Reston technology firm NCI Inc. raised $54.1 million yesterday in an initial public offering of stock, the first in two years for a government contracting company.

Industry experts say NCI's performance will be watched closely and could spark a new wave of public offerings in the government contracting sector.

Yesterday, Global Secure Corp., a District company that sells homeland security products and services, set the range of its public offering of 8.25 million shares at between $8 and $10. Science Applications International Corp., a San Diego-based defense giant, filed in September for a public offering that aims to raise $1.7 billion. The same month another defense firm, DynCorp International LLC, filed to raise $450 million.

Immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, government contractors became popular on Wall Street and hit the public markets in rapid succession. Companies such as ManTech International Corp., SRA International Inc. and Anteon International all held IPOs in the first six months of 2002.

The public markets became a less attractive option for mid-size contractors, however, as Sarbanes-Oxley regulations were implemented. In addition, companies that had become big enough to consider going public were instead being bought out by even larger firms.

But now, "the public capital markets appear to be opening up again for federal technology companies," said J. Richard Knop, senior managing director of BB&T Capital Markets/Windsor Group, an investment bank that specializes in government contractors. He added that several of his clients are considering IPOs and will look at NCI and the other early entrants as a barometer of investor interest in the sector.

NCI's 5.15 million shares of stock hit the market at $10.50 and rose $1.67, or 15.9 percent, to close at $12.17.

The 16-year-old Reston company, which operates under its subsidiary, NCI Information Systems Inc., designs and maintains networks and computer systems for federal agencies. About two-thirds of the firm's revenue -- which totaled $171.3 million in 2004 -- comes from defense and intelligence agencies, according to its filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Global Secure provides emergency planning and technology services as well as notification software to government and private industry customers. For the year ended June 30, the two-year-old company's revenue totaled $11.9 million.

Also wading into the public markets are a new group of "blank-check companies," focused on the government contracting and homeland security industries. Blank-check companies operate by first holding a public offering to raise capital and then acquiring existing businesses.

Last week, Federal Services Acquisition Corp., which is based in New York and recruited longtime contracting executive Edward H. Bersoff to serve as vice chairman, raised $126 million through an IPO. In July, Arlington-based Fortress America Acquisition Corp., a blank-check firm co-founded by former Maryland congressman C. Thomas McMillen that focuses on homeland security, raised $42 million on the public market.