Friday, 21 June 2024

Spaceplane protest fails

A protest by Sierra Nevada Corp challenging NASA’s selection of competitors Boeing and SpaceX to build commercial human-rated space capsules to fly astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) has been overruled by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The decision, announced this week, upholds US $6.8 billion in contract awards to Boeing and SpaceX, in favour of a proposal by Sierra Nevada to develop its Dream Chaser mini-shuttle.

Sierra Nevada claimed it could develop its commercial spacecraft – capable of launching with up to seven astronauts and returning to Earth for a runway landing – at less cost than Boeing when it filed its protest with the GAO at the end of September.

The company also cited what it said were inconsistencies in NASA’s process of selecting winners for the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts.

Contrary to Sierra Nevada’s claim, the GAO review found that NASA did advise companies participating in the commercial crew programme that the goal of completing certification of a human-rated spacecraft by the end of 2017 would be a factor in the space agency’s contract decision.

Boeing and SpaceX won contracts for development, testing and crew flights of their respective CST-100 and Dragon space capsules. Each company is guaranteed at least two operational missions to transport crews between Earth and Space Station.

If NASA chooses to exercise its full options, Boeing’s contract could be worth up to US $4.2 billion and SpaceX’s US $2.6 billion.

As well as its claim that it beat Boeing on cost, Sierra Nevada disputed the realism of costs proposed by SpaceX, a California-based company which has made a point of undercutting the prices of its competitors.

The protest also asserted that NASA improperly evaluated how well each proposal met the agency’s requirements and the past performance of Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada.

The GAO said it took no position on the merits of each company’s proposal but examined NASA’s decision-making process, which concluded the Boeing and SpaceX bids represented the best value to the government.

“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 said.

“NASA recognized Boeing’s higher price but also considered Boeing’s proposal to be the strongest of all three in terms of technical approach, management and past performance, and to offer the crew transportation system with most utility and highest value to the government,” it stated.

The GAO added that in choosing between Sierra Nevada and SpaceX, NASA concluded that SpaceX’s lower price made it “better value” than Sierra Nevada’s proposal.

A Sierra Nevada spokesman said this week it was “evaluating” the GAO decision as it seeks other business to support the company’s Dream Chaser programme.

“While the outcome was not what we expected, we maintain our belief that the Dream Chaser spacecraft is technically very capable, reliable and was qualified to win based on NASA’s high ratings of the space system.”

Sierra Nevada is also competing for a contract to launch supplies to the ISS using Dream Chaser. A decision on the resupply contracts is expected in May.

Clive Simpson

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