Spaceflight Insider

OPINION: Sierra Nevada Corporation’s protest is justified

Photo Credit: Ken Ulbrich / NASA

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.

NASA astronaut Serena Aunon is suited up in preparation for fit tests of Bowing's CST-100 spacecraft. Photo Credit: Robert Markowitz

NASA astronaut Serena Aunon is suited up in preparation for fit tests of Bowing’s CST-100 spacecraft. Photo Credit: Robert Markowitz

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.

Photo Credit: Ken Ulbrich / NASA

Photo Credit: Ken Ulbrich / NASA

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.”

Image Credit: NASA

Image Credit: NASA

“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.

Photo Credit: Ken Ulbrich / NASA

Photo Credit: Ken Ulbrich / NASA

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

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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.

Reader Comments

Why Boeing? It depends really. If you are simply looking at the development status of the vehicle or long term sustainability of the plans, SpaceX and SNC appear to be the logical choice. On the other hand, if the likelihood of success is factored in, measured hy historical track record, SpaceX still makes the cut (since they are doing it), and Boeing has a much longer history with government projects on this scale.

As to the award amounts, SpaceX can do more with what they have received than Boeing can, because they already have. While I support SNC’s efforts, I do not believe that this “lay off everyone and litigate” method of dispute will work as they intend. While it is still government, this is the commercial program. Reminding folks of SCO will get you nowhere fast. A better method would have been to press on and tout a safety and reliability aspect while lowering the barriers to entry.

Christopher Paul

The problem with Sierra Nevada’s bid was its last minute switch from hybrid rocket motors, or the fact that DreamChaser included hybrids in the first place. SNC found out too late that the hybrid rockets it planned to use were actually terrible engines and started looking for an all-liquid replacement as late as August of this year. The replacement engines don’t only implicate DreamChaser’s orbital maneuvering systems, but its abort modes as well. NASA could have taken a massive chance and assumed that SNC could find drop-in, all-liquid replacements for the hybrids it had spent years developing, and that it wouldn’t cause delays in the testing schedule, or it could have chosen either of the two vehicles that had well-understood and reasonably proven engine systems that have no outstanding issues. NASA made the correct choice here.
I would loved to have seen the DreamChaser fly, but SNC made a bad decision to use hybrid rockets in the first place, and a worse decision to try to get rid of them right before NASA made its decision.
SNC’s protest has no chance of going anywhere and is wasting Boeing’s, SpaceX’s, and NASA’s time.

The engine switch was proposed as an option, but the original engine was still SNCs planned course

SNC may have switched to liquids during the summer, but these are simple pressure-fed engines. There is nothing complex about them (mostly low operating pressures and no pumps), so I believe that these engines could have be substituted very easily and completed development within the time frame.

The other significant piece of information these liquid engines were built by Orbitec (a company that knows how to produce pressure-fed engines). These liquid engines were in test this summer and I believe successfully tested. I do not see the risk and I am appalled that NASA selected two capsule type designs. They could have given SpaceX 2.6 billion, Boeing 3.2 bilious and given a billion to SNC and had them do a fly off.

Kevin O

Great Article, and assuming SN wasn’t being transparent may be a cause of why they weren’t chosen. But in reality Spacex is also very secretive and withholding information about delay’s and problems. Spacex has been this way with NASA and The US Air Force.
And as far a blatant favoritism goes for spacex, it’s obvious. NASA goes out of their way to show favoritism towards Spacex. Just look at how NASA blocked Blue Origin from using pad 39A, because spacex demanded that they didn’t want anyone else using it. So NASA broke their own rule of having a multiuser pad in favor of spacex.
Even though right now, SN looks like the spoiled rotten kid who didn’t get their share of candy. In reality, look at spacex, they do the same if they don’t get their way. They have a suit with the USAF right now.

Actually, not a very good article considering it came from an avid writer of science fiction material. The author provided little more than speculation, loose use of facts, and a tendency to repeat his points needlessly. In fact Pad 39 was awarded to SpaceX for private use because it was felt they had a launch manifest that could keep the pad in use. It would maintain a steady stream of revenue from launches, Pay for the ongoing maintenance costs, and bring a steady level of workers to the Cape. Even with SpaceX building the Texas Site, Station Resupply, Manned Dragon Flights, and Falcon Heavy launches to GEO will still take place at pad 39. Blue origin proposed leaving it open for all to use which means none of the advantages of SpaceX and NASA would still have to pay to maintain the pad. Also Blue Origin had no launch manifest and no actual rocket for years in the future.

The selection of BOEING was and is the legal and proper method of selecting a Company that followed all the rules. I agree with comment by MARK that Boeing was not given ‘Preferential Treatment’ by NASA. The politics of the Obama administration appointees in all defense related policies todate have shown blatant favoritism to reward democrat political friends that reduce US Defense or Nasa Space manufacturing.

Its’ also worth noting that Musk and SpaceX was donating equal amounts to Republicans as to Obama (like most other companies), for many years. Don’t know if that is still true, but was true through about 2012, I believe.

Completely agree, Collin. SNC is fully justified in protesting NASA’s CCtCap award decision. I feel that both NASA and the USG have failed to consider that the Europeans are advancing their plans to develop re-usable lifting body technology and that the U.S. runs a very real risk of “falling behind” technologically with this type of spacecraft. But wait, all is not lost, perhaps, in the future, the Europeans could be kind enough to return U.S. space tourists to an airport in Canada and they then could catch a bus back to the U.S.

“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.” NASA is not turned over to private companies. President Bush II started the commercial cargo/crew project. O’bama refused to cancel it, so he increased it’s budget(Congress decreased it’s funds). This takes government ownership away from the spacecract. Now, we will have continuous access to space beyond the political whims of the political parties.

“It’s easy to be cynical about the selection of SpaceX, given Elon Musk’s extravagant campaign donations.” Another misconception in my opinion. This is actually talking about Boeing & not SpaceX. SpaceX is the only American company with an all American product. Perhaps DC should have partnered with ATK.

“whereas Boeing received a contract for $4.2 billion. Was this a logical decision? Why Boeing? And why the majority contract for Boeing?” Boeing did not receive a majority contract. This is what they needed to get to the finished product. They are so far behind SpaceX. SpaceX already has an assembly line. DC’s assembly line is L-Mart’s Michoud assembly plant. Boeing has to build a plant basically.

The work stoppage won’t affect SpaceX’s schedule. They wisely added 2 CCtCAP objectives into it’s CCiCAP bid which is not affected by the work-stoppage order. SpaceX get to continue work on items needed for CCtCAP for it to finish CCiCAP. Smart move on SpaceX’s part.

DC final assembly is done at SNC in Colorado. Michoud and LM Fort Worth are building components. SNC and LM are very strict as to what can be shared about DC. You can do a search and see who does what on DC project.

Boeing leased OPF 3 at KSC years back to built the CST capsule. OPF3 is larger space than what Orion uses at Michoud.

I think the timing of the selection was too early. All parties have not produced enough to make a clear decision of who will make the best spacecraft. SpaceX needs to prove their reusability will work. Boeing needs to continue building their first model, not on a computer screen version. SNC needs to continue to demonstrate whether they can even fly and it would help if they produced a first stage.

Boeing: Long term reputation of delivering on NASA missions
Elon Musk: Working technology, could deliver reusable
SNC: Cheap price – not sure if will deliver..

If I had to select I would go with SpaceX, may be Boeing as Back up.

I don’t know much and learning from reading articles but it sounds like correct decision by NASA>

I gotta say that SNC deserves a crack at the contract. SpaceX and SNC are the only companies pushing the boundaries of technology and ability. We can’t expect to use capsules splashing in the water and getting fished out for eternity. We need to ADVANCE space flight, not just carry on from the Apollo days. The USG could benefit significantly by properly supporting commercial space transport, either through funding or through other means.

My hopelessly naïve wish is that they had funded all three as I see benefits in all of them and desperately wish to avoid having a period of no manned space capability in the future.

Hi Jason, This is not meant for display. I looked at the commenting rules. The last sentence in my comment may fall into the “ad hominem” category and as I don’t appear to be able to edit my comment, if you feel it advisable, would you please have the last sentence in my comment removed. Regards, Paul Scutts.

Woops!

Collin,

CRS-4 it SpaceX’s 5th trip to ISS. Winning is about saving NASA money not hogging as much money as possible. Get with the program!

EC,
So, he should only parrot whatever you think? Also, where are your (any) facts to back up your comment?

The Infidel

It was not “Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipOne”. It was Scaled Composites SpaceShipeOne.

Article says DC has lower costs… Actually we can’t go by any cost that has been released to the public or estimated. It’s the *believability* of the cost, only by the customer NASA. Because the true cost is the risk-adjusted cost – NASA internally can bump the cost numbers up or down, based on their own private detailed estimates.
This type of costing is critically important in Fixed Price contracts, especially those that have pressure to meet schedule. (btw, manned spaceflight has never been about finding the cheapest ride.)

“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).”

Boeing is actually developing the core stage for the SLS. ATK is developing the SRB’s, the first stage boosters.

Buck Nekkid,

The first stage IS the core stage. The boosters are not the first stage. Collin had it right.

The Infidel

“The first stage IS the core stage. The boosters are not the first stage. Collin had it right.”

Completely wrong.

Per Wikipedia:

In serial or tandem staging schemes, the first stage is at the bottom and is usually the largest, the second stage and subsequent upper stages are above it, usually decreasing in size.

Back in shuttle the SRBs might have been the first stage – but you forgot SLS’s “core” stage has RS-25s powering it.

Don’t correct people – when they’re not wrong.

Jason Rhian – RE: SpaceShipOne and Virgin Galactic

Quoting the article:
“No private company has ever launched a manned spacecraft—except for Virgin Galactic’s suborbital SpaceShipOne.”

Dear Ron,
Thanks, I mistakenly reviewed the SpaceShipOne anniversary article. Appreciate the catch by you and EC on this.
Sincerely, Jason Rhian – Editor, SpaceFlight Insider

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