And even on that timetable, experts say, the project is lagging badly behind Soviet space efforts.

"I suppose just looking at sheer numbers and just looking at what you read, there's a good possibility that {the United States} is six, eight, ten years behind," Cook said. "They {the Soviets} are certainly up there conducting experiments."

"To some extent, there's a degree of wishful thinking about the whole process that's a little disquieting," said Demisch, who suggested that even a privately funded and launched mini-space station might make it to orbit before NASA's project.

"It seems to me that we currently are living in a sort of dream world where there is a perception that there is sort of unlimited time and nobody out there is competing. ... I think one of these days reality will creep in that and say, hey, you're not alone, other people can do this and do it better."

And he added, "We have Chevy budgets with Cadillac beliefs, and that's not a recipe for success."