Av Week Article Gives More Insight Into NASA’s Commercial Crew Decision

Image Credit: Boeing

The NASA source selection statement for Commercial Crew is still not publicly available, at least officially, but Aviation Week has obtained a copy, and the resulting article sheds some light on what its says.

From the article:

“The internal document, signed by NASA Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier on Sept. 15, the day before the contract awards were announced, says, “I consider SNC’s (Sierra Nevada Corp.) design to be the lowest level of maturity, with significantly more technical work and critical design decisions to accomplish. The proposal did not thoroughly address these design challenges and trades.” Gerstenmaier goes on to say that Sierra’s proposal “has more schedule uncertainty. For example, some of the testing planned after the crewed flight could be required before the crewed flight, and the impact of this movement will greatly stress the schedule.”

As expected, NASA also heavily praises the Boeing proposal:

“the strongest of all three proposals in both mission suitability and past performance. Boeing’s system offers the most useful inherent capabilities for operational flexibility in trading cargo and crew for individual missions. It is also based on a spacecraft design that is fairly mature in design.”

One interesting note regarding the Boeing proposal’s considerably higher price:

“I consider Boeing’s superior proposal, with regard to both its technical and management approach and its past performance, to be worth the additional price in comparison to the SNC proposal.” (emphasis added)

What is apparently not addressed is how the NASA AA views Boeing’s price at $4.6 billion as compared to that offered by SpaceX at $2.6 billion.

As for the SpaceX proposal, it appears that even though NASA acknowledges the company has more schedule flexibility, concerns linger over possible late stage design changes in general and the company’s comparative adeptness at handling the certification process itself having ““the least robust approach for addressing the actual specific feedback on the Phase 1 products that are the foundations of certification in this second phase.”

Based on what has been reported on thus far, it is unclear whether NASA gave any consideration to the forward looking elements within the SpaceX proposal such as eventually pinpoint landing and redundant parachute/powered landing capabilities, or how much risk the agency assigned to Boeing and SNC’s reliance on the Russian main engine powering the Atlas V. To some extent it does not matter. Barring a major upheaval such as a ruling in favor of the GAO protest lodged by SNC, or a brazen effort to eliminate the “second” competitor as discussed here, the stage is pretty much set.

It is for once an actual “space race” and a living experiment testing NewSpace and OldSpace approaches to an overall concept which supports the former, but in a manner which may favor the latter. It will be fascinating to watch it all play out.

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