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Dragon abort vehicle
In a photo released by SpaceX last week, workers prepare the Dragon pad abort vehicle for a test planned in about a month, the next major milestone in the company’s efforts to develop a crewed version of the Dragon spacecraft. (credit: SpaceX)

For commercial crew, out of the blackout and into the spotlight

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Later today, NASA will release its proposed budget for fiscal year 2016, starting a debate about agency funding that will likely run until late this calendar year. As in the last several years, one area of particular focus will be NASA’s commercial crew program. NASA will seek a significant amount of money—perhaps a billion dollars or more—to fund contracts awarded last year to Boeing and SpaceX to develop vehicles to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station. That will set off another round of debate about both the magnitude of the requested funding and the effectiveness of the overall program.

The source selection document indicated that, among the three companies, Boeing offered the best proposal in terms of what NASA calls “mission suitability.”

It will also put the program back in the spotlight. Since the award in September of the two Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts, and the subsequent protest by losing bidder Sierra Nevada Corporation, NASA and the winners had maintained a low profile regarding the effort. With the protest now over, both the agency and the companies are sharing more details about their plans, although some complain that they’re not providing enough information.

Protest denied, decision explained

When Sierra Nevada filed its protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on September 26, ten days after NASA awarded the CCtCap contracts, it started a 100-day clock for the GAO to issue a ruling. That clock ran out on January 5, as the industry awaited the GAO’s decision.

The GAO announced its decision in a press release, denying the protest. In the release, the GAO indicated the Sierra Nevada protested what it perceived to be an “undue emphasis” on schedule by NASA as it evaluated proposals from the three companies. The company also claimed NASA performed an “inadequate review” of SpaceX’s price—the lowest bidder of the three—and several other factors. The GAO found all the claims lacking.

“GAO disagreed with Sierra Nevada’s arguments about NASA’s evaluation, and found no undue emphasis on NASA’s consideration of each offeror’s proposed schedule, and likelihood to achieve crew transportation system certification not later than 2017,” the agency said in its release. The company’s other arguments “were not supported by the evaluation record or by the terms of the solicitation.”

Sierra Nevada reluctantly accepted the decision. “While the outcome was not what SNC expected, we maintain our belief that the Dream Chaser spacecraft is technically very capable, reliable and was qualified to win based on NASA’s high ratings of the space system,” the company said in a statement after the GAO announcement. It added that it would continue development of Dream Chaser, submitting a proposal to NASA to deliver cargo to the ISS using that spacecraft.

At the time of the GAO announcement, the actual protest document could not be released: the agency said that it contacted “source selection information” and thus needed to be reviewed before a public version came out. The GAO finally released that document on January 20, a few days after NASA released the source selection statement that explained its rationale for selecting Boeing and SpaceX over Sierra Nevada.

SpaceX’s price was lower than NASA’s model, but NASA evaluators concluded that SpaceX “had various other cost-structure advantages” like vertical integration not captured by models.

The source selection document indicated that, among the three companies, Boeing offered the best proposal in terms of what NASA calls “mission suitability.” It scored the highest qualitative rating, of “excellent”, in the agency’s assessment of both its technical and management plan, which accounted for nearly all of the overall mission suitability score (a small fraction went to the companies’ small business plans; each scored “good” and was not a major differentiator among the three bids.) By comparison, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX had the next highest rating, of “very good,” in both the technical and management areas. In terms of past performance, NASA awarded Boeing with the highest rating again, of “very high confidence,” while the other two companies got “high confidence.”

However, past performance and mission suitability accounted for only half of the overall weighting of the proposals, with price accounting for the rest. Here SpaceX was the clear leader. Although the NASA source selection document did not give prices, the GAO protest decision report did: SpaceX offered a price of $1.75 billion, versus $2.55 billion for Sierra Nevada and $3.01 billion for Boeing. (These prices differ from the contract values NASA announced, of $2.6 billion for SpaceX and $4.2 billion for Boeing; these include the value of all six possible operational missions for each company, although only two of the six are guaranteed.) The table below, from the GAO document, summarizes how the three bidders matched up:

Category Boeing SpaceX Sierra Nevada
Mission Suitability 913 Points 849 Points 829 Points
Technical (525 Points) Excellent
488 Points
Very Good 457
Very Good
420 Points
Management (400 Points) Excellent
372 Points
Very Good
344 Points
Very Good
356 Points
Small Business (75 Points) Good
53 Points
48 Points
53 Points
Past Performance Very High Confidence High Confidence High Confidence
Price $3.01 B $1.75 B $2.55 B

The price SpaceX quoted, the GAO noted in its protest decision, was lower that what NASA’s own models estimated for the development of a capsule (the specific difference was redacted in the public document.) However, NASA evaluators concluded that SpaceX “had various other cost-structure advantages” like vertical integration not captured by models, and thus “did not represent a high risk of default.”

So how to choose among proposals that include one with the highest technical score, but also highest price, and those with somewhat lower scores but also lower prices? In the summary section of the NASA document, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations William Gerstenmaier singled out SpaceX’s low cost and relatively good technical scores. “My overall confidence in their ability to successfully perform the CCtCap contract based on their total past performance is High,” he wrote in the document, signed September 15, one day before the CCtCap contract winners were announced.

Gerstenmaier then evaluated Boeing and Sierra Nevada’s proposals. Boeing had higher technical merit, but also a higher price. Gerstenmaier, though, appeared concerned about the lack of maturity of Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser versus Boeing’s CST-100: earlier in the document, he noted the company had yet to make “significant design trades” in the Dream Chaser design, including a selection of a main propulsion system for the spacecraft, “which creates technical uncertainty and schedule risk if there are significant changes in the design baseline.”

That appeared to tip the scales in favor of Boeing. “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,” he concluded in the source selection statement.

Out of the blackout

With the protest concluded and the documents associated with the decision released, NASA felt ready to put the spotlight back on the program. In a press conference January 26 at the Johnson Space Center, with a mockup of the ISS as a backdrop, NASA and company officials discussed the current status of the program and how the companies plan to develop their vehicles.

“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,” Gerstenmaier said.

“It’s great to be able to finally talk openly about what the commercial crew program is doing,” said NASA commercial crew program manager Kathy Lueders. “We’ve been in blackout for the past year while the procurement was ongoing and, with the protest, we were limited really with the details of the contract and the information that we could give you.”

John Elbon, vice president and general manager of Boeing Space Exploration, discussed his company’s plans to develop the CST-100. A critical design review of the spacecraft is scheduled for March, after which the company “will move full-bore into manufacturing.”

While both spacecraft hardware and software development will take up much of 2015 and 2016, including work at a renovated Space Shuttle hangar at the Kennedy Space Center that Boeing will use to assemble the vehicle, most of the key flight tests are planned for 2017. A pad abort test in February 2017, followed by an uncrewed orbital flight test in April 2017 to the ISS. Boeing will then conduct a crewed flight test, with a mixed NASA/Boeing crew, in July 2017. The company is planning to perform the first operational mission at the end of 2017.

As the company previously stated, it is planning to use United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket to launch the CST-100. “Our orbital flight test will be the 74th Atlas V mission and the crewed flight test will be the 80th Atlas V mission,” Elbon said.

However, one interesting aspect of Boeing’s proposal, noted in the NASA source selection document, is that the company apparently also proposed an alternative, unnamed launch vehicle for CST-100 missions alongside the Atlas V. “I also recognized that Boeing proposed to pursue an alternative launch vehicle in parallel with their baseline design work,” Gerstenmaier noted in the document. “This new launch vehicle… provides alternatives but would negate the benefits of the established reliability of the existing launch vehicle.”

The document doesn’t identify this alternative launch vehicle, and Boeing declined to specify it when contacted about it last month. One possibility is that it is a version of the Atlas V with a new first stage engine, the BE-4, that Blue Origin is developing for United Launch Alliance under a partnership announced in September, the day after NASA announced the CCtCap contracts.

SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said that her company is gearing up for a pad abort test of its Dragon v2 spacecraft “in the next month or so” from Cape Canaveral. That test is part of SpaceX’s earlier Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) award the company won from NASA in August 2012; at the time of the award, the test was planned for December 2013. “It took us quite a while to get there, but there’s a lot of great technology and innovation in that pad abort vehicle,” she said.

That will be followed later this year by an inflight abort test, where the Dragon jettisons itself from a Falcon 9 during ascent; that, too, is a milestone in SpaceX’s earlier CCiCap award and originally scheduled for April 2014. “We’ve got a few environmental things to get through before we fly that,” she said.

Under the CCtCap contract, Shotwell said SpaceX plans to do the uncrewed flight test to the ISS in late 2016, “and shortly followed thereafter with a crewed flight in early 2017, as shortly as we can make and still maintaining obviously reliability and safety.”

“I don’t ever want to ever have to write another check to Roscosmos after 2017,” said Bolden. “If we can make that [2017] date, I’m a happy camper.”

NASA officials at the event emphasized the cost benefits of commercial crew, as well as a means to end the current reliance on Russia to access the ISS. Lueders said the average seat cost on the commercial crew missions in the Boeing and SpaceX contracts was $58 million, compared to the more than $70 million NASA currently pays the Russian space agency Roscosmos for Soyuz seats. However, she declined to discuss any differences in the per-seat prices between Boeing and SpaceX.

NASA’s current contracts with Roscosmos for astronaut transport to the ISS run through 2017, at which time the agency hopes at least one of the commercial crew providers will be ready to take over. “I don’t ever want to ever have to write another check to Roscosmos after 2017,” said NASA administrator Charles Bolden. “If we can make that [2017] date, I’m a happy camper.”

Criticism and challenges

Not everyone is a happy camper about commercial crew, however. Just days after the NASA press conference, the independent Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) issued its annual report, examining the various safety issues in NASA programs and the agency in general. It took particular note of commercial crew because it felt it wasn’t getting sufficient information about it from NASA.

“Regrettably, the Panel is unable to offer any informed opinion regarding the adequacy of the certification process or the sufficiency of safety in the Commercial Crew Program due to constraints on access to needed information,” the panel’s chairman, Joseph Dyer, said in a cover letter to the report delivered to Bolden, as well as to Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House John Boehner.

In the report, ASAP said it encountered “a seamless set of constraints” when it asked for information about the program from agency leadership. “These have ranged from ‘we’re still defining the acquisition approach’ to ‘that information is pre-decisional’ to ‘the investigation is still being conducted’ to ‘that’s source selection sensitive information’ to ‘a protest has been filed,’” the panel noted in the report. “While these statements are all true, these conditions should not be absolute barriers to sharing information related to certification and safety.”

In a statement issued January 30, Gesternmaier said that the procurement and the protest that followed limited the information it could share with ASAP. “The CCtCap procurement blackout and protest period caused the agency to restrict data and product releases to all parties for an extended period of time of almost one year,” he said. “Protecting the procurement process helps ensure the best selection for the nation was made.”

Gerstenmaier reiterated that both NASA and the commercial crew companies were committed to safety, and now that the blackout period was over, it was now providing information to the panel. “We appreciate the ASAP’s patience, and we look forward to the valuable insight the ASAP provides,” he said.

“Regrettably, the Panel is unable to offer any informed opinion regarding the adequacy of the certification process or the sufficiency of safety in the Commercial Crew Program due to constraints on access to needed information,” ASAP’s chairman said.

While critical of a lack of transparency in the program, ASAP broadly supported the overall commercial crew program, including NASA’s decision to select two companies, rather than one, for CCtCap contracts. “First, having two companies on contract increases the likelihood that at least one crew transportation system will achieve NASA certification by 2017,” it stated, noting a second benefit was their “inherent dissimilar redundancy,” meaning a problem with one vehicle would not automatically ground the other.

ASAP did raise a red flag about funding for the program. Since the program’s inception, the amount of money appropriated for commercial crew has fallen short of the agency’s original request. For the current fiscal year, for example, NASA requested $848 million but received $805 million, with larger shortfalls in prior years. In the report, ASAP “strongly encourages Congress in future years to appropriate the dollars necessary for NASA to fully fund the two CCtCap contracts.”

At last week’s press conference, Bolden praised the support he had received from Congress, despite the gap between requested and allocated funds for the program. “The support of Congress for these efforts has been critical,” he said, referring to both commercial crew and the agency’s other exploration programs, like the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System. “Their continued support, especially to fund these commercial crew contracts, will be even more important as we prepare to once again launch American astronauts from US soil.”

That full funding will be critical to keeping the program on schedule and avoid having Bolden or his successor write another check to Roscosmos. Even with full funding in 2016 and beyond, schedule will be a challenge: NASA reviewers identified schedule as a weakness in all three CCtCap proposals, citing a “compressed flight test schedule” for Boeing and a “compressed certification schedule” for SpaceX.

At the press conference, Bolden didn’t indicate what would happen if funding fell short for commercial crew in 2016 or later years, as it has in 2015 and previous ones. “If NASA does not receive funding sufficient to cover the CCtCap costs, then NASA will have to adjust (delay) milestones for both partners proportionally,” a NASA spokesperson said the day after the press conference. “The partners may request contract cost adjustments, the certification dates will be affected, and NASA likely will need to purchase additional Soyuz seats.”

That means that as NASA puts the spotlight back on its commercial crew efforts, the spotlight will also be on what the agency requests in its 2016 budget for the program, and Congress will respond.