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.”
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.
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’.”
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.
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