US Government Accountability Office Denies SNC's Commercial Crew Award Protest

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)

Last year, NASA made what was arguably the biggest decision the agency has faced since retiring the country’s 30-year space shuttle program: selecting commercial providers to return human spaceflight capability back to the United States and bringing an end our total dependance on Russia’s Soyuz for crewed transport to and from the International Space Station (ISS). Two out of three companies (SpaceX and Boeing) were awarded $6.8 billion in contracts to make their crew capsule designs a reality, and the company that was not awarded, Sierra Nevada (SNC), filed a “legal challenge” with the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) on Sep. 26, 2014, protesting NASA’s selection of Boeing and SpaceX under the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program.

Now, just over three months later, the GAO has issued their decision, and has denied SNC’s challenge, leaving their reusable lifting-body designed orbital Dream Chaser “space plane” with a still uncertain future. 

Following is the full statement from the GAO’s Managing Associate General Counsel for Procurement Law, Ralph White:

On January 5, 2015, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) denied a protest filed by Sierra Nevada Corp., of Louisville, Colorado, challenging the award of contracts to The Boeing Co., Space Exploration, of Houston, Texas, and to Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), of Hawthorne, California, by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for NASA’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability Contract (CCtCap).  Sierra Nevada argued, among other things, that NASA’s evaluation departed from the solicitation’s stated evaluation and selection criteria by significantly elevating NASA’s stated “goal” of obtaining an integrated crew transportation system no later than the end of 2017, and by failing to put offerers on notice that the agency’s goal would be central to the evaluation and selection decision.

The SpaceX Dragon Version 2, the company's vehicle of choice for returning human spaceflight capability to the United States. Image Credits: Robert Fisher / AmericaSpace / SpaceX

The SpaceX Dragon Version 2, the company’s vehicle of choice for returning human spaceflight capability to the United States. Image Credits: Robert Fisher / AmericaSpace / SpaceX

As explained in our decision, in this procurement, Sierra Nevada offered its Dream Chaser crew transportation system (a lifting body spacecraft), launched using United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 launch vehicle, and landed horizontally on normal runways.  Sierra Nevada’s price was $2.55 billion.

Boeing offered its CST-100 crew transportation system (a capsule spacecraft), also launched using United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 launch vehicle, and landed using parachute and airbag systems for hard-surface landings, or contingency water landings.  Boeing’s price was $3.01 billion.

Dream Chaser going to work atop a ULA Atlas-V rocket. Image Credit: SNC

Dream Chaser going to work atop a ULA Atlas-V rocket. Image Credit: SNC

SpaceX offered its Crew Dragon crew transportation system (also a capsule spacecraft), launched using SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle, and landed using parachutes and propulsive soft landing systems for hard-surface landings, or contingency water landings.  SpaceX’s price was $1.75 billion.

In making its selection decision, NASA concluded that the proposals submitted by Boeing and SpaceX represented the best value to the government.  Specifically, NASA recognized Boeing’s higher price, but also considered Boeing’s proposal to be the strongest of all three proposals in terms of technical approach, management approach, and past performance, and to offer the crew transportation system with most utility and highest value to the government.  NASA also recognized several favorable features in the Sierra Nevada and SpaceX proposals, but ultimately concluded that SpaceX’s lower price made it a better value than the proposal submitted by Sierra Nevada.

GAO disagreed with Sierra Nevada’s arguments about NASA’s evaluation, and found no undue emphasis on NASA’s consideration of each offeror’s proposed schedule, and likelihood to achieve crew transportation system certification not later than 2017.  GAO also noted that, contrary to Sierra Nevada’s assertions, the RFP clearly advised offerors that their proposals would be evaluated against the goal of certification by the end of 2017.

Sierra Nevada also argued that NASA conducted an inadequate review of the realism of SpaceX’s price and overall financial resources, conducted a flawed and disparate evaluation of proposals under the mission suitability evaluation factor, and improperly evaluated the relevance of offerors’ past performance.  Based on our review of the issues, we concluded that these arguments were not supported by the evaluation record or by the terms of the solicitation.

The GAO decision takes no position on the relative merits of these proposal approaches to NASA’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability Contract.  Instead, GAO reviewed the conclusions reached by NASA to determine if they were reasonable, and consistent with the evaluation approach NASA set out in its solicitation.

Because this protest decision contains proprietary and source selection sensitive information, release of the decision, at this point, is limited to NASA personnel and to outside counsel who have been admitted under the GAO protective order issued for this protest.  The parties have been directed to submit proposed redactions for the purpose of preparing a public version of the decision.  GAO expects to publish a public version of the decision as soon as possible; however, the release of a public decision may take a few weeks.  When the public version of the decision is available, it will be posted to our website, www.gao.gov.

The Boeing Crew Space Transportation spacecraft, or CST-100 for short. Image Credits: Boeing / AmericaSpace / Mike Killian

The Boeing Crew Space Transportation spacecraft, or CST-100 for short. Image Credits: Boeing / AmericaSpace / Mike Killian

As for NASA, the space agency has released the following statement regarding the GAO’s decision:

“The GAO has notified NASA that it has denied Sierra Nevada Corporation’s protest of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contract awards. NASA is pleased the GAO’s decision allows the agency to move forward and continue working with Boeing and SpaceX on the Launch America initiative that will enable safe and reliable crew transportation to and from the International Space Station on American spacecraft launched from the United States, ending the nation’s sole reliance on Russia for such transportation. The case remains under the protective order and blackout until the GAO releases its decision.”

SNC has yet to release an official statement regarding today’s decision by the GAO, but the company’s Dream Chaser may still have a future, just not with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. As we have reported throughout 2014, SNC has been paving a path forward for Dream Chaser through global partnerships with 21 space agencies around the world. 

A European or Japanese version of Dream Chaser is possible in the future,” said head of SNC Space Systems Mark Sirangelo in a previous one-on-one interview with AmericaSpace.

SpaceX and Boeing both expect to fly their first crewed mission to the ISS from U.S. soil as soon as 2017.

 

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3 comments to US Government Accountability Office Denies SNC’s Commercial Crew Award Protest

  • TC

    The US again snubs progress and boldness in favor of big business and safe bets….

  • Art

    TC if you mean the CST-100, I agree. Anyway the CST-100 is a safe bet with it’s feature of crash landing on land or sea with airbags. However, NASA embraced progress & boldness with the Crew Dragon selection. Maybe SNC should’ve made a proposal with ATK using a 4 segment solid rocket booster and an all solid upper stage(ATK Caster 30XL). Or possible mate the AR RL-10B-2 upper stage engine with a 4 or 3 segment solid rocket booster. When the went with ULA’s Atlas V, SNC was S.O.L. It’s quite possible that SNC can get the UAE or another rich Arab Persian Gulf nation to bank roll the continued development of the Dream Chaser spacecraft. It’s too bad that Wolff & Shelby didn’t push for more funds to develop all three CC proposals thru final development & operational use. Just shows how useless some of our Senators & Representatives are.