Why Dream Chaser didn’t win the bid for commercial crew
Aviation Week obtained an internal document from NASA, citing that the Associate Administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate, William Gerstenmaier. The document stated Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser lifting body was not selected to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) for various reasons which included having “significantly more technical work” and the “longest schedule for completing certification” among the three competitors for the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract.
NASA announced on Sept. 16, 2014 that it had selected Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon V2 spacecraft to fly astronauts to and from the space station as part of the CCtCap contract, but that Sierra Nevada Corporation’s (SNC) Dream Chaser lifting body was not selected. Ten days after the contract awards announcement, SNC filed a legal protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) – who is required to rule on the protest by Jan. 5 – to challenge NASA’s decision to award the contracts to Boeing and SpaceX. This is the first such protest filed by the company in its 51 years in operation.
In the announcement of its protest, Sierra Nevada explained that in NASA’s original request for proposals, cost was the “primary evaluation criteria for the proposals” and that the Dream Chaser was the “second lowest priced proposal in the CCtCap competition.” However, in Gerstenmaier’s internal memo, signed the day before the announcement of the CCtCap awards, he states that: “although SNC’s price is lower than Boeing’s price, its technical and management approaches and its past performance are not as high and [he sees] considerably more schedule risk with its proposal” and that “SNC’s price is significantly higher than SpaceX’s price.”
Also in his internal document regarding the decisions for the CCtCap awards, Gerstenmaier complimented SNC’s “strong management approach” to tackling the technical details on time, but noted that SNC had “more schedule uncertainty” within its proposal. The document noted that SNC’s proposed schedule included tests that would occur after crewed flight tests. This would “greatly stress the schedule” because those tests would likely need to be shifted to before the crewed flight tests. In addition to probable schedule shifts, the amount of technical work required for the Dream Chaser would “further extend its schedule beyond 2017”, the year in which crewed flights to the ISS are currently planned to begin.
Gerstenmaier felt that the Dream Chaser’s design was the “lowest level maturity, with significantly more technical work and critical design decisions to accomplish” of the three proposed spacecraft and that the proposal submitted by SNC did not address those concerns. These are the reasons cited for why Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser was not selected to become one of the fleet that are supposed to carry astronauts from American soil to the ISS.
In the weeks following NASA’s awards announcement, Sierra Nevada has announced partnerships and programs to keep the Dream Chaser on the market for flights to and from low-Earth-orbit. One such partnership is with Stratolaunch System to create an integrated system so that a scaled version of Dream Chaser can ferry up to three astronauts to space using the Stratolaunch System’s air launcher. Sierra Nevada also announced their Global Project which offers the Dream Chaser as a spacecraft that can be “customized by the client for an array of missions”.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.