OPINION: Sierra Nevada Corporation’s protest is justified
On Sept. 16, NASA announced the winners of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract. The winners—Boeing and SpaceX— should not have surprised anyone. But were they the best choices? In the aftermath of the decision, Sierra Nevada Corporation is laying off ninety employees, but plans to continue its work on the Dream Chaser spacecraft it developed under the initiative. Mark Sirangelo, head of SNC’s Space Systems Unit in Louisville, Colorado, said that SNC will bid for the next round of NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services contract, but that the company may have legal grounds to file a formal protest for NASA’s rejection of their Commercial Crew bid.
From the moment President Obama announced his intention to have private companies launch crewed spacecraft to the International Space Station, the deck was stacked in favor of SpaceX. Elon Musk’s campaign contributions have been interpreted by a number of space enthusiasts as a factor in Obama’s decision to cancel the Constellation Program and turn NASA over to private companies.
Curiously though, SpaceX received a minority contract of $2.6 billion, whereas Boeing received a contract for $4.2 billion. Was this a logical decision? Why Boeing? And why the majority contract for Boeing? Perhaps SpaceX received all the money it requested, but since NASA is not discussing the reasons for its decision, the true reason is, at present, unknown. According to a 29-page internal report, Boeing scored “excellent” for “mission suitability” in every major category, where SpaceX scored “very good.”
The other prominent contender for the Commercial Crew contract was the Sierra Nevada Corporation with its Dream Chaser, a lifting body spacecraft that would make a piloted landing, like NASA’s retired fleet of orbiters. Dream Chaser’s test flight is slated for November of 2016—a year ahead of Boeing’s scheduled unmanned test flight. But in the report, Dream Chaser was found to have “technical uncertainly and schedule risk”—an odd conclusion after Dream Chaser’s rapid progress, lower cost, and successful approach and landing test in October of 2013.
To be fair, this test could have gone better as, apparently Dream Chaser careened off the runway upon touchdown due to a failure of one of the rear landing gear. NASA has long been lauded for carrying out its affairs in the glare of the public spotlight. Given that the video released of this test conveniently ends just prior to touch down? The “new” “commercial” era – has a long ways to go in terms of transparency. Perhaps this was part of the rationale behind the Dream Chaser decision. Being able to be open about your failings says a lot. Failing to do so – also says a lot.
It’s easy to be cynical about the selection of SpaceX, given Elon Musk’s extravagant campaign donations. But in all fairness, SpaceX has successfully launched four missions to the ISS, an unprecedented feat for a private company—government funding notwithstanding. So it makes sense that SpaceX would be selected, even without the politics and the preferential treatment the president paid to Musk during his April 2010 visit to KSC.
But for even SpaceX to come second to Boeing is odd, since Boeing has yet to launch its CST-100 capsule, which will not be flown until 2017. Dream Chaser offers an innovative mini-shuttle as an alternative to capsules, and will fly its first test flight a year before Boeing. SNC also underbid Boeing by $900 million.
With its record of successful resupply missions to the ISS, SpaceX deserved the majority contract. SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser would be good complements in terms of crewed spacecraft. Sierra Nevada has said that choosing Boeing’s CST-100 over the Dream Chaser “would result in substantial increased cost to the public despite near equivalent technical and past performance scores,” and that NASA’s own selection document “indicate[s] that there are serious questions and inconsistencies in the source selection process.”
“All the companies submitted an acceptable contract with their proposal, which meant you could start very quickly,” Sirangelo said. “Because of that we had to say ‘We can’t wait until contract announcement to start hiring people; we have to go out and start gearing up ahead of time.’ So we did that, and we hired about 120, 130 people who came on board knowing that their jobs were contingent on the win. Those people we did lay off yesterday, but that still leaves a very significant core team.”
From an outsider’s perspective, it seems the only reason Boeing won the majority contract is…because it’s Boeing. SpaceX was always going to win some part of the contract; there was little doubt of that, but most of the companies competing for the final phase of the Commercial Crew contract are unknown quantities.
No private company has ever launched a manned spacecraft—except for Scaled Composite’s suborbital SpaceShipOne. Boeing has worked with NASA since the beginning, developing the first stage of the Saturn V Moon rocket, the Lunar Roving Vehicle, the Space Shuttle orbiter, and, most recently, is developing the first stage of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). Is it possible the selection of Boeing has more to do with a long partnership than whether it has truly produced the best alternative for the next generation of spacecraft?
The whole point of the Commercial Crew program was to turn flight to low-Earth-orbit over to commercial companies while NASA focuses on deep space flight. Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA has been dependent on the Russians for rides to the International Space Station. With the political situation deteriorating and Russia threatening to discontinue its partnership with the United States, it’s more important than ever for the United States to regain its space flight capability as soon as possible. SpaceX can accomplish this, with its first manned flight scheduled for 2015 and it appears SNC could have also gotten Dream Chaser on orbit before the CST-100 takes to the skies.
Now NASA has ordered a work stoppage while the U.S. Government Accountability Office reviews Sierra Nevada’s protest.
Stephanie Schierholtz, a NASA spokeswoman, said, “”Pursuant to the GAO protest, NASA has instructed Boeing and SpaceX to stop performance of the CCtCap contract.”
In the wake of the protest NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden declined to answer questions about the Commercial Crew Program, evidently for legal reasons. Even so, NASA has not revealed the reasons for choosing Boeing. Depending on the outcome of the protest, NASA might reverse its CCtCap contract decision. SNC plans its first unmanned test in 2016, and its first manned flight in 2017. Had NASA selected SpaceX and SNC, we might have had a robust crewed space program sooner rather than later. The work stoppage is said not to affect the scheduled dates for the test flights, but since any work under the new contract will be delayed, it’s hard to see how this will not affect the schedule.
The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not, necessarily reflect those of SpaceFlight Insider
Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.