Why SpaceX, Boeing Won and Dream Chaser Lost: NASA’s Source Selection Explained

Following the GAO’s denial of bid protest lodged by Sierra Nevada Corporation on January 5, NASA released late last week, a redacted version of its Source Selection Statement for the final phase of Commercial Crew program. Its official name is Commercial Crew Transportation Capability Contract, or CCtCap.  Now, the GAO has released a similarly redacted public version of the protest denial itself.

Taken together, the two documents offer some interesting insight into the decision which designated Boeing and SpaceX as the two companies tasked with inaugurating the era of “commercial” spaceflight.

Based on the dollar amounts which were announced, as well some unfortunate reporting from the Wall Street Journal which was picked up and repeated by numerous websites, a general consensus seemed to suggest that Boeing had been the overall winner, with SpaceX a runner up. That was simply not the case.

The CCtCap decision was based on a points awarded basis which weighed price against a combination of “mission suitability” and past performance. Some clarity may be useful where the former is concerned. Mission suitability does not refer, as the term might be inferred to mean, that one spacecraft was considered to be capable of doing a better job than another. Rather, NASA used it as an assessment of each vendor’s understanding of the requirements and ability to perform. It was comprised of three subcategories; Technical, Crew Safety and Mission Assurance, Management Approach and Small Business Utilization.

Past performance was just that, with increasing weight given to performance more directly applicable to crewed space systems, interfacing with the International Space Station and complete system rather than component development. For obvious reasons, both Boeing and SpaceX benefited from this category, where Boeing’s experience with the Shuttle, ISS and SLS were undeniable, just as SpaceX’s experience in COTS and Commercial Resupply were similarly compelling. Yet, in terms of the confidence rating assigned, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada were essentially tied with an evaluation of “High” compared to Boeing’s “Very High.”  The reason was SpaceX’s comparatively weaker performance on the sometimes overlooked element of Commercial Crew, the much smaller Certification Product Contracts. The CPC’s, though focused on safety, are basically being used as a measure of how compliant a government contractor each vendor will be.  Throughout the Source Selection Statement, it is clear that the unconventional approach which has allowed SpaceX to disrupt the launch industry is still viewed with some suspicion from the government’s point of view.

One of the relevant issues is that SpaceX, in keeping with its design approach to the cargo version of Dragon, plans on using its own version of EEE (electrical, electronic, and electromechanical) components rather than proven but far more expensive radiation hardened components with years of prior performance. SpaceX instead tends to follow a philosophy of multiple redundant systems which can accommodate radiation hits by switching to unaffected pathways.

Boeing, as the consummate legacy aerospace contractor assembling a crew capsule out of legacy components shined in performance of the CPC contracts, with Sierra Nevada performing strongly as well.

What won the contest for SpaceX however, was its stellar performance on price as indicated on the chart below.

Source: GAO

Source: GAO


One of the more surprising takeaways is that despite originally indicating that it would do so, Boeing now does not plan to perform an ascent abort test at any point of the development process. For that matter, neither did SNC, where indecision regarding its hybrid rocket motors played a major role in Dream Chaser’s loss.

SpaceX on the other hand, while having already passed the original dates for both its pad and ascent abort tests, still plans to do both in closing out the remaining milestones under the CCiCap round.  Furthermore, the company also apparently plans to conduct a fully automated, uncrewed trial run of the Commercial Crew Dragon to ISS, prior to the first crewed flight. Finally, SpaceX is eschewing the use of a NASA supplied NDS docking adapter in favor of one of its own design, saving a $14 million charge per device.

The issue of the missing ascent abort test is an interesting one which highlights one of Boeing’s biggest liabilities, one which possibly doomed Dream Chaser as well, the much higher price of the Atlas V booster, which includes not only two second stage RL-10 engines, but two first stage strap-on solid rocket motors as well.  NASA Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier references the higher cost and political vulnerability of the Atlas V at several places in the 29 page document, adding that Boeing may substitute another booster at some point. Presumably that is a reference to the booster ULA President Tory Bruno has pledged to unveil later this year, but one has to wonder. With at least two and half years to go before the first crewed mission by either SpaceX or Boeing, it now appears almost certain that Elon Musk’s company will have recovered and re-flown a Falcon 9 first stage before the first crew steps aboard.

While Boeing could conceivably switch to the Falcon 9, selecting that booster in the first place may have been Sierra Nevada’s only (slim) hope for being in the winner’s circle when it was all over. As NASA’s Gerstenmaier points out in his assessment, while SNC’s proposal was less expensive than Boeing’s, the difference was sufficiently narrow as to make Boeing’s higher price a reasonable trade-off.  With four flights total, one in the development phase and three in the operational era included in the bid, SNC might have been able to put another $400 million in the spread between itself and Boeing in the heavily weighted price category. On the other hand, the Dream Chaser’s estimated mass at 25,000 lbs. is perilously close to the Falcon 9’s published capacity of 28,991 lbs to LEO, with mass growth and a launch adapter still to take into account.

While the “what ifs” make for a lively discussion, if the SNC’s bid protest is any guide, there won’t be a rapprochement with SpaceX coming any time soon. Rather than aiming its fire at Boeing, the elements of the protest which touch on its competitors seem to focus almost exclusively on SpaceX rather than Boeing, where the company argues in part that NASA should have discounted SpaceX’s price because it didn’t fall in line with historical models. In other words, they just couldn’t be that cheap!

SNC also attempted to call into question the Hawthorne based company’s ability to raise the capital required to live up to its obligations. Google and Fidelity just supplied one billion reasons why that dog didn’t hunt.

In the end however, the GAO protest denial makes it clear that NASA was fully within its rights in discounting SNC’s bid for the simple reason that by its own admission, Dream Chaser will not be ready in time for the end of 2017 deadline which the space agency is striving to make. SNC’s argument that NASA wrongfully elevated the deadline to requirement fell flat.

From the GAO:

“We see no error in NASA’s consideration of each offeror’s likelihood to achieve crew transportation system certification not later than 2017, and conclude that the evaluation was consistent with the explicit terms of the RFP. Contrary to the protester’s assertions, the RFP clearly advised offerors that their proposals would be evaluated against the goal of certification by the end of 2017. Thus, consistent with the terms of the RFP, NASA considered the extent to which offerors demonstrated their ability to meet this objective. We also conclude that the SSA’s comparative analysis of the offerors’ schedules was rational, and that the SEB’s comments during discussions were, therefore, not misleading.”

With both documents now released, and the protest denied, NASA Boeing and SpaceX are moving on. Next up, an 11:00 AM CST Monday (January 26) press conference from the Johnson Space Center where the agency and the two winners will lay out their plains for reaching launch day.  The event will be broadcast on NASA TV and on the agency’s website.

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1 Comment on "Why SpaceX, Boeing Won and Dream Chaser Lost: NASA’s Source Selection Explained"

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  1. SNC’s “indecision regarding its hybrid rocket motors” was something of an artifact. At the time that the bids were due, they were already starting to consider switching to all liquids. Some months later, as I reported, they did. But the bid including the hybrids was already in, though they made NASA aware of the change.

    You can call this “indecision” but I think it’s fairer to call it “evolution.” They’d switched to the liquids after (on its own dime) Orbitec demo’d a motor of the same scale as the hybrid ‘mains’ two months after saying they wanted to try it. (SNC had switched to Orbitec motors for the RCS some months before).

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