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Stratolauncher and Dream Chaser
As Sierra Nevada Corporation protests the loss of a NASA commercial crew contract, it’s studying alternatives for Dream Chaser, including launching a scaled-down version of it on the Stratolauncher system. (credit: SNC)

Commercial crew’s extended endgame

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The drama of NASA’s commercial crew program was supposed to be over by now. The months—years, even—of debate and deliberation about the various contenders, and the funding available to support them, was supposed to culminate with the award or one or more contracts by NASA to complete development and test those systems, allowing NASA to end its reliance on Russian Soyuz spacecraft as soon as 2017.

“However, in the case of the CCtCap award,” SNC said, NASA documents “indicate that there are serious questions and inconsistencies in the source selection process.”

And, last month, NASA did make its decision, announcing the award of Commercial Crew Transportation Capability, or CCtCap, contracts to Boeing and SpaceX (see “Commercial crew and commercial engines”, The Space Review, September 22, 2014). While the two companies’ contracts had significantly different dollar values, they covered the same scope, including up to six operational missions to the International Space Station. The two companies could now go ahead with vehicle development.

Or, maybe not. The third major commercial crew contender, Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), did not win a CCtCap contract, and its decision to formally protest the contract awards has put the program into limbo. While it may take months to determine if the company’s protest has merit, SNC is also taking steps to keep its Dream Chaser program alive if NASA’s contract decision is upheld.

“Serious questions and inconsistencies”

Immediately after NASA announced the CCtCap contracts on September 16, it held debriefs with the companies, including SNC, on their proposals. Under federal regulations, a losing company has ten days from contract award to file a protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which in turn has 100 days to evaluate the rule on the protest.

Late in the day on September 26, with the deadline looming, SNC announced that it had, in fact, filed a protest with the GAO. In a statement, the company argued that it believed it offered NASA a solution technically comparable to the winning companies, and at a lower cost than one of them.

“With the current awards, the U.S. government would spend up to $900 million more at the publicly announced contracted level for a space program equivalent to the program that SNC proposed,” the company said in its statement. That, plus a statement in the release that it was the second-lowest priced proposal in the competition, suggested it was significantly less expensive than Boeing, which won a $4.2-billion CCtCap award, versus $2.6 billion for SpaceX.

Price, SNC noted, was the primary selection criteria, with the same value as the combination of mission suitability and past performance. In the statement, SNC said it had “mission suitability scores comparable to the other two proposals,” but was not more specific beyond stating that a “minor amount of total points” separated the three bidders.

“In its 51-year history, SNC has never filed a legal challenge to a government contract award,” the company stated. “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.”

“NASA has determined that it best serves the United States to continue performance of the CCtCap contracts,” the agency said of its decision to lift a stop-work order.

Independently evaluating those claims is difficult. NASA has not released the source selection statement for CCtCap, although the document was leaked to some news outlets. Those reports, and other discussions among those in the industry, suggest that SNC’s bid was indeed significantly less expensive than Boeing’s, but that its mission suitability did not rate as well as the winning companies—but just how differently isn’t clear.

With the GAO protest filed, NASA moved to temporarily stop work on the just-issued contracts with Boeing and SpaceX. NASA didn’t disclose when that stop-work order came out, but sources say it was issued as early as September 29, the Monday after SNC filed its GAO protest.

On October 9, though, NASA changed course, announcing it a posting on the agency’s commercial crew website that it was using “statutory authority available to it” to lift the stop-work order. The argument NASA made was that delaying work on the contracts while the GAO reviewed the protest—which could take until early January—posed risks to the ISS program.

“The agency recognizes that failure to provide the CCtCap transportation service as soon as possible poses risks to the International Space Station (ISS) crew, jeopardizes continued operation of the ISS, would delay meeting critical crew size requirements, and may result in the U.S. failing to perform the commitments it made in its international agreements,” the agency stated. “NASA has determined that it best serves the United States to continue performance of the CCtCap contracts.”

SNC countered last week by going to court. It filed a request with the Court of Federal Claims in Washington on October 15, asking for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction that would force NASA to reinstate the stop-work order while the GAO reviews the protest.

“NASA’s override is arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion, and is contrary to law,” SNC’s law firm, Rogers Joseph O’Donnell, stated in its request. “The override constitutes NASA’s unreasonable decision unnecessarily and unjustifiably to direct the awardees to proceed with contract performance.”

That law firm, whose specialties include government contracting disputes, discussed how a court would rule on such a motion in a 2000 article posted on its website. The factors—at least at that time—include the merits of the company’s protest, whether it will “suffer irreparable harm” if a stop-work order isn’t granted, if “the balance of hardships tips in the plaintiff’s favor,” and if the public interest would be harmed by a stop-work order.

The court held an initial hearing on SNC’s motion on Friday, October 17, but did not make a decision beyond allowing Boeing and SpaceX to intervene in the case on the side of the government and against SNC. Another hearing on the case is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.

Chasing other dreams

The decision by SNC to protest the CCtCap award coincided with the annual International Astronautical Congress (IAC), held three weeks ago in Toronto. While NASA, Boeing, and SpaceX kept a low profile regarding commercial crew at the conference—NASA administrator Charles Bolden declined to answer questions posed to him about it at a September 29 press conference there—SNC used the event to talk about alternative applications of Dream Chaser.

On September 30, SNC unveiled what it called the “Global Project” for Dream Chaser: selling spaceflight services using the vehicle for other national space agencies. “What we’d like to offer is a turnkey capability: essentially a space program in a box,” said Cassie Lee, SNC business development manager, at a briefing about the project during the IAC.

In the Global Project, national space agencies would be able to purchase crewed or uncrewed missions using the Dream Chaser, including a choice of several different launch vehicles. At the end of the mission, Dream Chaser could land in that nation: the lifting body vehicle can land at airports that can handle commercial aircraft like the Boeing 737 or Airbus 320.

Stratolauncher is still studying whether to proceed with the scaled-down Dream Chaser concept. “Paul [Allen] just hasn’t made a decision yet,” Beames said.

Global Project would be able to start flights at some point after Dream Chaser enters commercial service, a timetable that likely also depends on the fate of SNC’s CCtCap protest. “We’re still moving towards the 2016 date for the uncrewed orbital launch,” Lee said, referring to a launch contract SNC previously announced with United Launch Alliance for a November 2016 launch of a Dream Chaser vehicle on an Atlas V. Crewed launches, in that timeline, would begin in 2017.

The following day, SNC announced a different Dream Chaser venture: a partnership with Stratolaunch Systems to fly a version of Dream Chaser on the Stratolauncher air-launch system (see “Air launch, big and small”, The Space Review, June 30, 2014). In this case, a scaled-down version of Dream Chaser would launch on Stratolauncher, capable of taking up to three people into orbit.

“We took our basic design for the Dream Chaser system and adapted it for that launch capability,” said Craig Gravelle, SNC senior director who led the studies, in an October 1 presentation at the IAC. That resulted in a Dream Chaser 75 percent the size of the one SNC had been developing for NASA under the commercial crew program.

If the two companies decide to go forward with this version of Dream Chaser, it will be at least several years before it’s ready to enter service. Chuck Beames, president of Vulcan Aerospace Corporation, said at the IAC that test flights of the Stratolauncher airplane—currently being assembled at the company’s Mojave, California, facility—are planned to begin in mid-2016. Initial launches of the system are scheduled to begin in 2018.

While Stratolaunch initially plans to use the system for launching medium-class satellites, “the design is such that it doesn’t preclude human spaceflight,” Beames said in an interview at the conference. However, he said Stratolauncher may decide to develop a version of the rocket for use specifically on crewed missions.

That partnership between SNC and Stratolaunch Systems is still in its early phases, and the companies have yet to commit to developing this version of Dream Chaser. Beames said the work done to date on the design is not yet to the point of a preliminary design review. “We know that the design can close,” he said.

Beames said a decision on proceeding with Dream Chaser would come as soon as this November or December, as the company continues its analysis of the concept. “Paul just hasn’t made a decision yet,” Beames said. The “Paul” in question is Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder who is funding Stratolauncher’s development.

SNC is also considering submitting a proposal to NASA for the next round of commercial ISS cargo transportation contracts, known as Commercial Resupply Services 2 (CRS2). Orbital Sciences and SpaceX currently hold CRS contracts that will be completed by late 2016, as projected by NASA in its current manifest of ISS missions. While the two companies may get short-term extensions of those contracts, NASA is seeking proposals for new contracts that would handle the cargo needs of the station’s US segment from 2018 through at least 2020, with options to 2024.

“That accelerated downmass is an ideal sweet spot for a winged lifting body,” Olson said of a provision in the CRS2 request for proposals.

SNC, though, would face tough competition for the CRS2 contract. Both Orbital and SpaceX are expected to submit CRS2 proposals, with Orbital likely to offer the use of a new version of its Antares rocket. “It’s going to position Antares to be very competitive in the future, to have a little higher level of payload performance, which will be helpful in a variety of applications,” Orbital CEO Dave Thompson said in an October 16 conference call with analysts, without disclosing what engine the company had selected to replace the AJ26 engines the Antares first stage currently uses. Boeing may also consider proposing its CST-100 crew vehicle for cargo as well.

SNC, though, thinks that one minor provision of the CRS2 proposal would set the company apart from the competition. Companies can propose to offer “accelerated” return of cargo, or “downmass,” from the ISS, where cargo brought back to Earth is handed over to NASA within six hours of landing. Dream Chaser, with its runway landing, would be able to provide this, company officials argue.

“That accelerated downmass is an ideal sweet spot for a winged lifting body,” said John Olson, vice president of space systems at SNC, in a September 30 interview at the IAC after the company announced its Global Project initiative.

Some combination of these alternatives might be enough to keep the Dream Chaser program alive even if the courts and GAO rule against SNC in its CCtCap protest. The company, though, has already scaled back its work on the project, laying off last month about 100 people it hired in anticipation of winning a CCtCap contract.

SNC is continuing work on its existing Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) Space Act Agreement that it received from NASA in 2012, with a final milestone of a second glide flight of a Dream Chaser test vehicle still in the works. Olson, though, said the timing of that flight, previously planned for this fall, was uncertain. “We are continuing on our path forward, but we are waiting to see if we get any further guidance from NASA,” he said at the IAC.

“It is our goal to open our doors, increase our customer base and our opportunities to fly Dream Chaser, and to bring them all back,” Lee said of the laid off employees.

In the meantime, the overall commercial crew effort—including NASA and the three competing companies—is in a bit of a state of flux for at least a matter of weeks or a few months, more than a month after a decision that was supposed to provide some certainty about its future.