Boeing, SpaceX told to stop work under crew contracts

NASA has directed Boeing and SpaceX to halt activities under contracts awarded last month to build commercial space taxis to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station while the U.S. Government Accountability Office reviews a protest of NASA’s contract decision filed by Sierra Nevada Corp.

Artist's impression of the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser crew transport space plane docked to the International Space Station. Image: Sierra Nevada.
Artist’s impression of the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser crew transport space plane docked to the International Space Station. Image: Sierra Nevada.

Boeing and SpaceX beat out Sierra Nevada for the contracts, which are worth up to $6.8 billion and cover development, testing and operational flights through 2019 if NASA exercises all options in both deals.

NASA announced the winners of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability, or CCtCap, contracts Sept. 16, and Sierra Nevada filed a protest to the GAO on Sept. 26, seeking “a further detailed review and evaluation of the submitted proposals and capabilities,” the company said in a statement.

The legal challenge stops any work to be executed under the Boeing and SpaceX contracts, according to Stephanie Schierholz, a NASA spokesperson.

“Pursuant to the GAO protest, NASA has instructed Boeing and SpaceX to stop performance of the CCtCap contract,” Schierholz said.

Officials did not say if the work stoppage prevents activities using internal funds.

The GAO has until Jan. 5 to recommend a response to Sierra Nevada’s challenge, but the congressional watchdog agency could release a ruling within weeks.

According to GAO data, about 42 percent of bid protests submitted to the agency from fiscal year 2008 to fiscal year 2012 were sustained by the GAO or resolved with voluntary action.

If the GAO rules in favor of Sierra Nevada, NASA could change its decision or re-compete the commercial crew contract.

Sierra Nevada said there were “serious questions and inconsistencies in the source selection process” that prompted the contract protest.

“SNC believes the result of further evaluation of the proposals submitted will be that America ends up with a more capable vehicle, at a much lower cost, with a robust and sustainable future,” Sierra Nevada said in a press release.

Sierra Nevada’s bid to complete development of its Dream Chaser lifting body — designed to take off on top of a rocket and return to a runway landing — asked for $900 million less than Boeing, the company said.

The Dream Chaser proposal was deemed “near equivalent” to Boeing and SpaceX’s bids in scoring on technical merit and past performance, according to Sierra Nevada.

NASA has not released information on the reasons for choosing Boeing and SpaceX over Sierra Nevada, which touts the Dream Chaser’s ability to return to a softer landing than its competitors, along with other mission options such as satellite servicing, cargo delivery, and orbital debris removal.

Before the protest, Boeing was poised to carry on work on its CST-100 crew capsule under a $4.2 billion contract, and SpaceX won a $2.6 billion deal to develop a human-rated version of its Dragon spacecraft.

NASA officials have said both companies are on track to begin operational crew launches by the end of 2017, ending U.S. reliance on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to carry astronauts between Earth and the space station.

But NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, speaking to reporters at the 65th International Astronautical Congress here, declined to answer any questions on the commercial crew program, citing legal sensitivities after Sierra Nevada’s challenge to the GAO.

Bill Gerstenmaier, head of the space agency’s human spaceflight programs, also deferred questions on the protest’s impact to Boeing and SpaceX’s schedules.

Boeing has completed work on a preceding agreement with NASA that led into the CCtCap phase of the commercial crew program.

SpaceX is putting its Dragon crew capsule through structural qualification testing, then engineers will gear up for a Dragon abort test before finishing milestones under the company’s previous cost-sharing agreement with NASA.

Those milestones are not affected by Sierra Nevada’s protest, but any work to kick off tasks identified in the new contract could be delayed, officials said.