TORONTO — As a protest it filed puts the next phase of NASA’s commercial crew program on hold, Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) executives said they are examining “strategic options” for keeping the company’s Dream Chaser program going regardless of the protest’s outcome.
SNC filed a protest with the U.S. Government Accountability Office on Sept. 26 about a NASA decision 10 days earlier to award Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts valued at $6.8 billion to Boeing and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. In a statement, the company alleged there were “serious questions and inconsistencies” in NASA’s selection process.
In interviews at the 65th International Astronautical Congress here, company officials said the protest was motivated by a desire for greater transparency in the selection process. They argue the company offered a system with technical merits similar to those by Boeing andbut at a lower cost than at least one of the winning companies.
SNC is also examining options for the future of Dream Chaser program should the protest fail. “We’re right now looking at the strategic options on the crew side,” John Olson, vice president of space systems at SNC, said in a Sept. 30 interview here. “We’re trying to look at the pursuits we have and balance our resources.”
The company used the conference to unveil two new initiatives. On Oct. 1, SNC announced it was studying flying a scaled-down version of Dream Chaser on Stratolaunch Systems’ air launch system. A day earlier, SNC announced its “Global Project” program that would allow space agencies to buy crewed or uncrewed Dream Chaser flights.
“What we’re offering is a turnkey capability: Think of it as a ‘space program in a box,’” Cassie Lee, business development manager at SNC, said in a Sept. 30 briefing about the program. Customers could choose to launch Dream Chaser on one of several different launch vehicles, and have the spacecraft land in their home countries, she said.
SNC also plans to pursue the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS)2 contract for delivering cargo to and from the international space station. NASA issued a request for proposals for CRS2 on Sept. 26, with proposals due Nov. 14.
Olson believes SNC is particularly well-positioned to provide “accelerated” return of cargo from the ISS, an optional element of the CRS2 competition. As defined in the request for proposals, accelerated cargo would be delivered to NASA with six hours of the cargo vehicle’s return to Earth.
“That accelerated downmass is an ideal sweet spot for a winged lifting body” like Dream Chaser that can land at an airport, Olson said.
While the protest continues, SNC plans to continue work on the remaining two milestones on the existing Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) award it received from NASA. One is a test of Dream Chaser’s reaction control system and the other is a glide flight of a Dream Chaser test article.
Olson, however, hedged when asked when the glide flight, previously scheduled for October, would take place. “We are continuing on our path forward, but we are waiting to see if we get any further guidance from NASA,” he said.
NASA has refrained from discussing the commercial crew program since SNC filed its protest. “Because of the protest, I’m not at liberty to make comments about commercial crew,” NASA Administrator Charlessaid in response to a question about the CCtCap selection at a heads of agencies press conference here Sept. 29.
The agency did confirm, though, that it has issued stop-work orders to Boeing and SpaceX. “Pursuant to the GAO protest, NASA has instructed Boeing and SpaceX to stop performance of the CCtCap contracts,” NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz said Oct. 2.
Boeing and SpaceX have also kept a low profile regarding the CCtCap contracts since SNC filed the GAO protest. Each company was scheduled to present papers on their commercial crew transportation systems at a conference session Sept. 30. Neither company did so, although both companies had representatives on a more general commercial spaceflight panel earlier the same day.