Friday, September 26, 2014

Try, Try Again

Click the arrow to watch a 2012 Dream Chaser concept of operations animation. Video source: SNCspacesystems YouTube channel.

Ten days after NASA selected Boeing and SpaceX as their commercial crew vendors, Sierra Nevada Corporation announced today in a press release that the company has filed a legal challenge with the Government Accountability Office to challenge the decision.

In its 51 year history SNC has never filed a legal challenge to a government contract award. However, in the case of the CCtCap award, NASA’s own Source Selection Statement and debrief indicate that there are serious questions and inconsistencies in the source selection process. SNC, therefore, feels that there is no alternative but to institute a legal challenge.

During the September 16 announcement, NASA officials declined to comment on the merits of the three proposals, saying that would have to wait until after the competitors were briefed.

Apparently SNC got its briefing. The press release states:

Importantly, the official NASA solicitation for the CCtCap contract prioritized price as the primary evaluation criteria for the proposals, setting it equal to the combined value of the other two primary evaluation criteria: mission suitability and past performance. SNC’s Dream Chaser proposal was the second lowest priced proposal in the CCtCap competition. SNC’s proposal also achieved mission suitability scores comparable to the other two proposals. In fact, out of a possible 1,000 total points, the highest ranked and lowest ranked offerors were separated by a minor amount of total points and other factors were equally comparable.

How could SNC knows its proposal was "the second lowest priced" unless they'd been briefed about all three proposals? Unless they're guessing, based on the announced awards to Boeing ($4.2 billion) and SpaceX ($2.6 billion).

If the latter is true, then as I wrote on September 17 the total dollar amounts are fairly meaningless, because each involves unique tests and “special studies,” as well as the assumption that each vendor receives the maximum six flights. Each vendor is guaranteed only two, and each mission will be a separate work order.

According to Aviation Week:

The company said late Friday that its bid in the NASA Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCTCap) was $900 million less than the bid submitted by Boeing, which won a contract worth as much as $4.2 billion to complete development, test fly and operate its CST-100 crew capsule. At the same time, SNC said, its proposal was “near equivalent [in] technical and past performance” source-selection scoring.

If one wants to indulge in fanciful speculation and assume NASA management capable of Machiavellianism, we can amuse ourselves with the notion that NASA deliberately violated federal procurement guidelines in selecting Boeing, knowing that if they'd gone with SNC then key Congressional porkers on the House and Senate space subcommittees who receive generous campaign contributions from Boeing would howl. If the GAO finds that SNC deserved the second contract, then Congress can't blame NASA, only the GAO.

No, I don't think so, either. Just indulging a fancy.

Elsewhere in NewSpace, NASA issued a press release today announcing a Request For Proposals for the next round of commercial cargo deliveries to the International Space Station.

Under the Commercial Resupply Services 2 RFP, NASA intends to award contracts with one or more companies for six or more flights per contract. As with current resupply flights, these missions would launch from U.S. spaceports, and the contracted services would include logistical and research cargo delivery and return to and from the space station through fiscal year 2020, with the option to purchase additional launches through 2024 ...

This RFP is open to companies able to demonstrate safe, reliable launch and rendezvous capabilities with the station. The contract will fulfill NASA's need to procure cargo delivery services for pressurized and unpressurized cargo delivery, disposal, return, or any combination, to the space station using U.S. commercial carriers after the initial Commercial Resupply Service contracts conclude.

SNC has proposed autonomous cargo or mixed crew/cargo versions of Dream Chaser, possibly in partnership with the European Space Agency or the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

SpaceX and Orbital Sciences currently deliver cargo to the ISS. The Orbital Sciences Cygnus burns up on re-entry, so it's used to dispose of trash and hazardous waste generated by ISS operations. SpaceX is the only vehicle on Planet Earth capable of returning significant amounts of experiments, samples, and parts from the ISS. (The Russian Soyuz has a very small cargo capability.) The SpaceX Dragon currently lands in the ocean; after its May 2014 splashdown Dragon suffered a small amount of seawater seepage into the vehicle, although no cargo was damaged.

Dream Chaser theoretically can land at any runway of significant length, and would probably be a much smoother landing for sensitive biological cargo than bobbing about in the ocean.

But SpaceX is working on a crew version of Dragon that would land at a Cape Canaveral pad using thrusters and landing legs. That technology logically could transfer to cargo Dragon landings.

Ain't competition grand.

Round 2 proposals are due on November 14, with selections anticipated by May 2015.

Dream Chaser is alive and well, temporarily on life support thanks to international partners. The new commercial cargo competition might result in the “baby orbiter” launching from Cape Canaveral after all.

UPDATE September 27, 2014Jeff Foust of Space News reports that, “Under government procurement regulations, NASA has 30 days to file a response to the protest. GAO is required to rule on the protest no later than 100 days after filing, or Jan. 5, 2015.”

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