Sierra Nevada Legally Challenges NASA’s Commercial Crew Transportation Contract Award

Dream Chaser blazes to orbit and the ISS after separation from ULA Atlas V Rocket 2nd stage and liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.  Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC)

Dream Chaser blazes to orbit and the ISS after separation from ULA Atlas V Rocket 2nd stage and liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC)

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER — Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) declared Friday, Sept. 26, that the company has filed a “legal challenge” protesting NASA’s selection of Boeing and SpaceX for contracts to build America’s next human-rated spaceship to carry astronauts to the International Space Station under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program, while SNC’s competing vehicle proposal was denied funding despite approximately equal technical merits and competitive cost.

SNC said in a statement that its legal challenge is based on “NASA’s own Source Selection Statement and debrief indicate that there are serious questions and inconsistencies in the source selection process,” regarding NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) effort.

Therefore, SNC says it has “no alternative but to institute a legal challenge.”

On Sept. 16 NASA Administrator Charles Bolden formally announced that both Boeing and SpaceX have won NASA’s history making competition to build the first-ever commercial “space taxis” to launch American astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), at a media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center.

Under the CCtCAP award, NASA awarded contracts valued at $6.8 billion to Boeing and SpaceX aimed at restoring America’s capability to launch American astronauts from American soil by the end of 2017.

SNC’s proposal involved building the reusable Dream Chaser manned space plane which can carry a mix of cargo and up to seven crew members to the ISS. It also offered the totally unique capability to land on runways worldwide (detailed in AmericaSpace’s exclusive five-part Dream Chaser interview series with SNC VP Mark Sirangelo).

Both of the winning private crew transport proposals selected by NASA involved building capsules that can also carry a mix of crew and cargo.

Dream Chaser can land anywhere. Its designed for commercial runways,” Sirangelo stated.

“A runway landing offers immediacy in case of returning sick astronauts or critical research samples … to a researchers’ home city.”

“Whereas our other competitors are landing in the water or far out in the desert somewhere. And they are coming in as a capsule does, at considerably higher G forces. So that’s the type of thing we feel we have an advantage on.”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) announces the winners of NASA’s  Commercial Crew Program development effort to build America’s next human spaceships launching from Florida to the International Space Station.  Speaking from Kennedy’s Press Site, Bolden announced the contract award to Boeing and SpaceX to complete the design of the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft.  Former astronaut Bob Cabana, center, director of NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida,  Kathy Lueders, manager of the agency's Commercial Crew Program, and former International Space Station Commander Mike Fincke also took part in the announcement.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) announces the winners of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program development effort to build America’s next human spaceships launching from Florida to the International Space Station. Speaking from Kennedy’s Press Site, Bolden announced the contract award to Boeing and SpaceX to complete the design of the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Former astronaut Bob Cabana, center, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Kathy Lueders, manager of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, and former International Space Station Commander Mike Fincke also took part in the announcement. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

Boeing was given the highest value award worth—$4.2 billion—to build the CST-100, whereas SpaceX was awarded a secondary amount valued at $2.6 billion to build the Dragon V2, an advanced version of the unmanned cargo Dragon delivering supplies to the ISS, such as the Sept. 21 CRS-4 mission launch to the ISS.

With the funding under the NASA award contracts, both Boeing and SpaceX are expected to complete the design and development of their capsules and conduct between one and six space flights to low-Earth orbit and the ISS.

SNC noted that this is the first time the firm has ever challenged a government award in its 51-year history.

Much of SNC’s protest filed with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) is based on financial merit since “all three competitors were found to be compliant and awardable under the criteria set forth in the request for proposal (RFP).”

SNC says that the “official NASA solicitation for the CCtCap contract prioritized price as the primary evaluation criteria.”

Based on the officially announced contact award values, SNC maintains that its proposal was the second lowest cost of the three competitors and that it will therefore cost the U.S. government an additional $900 million by selecting Boeing’s higher cost CST-100 to develop the commercial crew vehicles rather than the Dream Chaser.

That’s a lot of money is these fiscally stringent times, when Congress has already cut NASA’s CCP program funding in half and delayed the first crew misson from 2015 to 2017 and lengthened our sole source dependency on the Russian Soyuz capsule for astronaut seats at a cost of $70 million each.

Furthermore, SNC states that its proposal had “near equivalent technical and past performance scores.”

“SNC’s proposal also achieved mission suitability scores comparable to the other two proposals. The highest ranked and lowest ranked offerors were separated by a minor amount of total points and other factors were equally comparable,” notes SNC.

SNC’s Dream Chaser test vehicle under construction. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC)

SNC’s Dream Chaser test vehicle under construction. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC)

During the current phase of NASA’s four-year-long commercial crew effort, known as the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability initiative (CCiCAP) wherein each company had to complete a series of agreed upon development milestone tasks, SNC had successfully accomplished all but one: the atmospheric drop test program.

“We are 92 percent done with the CCiCAP milestones for NASA. We have one more CCiCAP milestone left that will be done in the next couple of weeks called Milestone 15. So we have another flight test, the drop test, we’re doing later this Fall that will finish it out,” SNC VP Sirangelo told me during our exclusive AmericaSpace interview.

“Given those facts, we believe that a thorough review must be conducted of the award decision,” SNC said in the Sept. 26 statement.

In recent months Sirangelo outlined to AmericaSpace how SNC had developed partnerships with 21 space agencies to lay the foundation and pave a path forward through agreements with new international partners, including ESA (European Space Agency), DLR (German Aerospace Agency), and JAXA (Japanese Aerospace and Exploration Agency), no matter the outcome with NASA.

“We are very fortunate in that we now actually have 21 space agencies that have a connection to the program, which is pretty incredible. They are direct relationships,” said Sirangelo.

SNC also partnered with a nationwide team of diverse entities to manufacture and launch the winged space plane—they call it the Dream Chaser “Dream Team”

“We have quite a large team of about 30 companies working for us in building the vehicle as part of our Dream Chaser ‘Dream Team’,” Sirangelo stated.

“There are 32 states and 30 companies with employment on this program, nine U.S. universities, nine NASA centers, as well as international partners involved in the program as our ‘Dream Team’.”

Dream Chaser media briefing from 2011 at the Kennedy Space Center press site with Mark Sirangelo, vice president of Sierra Nevada Corporation (center), Robert Cabana, Director of Kennedy Space Center (left), and Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator (right).  Credit: Ken Kremer / www.KenKremer.com

Dream Chaser media briefing from 2011 at the Kennedy Space Center press site with Mark Sirangelo, vice president of Sierra Nevada Corporation (center), Robert Cabana, Director of Kennedy Space Center (left), and Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator (right). Credit: Ken Kremer / www.KenKremer.com

Based on all these technical and financial points, SNC has filed the legal challenge to get a review of NASA’s award decision and reverse the outcome.

“SNC’s filing seeks a further detailed review and evaluation of the submitted proposals and capabilities.

“SNC believes the result of further evaluation of the proposals submitted will be that America ends up with a more capable vehicle, at a much lower cost, with a robust and sustainable future.

“The company feels it owes this extra effort to their employees, the over 30 Dream Team U.S. industry partners, 10 university partners, 10 international space agency and industry partners – all of whom believe in Dream Chaser® and that the proposal that was submitted by SNC is the best choice for NASA and the American public.”

AmericaSpace asked NASA PAO to describe the strengths of the winners and why NASA chose to go exclusively with capsules versus a mix of capsules and the Dream Chaser lifting body type vehicle.

The NASA PAO spokesman said that NASA cannot comment in detail about the commercial crew contract award at this time and for a period of about two weeks after the contract decision under strict U.S. law following standard U.S. government practices. He said that the companies need to be debriefed by NASA first as to how the selections were made.

In response to NASA’s commercial crew announcements, SNC has had to lay off nearly 10 percent of their staff.

The CCtCAP awards from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) office will continue to be implemented as a public-private partnership and are the fruition of NASA’s strategy to foster the development of privately built human spaceships that began in 2010.

Be sure to check out AmericaSpace’s in-depth look at Dream Chaser and read the exclusive five-part Dream Chaser interview series with SNC VP Mark Sirangleo: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

Download the entire series at the tab on the right side of our Home Page.

Stay tuned here for continuing developments.

Ken Kremer

Want to keep up-to-date with all things space? Be sure to “Like” AmericaSpace on Facebook and follow us on Twitter: @AmericaSpace

Global partnerships could one day lead to European or Japanese versions of the Dream Chaser docking at the ISS in this artists concept.  Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC)

Global partnerships could one day lead to European or Japanese versions of the Dream Chaser docking at the ISS in this artists concept. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC)

Scale models of NASA’s Commercial Crew program vehicles and launchers; Boeing CST-100, Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser, SpaceX Dragon. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Scale models of NASA’s Commercial Crew program vehicles and launchers; Boeing CST-100, Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser, SpaceX Dragon. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

14 comments to Sierra Nevada Legally Challenges NASA’s Commercial Crew Transportation Contract Award

  • Mike

    Good on Sierra Nevada. I can’t stand the thought of NASA passing up on the Dream Chaser, especially over two redundant capsule spacecraft.

  • Art

    Well, I don’t see spacex’s award getting rescinded. They are the only all American launcher & vehicle combo. Now the beef is with Boeing, which has refused to put a lot of “skin” in the game. just my opinion. That 4.2 billion is a lot. I’m sure Shelby was dancing a jig when Boeing was awarded that amount.

    • Jim Hillhouse

      Had the CCtCap award been predicated on how much of the CCiCap milestones a given company had completed, SpaceX would be out.

      SpaceX has to date not completed three of its CCiCap milestones, 11, 13, and 14 with 11 due in December 2013 and 13 and 14 due in March 2014.

      SpaceX’s CCiCap milestone 13, the Integrated CDR, had to be re-written because the company could not complete it. So milestone 13 was broken-up into 4 parts. In rewriting the CCiCap milestones, SpaceX got special treatment that the other CCiCap participants didn’t need. And even once milestones 13a, b, c, and d are completed, SpaceX will not have produced an “integrated” CDR. Heck, SLS passed its CDR before Dragon 2. Think of the irony of that.

      Then there are milestones 11 and 13, the pad and in-flight abort tests. We will be lucky to see milestone 11 completed by this December, a year after its deadline. And milestone 13 may be done by March 2015, a year after that milestone’s deadline.

      I guess if there’s good news, it’s that SpaceX is only a year behind its CCiCap schedule, unlike the over 2-years it went over schedule during COTS. That’s ironic because, in both cases, SpaceX was responsible for determining the milestones it would achieve for the given funding and time. And in both cases, the company miscalculated.

      On the other hand, SNC is one milestone away from successfully completing its CCiCap milestones while Boeing completed all of its CCiCap milestones. Those two companies demonstrated that they understood what they could do given their CCiCap funding. That should have played a bigger role in determining CCtCap winners than it apparently did.

      Since CCtCap is a FAR contract, it falls to the GAO to determine whether to accept SNC’s challenge or not. And if the GAO takes up SNC’s protest, neither NASA nor SpaceX will come-out the better.

      • Joe

        Jim,

        Good analysis. My own limited personal experience with this kind of situation is that nobody really wins (especially those desiring fast development of new hardware).

        Several years ago I was involved in a contract where a protest was filed against the contract winner. The end result was basically as follows:

        – A 6 month delay of contract start while the dispute was resolved.

        – The resolution was to have the winner take on the protestant as a subcontractor (guaranteeing infighting and inefficiency).

        No insult to SNC intended in this, just a sad statement of reality.

        • You’re right that there will be few winners. I think Boeing will be fine—it’s scores will I think protect it. But you’re right—you never know.

          A big question to be posed (hopefully) by the GAO is why an award was given to another capsule design of a company that has never completed a major commitment within a year of the requirement to do so. I, and many others, think there’s a non-engineering story there that will be intriguing.

      • Ofia

        Jim, the other day I stumbled on your article you wrote in 2010 “Musk does’t get it” . With your negative tone and inaccuracies in that article, there is no way that anybody can take you seriously on matters with regard to Spacex. There is a whole reddit section on that article. Go read it.

        • Joe

          Jim’s recitation of SpaceX status in meeting its milestones on the CCiCap is accurate.

          If you cannot argue the facts, attack the messenger.

          Sad.

        • Can you tell me one program, just one, that SpaceX has delivered on-time?

          History and facts speak for themselves.

          And there is a lot that could not be reported on because of concerns about the highly litigious Musk.

          I was once a big supporter of SpaceX’s efforts to go to space. Until, that is, it went from a commercial effort by the company to one of yanking on the government udder. That’s not commercial; that’s SOS.

        • Here’s the history of SpaceX’s program promises and actual delivery.

          Program Expected Completion Actual Completion
          Falcon 1 (TacSat–1) 01/2004 09/28/2008[1]
          COTS 03/2010 08/23/2012[2]
          CRS 12/2016 2017[3][4]
          CCiCap 04/2014 03/2015[5]
          SpaceX CCiCap Milestone Expected Completion Date Actual Completion Date
          Milestone 11 Pad Abort Test 12/2013 ~12/2014
          Milestone 13 Integrated CDR 03/2014 ~12/2014
          Milestone 14 In-Flight Abort Test 04/2014 ?

          Specific to CCiCap, NASA accepted SpaceX’s request in April 2014 to devide it’s Milestone 13,

          Integrated CDR
          SpaceX will hold an Integrated Critical Design Review (CDR) to demonstrate that the maturity of the CTS design is appropriate to support proceeding with full-scale fabrication, assembly, integration and test.

          into 4 parts. The question of whether there will be an “integrated” critical design review of the crewed Dragon has yet to be answered.

          Revised SpaceX CCiCap Milestone Name Milestone Description
          Milestone 13A Qualification test for the primary structure of its Dragon spacecraft
          Milestone 13B Grounds Systems and Mission Ops CDR
          Milestone 13C Crew Vehicle Technical Integration Meetings (Originally part of Milestone 13A)
          Milestone 13D Delta Crew Vehicle CDR (Originally part of Milestone 13A)

          I could go on about the 2 year gap between SpaceX’s launch promises vs. delivery. Or that the cost of Falcon 9 launches went from $35M to $60M, an increase of just over 71%, before that launcher was retired. Today’s Falcon 9.1 launcher delivers 55% more payload than a Falcon 9 and costs 50% more at $90M.

          The Falcon 9 Heavy first flight, promised in 2012, are now scheduled for sometime in 2015.


          1. TacSat–1 was mothballed in 2007 after Orbital Sciences launched TacSat–2

          2. COTS Demo Mission 2 was scheduled for Sept. 2009 and Demo Mission 3 for March 2010. These two missions were combined into COTS Demo Mission C2+.

          3. NASA Awards Space Station Commercial Resupply Services Contracts, Dec. 23, 2008

          4. Because CRS launches began 2 years late on October 28, 2012, NASA has extended the date of CRS completion date. To date, SpaceX has completed 4 of the planned 12 flights.

          5. NASA stated on 06/10/2014 that the pad and in-flight abort tests were delayed because, “[r]ushing these tests would have compromised the results and potentially impacted safety. NASA (and SpaceX) want these tests to be of high quality with the results representative of real abort scenarios, thus NASA granted the SpaceX’s request for the new dates.” No mention was made that the tests had been planned since 2010.

    • If SpaceX still has not completed its remaining three CCiCap milestones by March 2015, don’t be so sure.

  • Paul Scutts

    Although NASA’s decision with it’s CCtCap awards, IMO, was based upon political expediency, I have always felt that NASA could have and should have found a way to include SNC’s Dream Chaser. Maybe, NASA “was remembering” the problems it experienced with the development of the Shuttle, and that that could have been a factor in it’s CCtCap decision.
    We didn’t have to be talking billions of dollars here, e.g. it could have been a 4/2/0.8 split. Surely, it would have been prudent for NASA to have found some funds to have guaranteed that Dream Chaser remained alive and well, plus giving the US a third option with regard to getting its astronauts to and from LEO.
    Dream Chaser is too good a craft (both in projected performance, looks and potential commercial tourism applications) not to see that it is definitely fully realised.
    Come on NASA voluntarily adjust your CCtCap decision and give SNCDC a fighting chance, keep the “Dream” alive!

  • John Sullivan

    They simply can’t be trusted. No Transparency. https://t.co/FrruFFOfD0

  • Art

    Jim Hillhouse You do know that SpaceX’s pad abort & inflight abort tests are CCtCAP milestones in Boeing’s book. I guess SpaceX wanted to get it funded in the CCiCAP milestones so if they weren’t chosen in the final round, it would be easier to finish & launch the Dragon V2 for Bigelow or for another customer besides NASA.

    I don’t see SpaceX’s award being rescinded. They are actually bending metal & building space capsules & continuously upgrading them as we speak. I was hoping that NASA would find a way to fund all three. 4 trips each to the station, not six. SNC should’ve collaborated with SpaceX to use their F9 or Heavy. But, no they made their bed with ULA, which is Boeing’s personal launcher.

    • SpaceX, not NASA, included the pad abort, integrated CDR, and in-flight abort, milestones 11, 13, and 14 respectively, when the milestones and funding for CCiCap were negotiated. Boeing did not because, as The Wall Street Journal’s Andy Pasztor points out in his article, “Why Boeing Beat SpaceX in NASA’s Space-Taxi Contest“, the company knew that completing such milestones would not be possible for the given money and schedule under CCiCap.

      In essence, one company over-promises what it can do within a budget and time and the other doesn’t.

      This is why Boeing won. NASA knows that if Boeing says its CST-100 will be ready by a given date, it will be within a margin of a few months. With its history on TacSat-1, COTS, and CRS, a delivery commitment could, based on history would, extend years. SNC on the other hand has no such history with NASA of “being late” by years.