Did Boeing Really Beat SpaceX? Fact Checking NASA Leaks

The Wall Street Journal’s Andy Pasztor has a less than stellar record when it comes to reporting on SpaceX, as readers may recall from this confused mishmash of story conflating an upcoming announcement from Blue Origin with NASA’s entirely separate announcement of the results of its Commercial Crew awards which came out the next day.

Late yesterday, the WSJ came out with another story, which like those before it, shows a particular affinity for “Old Space,”  in this case Boeing, and what appears to be a long standing pattern of downplaying the significance of SpaceX and the change it has brought to the aerospace industry.

Nevertheless, the basic elements of this story, which are based on a purported review of what is supposed to be NASA’s still embargoed Source Selection Statement from the Commercial Crew awards, may be much closer to factual than many have come to expect.  It is the “spin” however, which counts. The title, “Why Boeing Beat SpaceX in NASA’s Space-Taxi Contest” is somewhat misleading. Both companies were winners, and based on the pricing submitted for identical services for which NASA retains the option of how much it will buy from whom, $4.2 versus $2.6 billion,  it very possible that SpaceX will conduct the greater number of launches, an outcome which could benefit both the American taxpayer, as well as other NASA programs which are all competing for the same dollars. Given that they reside withing the same overall category, that winner could oddly enough be the Space Launch System, including of course, prime contractor Boeing.

According to the article “the 29-page (Source Selection) document, signed by NASA’s associate administrator William Gerstenmaier the day before the awards were announced, depicts more of a one-sided contest. Boeing ranked above SpaceX in every major category, from technical maturity to management competence to likelihood of sticking to a timetable.

Boeing’s submission was considered “excellent” for “mission suitability,” whereas SpaceX got a “very good” ranking. The numerical scores for that category, according to one person familiar with the details, were separated by more than 60 points out of a possible 1,000. The document shows Boeing also garnered the highest ranking of “excellent” for technical approach and program management, compared with “very good” rankings for SpaceX.

Based on Boeing’s performance on a preliminary contract, NASA concluded it had “very high confidence” in that company’s likelihood of delivering what it promised—the highest ranking possible.”

Given that Boeing’s entire proposal was premised on the highly ironic context of not including any “Moonshot (their words) technologies” and featured a system largely cobbled together from preexisting and “proven”  components, it is not all surprising that the CST-100, and Boeing’s expertise in managing it, would rank very highly in categories which emphasize certainty of execution.  One specific example cited in the article, the use of radiation hardened components, is illustrative. SpaceX, by design, tends to favor multiple redundant systems over individual hardened components for the reasons cited here. Both can, and do work, but the advantages derived from SpaceX’s approach show up in pricing (remember that $1.6 billion spread?) and flexibility (want to land it on Mars?) but are not going to fare as well when judged on other criteria.

The bottom line is that based on their two very different approaches, Boeing’s bid was almost certain to “beat” SpaceX’s on a number of points, particularly if NASA ruled narrowly by excluding future developments such as redundant landing capabilities, (parachute or powered) an unparalleled safety benefit, or precision landing at a designated site on terra firma, a scientific benefit.

We will know quite a bit more when the documents are released publicly rather than leaked privately, but in the end, barring political manipulation, the real winner, the company which conducts the most launches, will be determined by two factors, price and performance.

The former is fixed. The latter is for now, an open question.

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4 Comments on "Did Boeing Really Beat SpaceX? Fact Checking NASA Leaks"

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  1. Gary Border says:

    Stewart, your restraint is amazing. Has anyone questioned NASA’s blind
    obsession with an array of “me too” capsule-based spacecraft? NASA plans to
    fund Dragon, CST-100 and Orion; all three are designed to dock with the ISS.
    They seem to justify CST-100 as “most likely to succeed.” The facts are that
    Dragon has already provided a shirtsleeve environment to/from Earth orbit five
    (5) times, starting in 2012. Dragon is a perfect 5-for-5 in orbital missions,
    and has visited the ISS on four (4) of those missions. Clearly, Dragon is
    ready for crew; add the seating for seven and, with a test flight or two, the
    Dragon “space taxi” is ready to go. In the inconceivable case that Dragon
    somehow fails as a taxi system, we still have Orion (design started in 2005
    with 1st launch scheduled for December 2014) as a backup. So why does America
    need CST-100, yet another capsule that won’t have its first orbital test until
    2016?

    Given the facts (above), I believe astute engineering management would cancel
    the CST-100 capsule project and use the savings to push ahead with SNC’s Dream
    Chaser space plane. I see a small chance that, properly funded, the Dream
    Chaser Project may still fail. But the overwhelming probably is that Dream
    Chaser will succeed and add a valuable new dimension to America’s low earth
    orbit capabilities. And for the Boeing fans … Dream Chaser will be launched
    by Boeing’s (kinda pricey) Atlas V.

    I am most disappointed with the NASA Commercial Crewed Program evaluation
    criteria. When contract awards are determined by highly subjective assessments
    using terms like “excellent”, “very good”, etc. NASA has stooped to a new low
    in the technology/national security decision process. Such approaches are more
    appropriately applied to the selection of high school Homecoming Kings and
    Queens. It is time for NASA management to understand that their subjective
    opinions concerning “excellent” vs. “very good” are irrelevant when compared
    to “five successful orbital flights” vs. “no successful orbital flights.”

    It’s no secret that NASA is a very troubled agency. In recent decades NASA’s
    high points have been with the ISS and interplanetary missions. One of the
    (many) low points was ending the Shuttle program years before NASA developed a
    human transport replacement. NASA simply doesn’t have a manned spaceflight
    vision, and the herky-jerky progress/failure of Constellation-
    SpaceLaunchSystem doesn’t inspire confidence, period.

    P.S. – If the taxpayers have to pay for three (3) capsule-based systems, one
    of them better cure ebola!

  2. So it seems Boeing beat SpaceX by a scant 6% on mission suitablility; and it also seems that SpaceX beat Boeing by roughly 50% on price.

    Since we know that price should be half of the total selection criteria, for Boeing to beat SpaceX on the total award scale, the final category, past performance, would have to have gone to Boeing by about 94%.

    Seems unlikely to me.

  3. Boeing rated higher than SpaceX on “likelihood of sticking to a timetable?” really? Boeing has been working on this thing for years with no test flight in our near future. SpaceX has a working and reliable version of Dragon at the ISS right now! Boggles the mind!

  4. Jesus Diaz says:

    “Okay, it’s time to see who wins the “most like Boeing contest.”

    *opens envelope*
    It’s Boeing!
    Space X, you did okay. But next time you should consider being Boeing.

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