Commentary | Litigating the End of a Dream

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Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) must end its protest over the loss of an award to deliver astronauts to the international space station. Following NASA’s selection of Boeing and SpaceX for commercial crew transportation awards, SNC on Sept. 26 filed a formal protest with the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The company is not likely to quickly win its battle, and therein lies a serious problem for the future of commercial human spaceflight.

That situation was bad enough, but the loss of an Orbital Sciences Antares cargo mission to the ISS on Oct. 28, combined with the loss of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceshipTwo and one of its two pilots just three days later, made the political picture far worse. These events, combined with the Republican wins in congressional elections, give opponents of the commercialization of human space transportation a heaven-sent window of political opportunity. SNC risks opening that window still wider.

Sierra Nevada got a raw deal, as I argued in my initial analysis of the awards [“The Safe Decision, but Wise?” Commentary, Sept. 29, page 19]. Unfortunately for SNC, the stakes are far higher than any one company.

Sierra Nevada offered a lot more spacecraft for a lot less money than Boeing. It has put more money on the table, and has taken on much more corporate risk. It has developed and flown hardware that is more mature than that flown by Boeing. All this is in spite of getting by far the smallest development subsidies.

As opposed to two capsules, NASA could have had a capsule and a smaller but more advanced version of the space shuttle, which SNC calls the Dream Chaser. Developing and flying shuttles is one area where the United States still has a commanding technological and operational lead over the rest of the world. Selecting the Dream Chaser would have continued and extended that lead. Not selecting it is pushing SNC to look for international partners for funding, which risks exporting shuttle-related technology and skills to commercial competitors. Among other advantages, a shuttle can get experiments down from the space station and into the hands of scientists more quickly, and gently, than capsules.

Dream Chaser and Space Shuttle Atlantis
Dream Chaser is a smaller but more advanced version of the space shuttle. Credit: SNC

SNC says that in 50 years of corporate history, this is the first time it has ever contested the loss of an award, implying that having done so now is a measure of how strongly company officials feel they should have won.

NASA says it will not publicly release the reasons for its commercial crew selections until the litigation is complete. Leaked copies of the source selection document suggest that in NASA’s view, mission suitability and past performance gave Boeing a clear edge. It is reasonable to assume the agency felt more comfortable with Boeing, although there are hints that William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations and the person responsible for the decision, may have overruled at least some members of the source selection committee.

Boeing has great experience in human spaceflight, and the company has a very long history of contracting with NASA. SNC is a newcomer, a medium-sized, privately owned military contractor now branching out into commercial and human spacefight. NASA apparently believes it would be riskier and ultimately cost more to complete SNC’s relatively complex Dream Chaser than Boeing’s CST-100, which was deliberately designed to be as simple as possible. That is not an unreasonable assessment. It would be surprising if Dream Chaser’s development encountered no surprises.

It is likely there were political reasons as well. The space agency may have felt it had to give a bone to supporters of NASA’s traditional ways of doing business, and the traditional contractors, to keep the commercial crew program alive at all.

Selecting Space Exploration Technologies Corp. for the other award was probably a slam dunk. By any measure, SpaceX is closest to flight and offers the least risk. The company has the most mature hardware, much of which is already flying commercial cargo to the space station. Unlike Boeing, SpaceX has committed great corporate resources relative to the size of the company. Its price was by far the lowest of the three.

More important than price, SpaceX proposes a different launch vehicle, the Falcon 9. SNC and Boeing both use the Atlas 5. Setting aside the extreme reliability of the Atlas 5, recent events have graphically shown the importance of launch vehicle diversity. NASA was wise not to choose two companies using the same rocket.

Comfortable and politically safe with Boeing, and secure and frugal with SpaceX, NASA probably felt it had no choice but to leave SNC out in the cold.

SpaceX Dragon (left) and Boeing CST-100. Credit: SpaceX/Boeing/SpaceNews
SpaceX Dragon (left) and Boeing CST-100. Credit: SpaceX/Boeing/SpaceNews

So far, Sierra Nevada does not appear open to moving on: Following its initial protest, the company filed suit to prevent NASA from advancing the commercial crew project until the issue was resolved (thus far, the courts have sided with NASA and the program is advancing). NASA does have defensible reasons for its choices. This was not a clear-cut, black-and-white decision, which will make winning both hard and time-consuming for SNC.

Even if SNC wins the initial battle, the new loser is likely to fight back, ensuring further delay.

One thing commercial crew does not have is time. The future of the near-term market for human transport to orbit — the international space station — is finite. Maintenance of the ISS is approved only through 2020, although the United States is trying to get its international partners to agree to extend operations to 2024. The station is technologically certified to operate until 2028, and with new solar arrays and extensive maintenance it could probably continue much longer. The cost to deorbit is so high that continuing operations may look attractive far into the future. Against that, the Russians are threatening to leave the project, which could quickly put even its near-term future into question.

Here and now, however, 2020 looks like the addressable market. It is vital for humanity’s near-term future in space that commercial human spaceflight and/or alternative markets be well established by then — just five years from now.

The politically powerful enemies of commercial crew have not gone away. This is a group of mostly Republican members of Congress who want to displace partially commercialized crew with the decidedly noncommercial Space Launch System and Orion deep-space capsule.

Until the loss of the Antares launch vehicle and its Cygnus freighter, the commercial crew program and its contractors had performed well. That was making it increasingly hard to attack the entire project. The fallback position appeared to have been cutting the money required to fund two contracts, removing competition, and awarding the program to the most traditional, least committed and least commercial of the contenders, Boeing.

SNC and NASA do have realistic options beyond a series of court battles. A six-flight commercial cargo award is on the horizon. Rather than wasting resources in the courts, SNC should put everything it has into producing a winning bid with an automated version of the Dream Chaser. NASA in turn needs to take seriously the space agency’s promise to SNC to continue with an unfunded Space Act Agreement, providing access to test facilities and engineering help. The agency must be willing to award a cargo contract to a competitive bid, even if it comes from a company not currently flying to the ISS. Likewise, when the next commercial crew contract comes up, it should not automatically go to SpaceX and Boeing.

NASA and the United States can keep all three of the commercial crew contenders in business. It will take more nuanced budgetary, technological, corporate and industrial policies than NASA and the United States have demonstrated in the past. It requires that SNC accept its loss, however unfair and costly, and move on.

All stakeholders should do everything in their power to avoid a drawn-out legal and political fight. Continued squabbling among commercial crew advocates would only provide more ammunition for the program’s political enemies. It would fritter away the United States’ best near-term chance to lower the costs of reaching space. That, in turn, would lose the opportunity to grow the nation’s economy into near-Earth space, and to advance exploration deeper into the solar system.

 

Donald F. Robertson is a freelance space industry journalist based in San Francisco. He is an investor in Orbital Sciences. For further examples of his work, see www.DonaldFRobertson.com, or follow him on Twitter at @DonaldFR.