There are political aspects to NASA’s commercial crew awards, of course [“NASA Commercial Crew Awards Leave Unanswered Questions,” Sept. 22, page 1]. I think that Boeing’s involvement was at least partly politically motivated — specifically as an “old hand” to assure the more skeptical members of Congress that there was at least one “more reliable” option on the table as part of the project.
That isn’t to denigrate Boeing’s CST-100 capsule and its pairing with the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, which is a nice, conservative and low-risk option (apart from the RD-180 engine issue that has already been exhaustively hashed out in other places and times).
I think that a lot of the problems that the NASA Office of Inspector General is probably having might be related to the bidders’ assumptions. These might not be unreasonable but they might be rather optimistic. For example, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. might claim to be able to bring its prices down if it is allowed to reuse Falcon 9 cores. Boeing might have based some of its pricing on ULA’s offsetting its launch costs against Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle satellite launches. These are only guesses but they illustrate the sort of complexity involved in making objective assessments in these circumstances.
In any case, I think that these awards will mark the point where the talking ends. Both Boeing and SpaceX have now been shown the money. What they must prove, especially to a skeptical Congress (many lawmakers continue to think Orion is all the spacecraft America needs, unaware of its problems and limitations), is that they can deliver on time and on budget and provide the required service at a reasonable level of reliability and cost.