SpaceX Dragon 2 (left) and Boeing CST-100 capsules. Credit: SpaceX artist's concept and Boeing

WASHINGTON — Recently released government documents offer more details about how Boeing and SpaceX won NASA commercial crew contracts last September, but also describe how agency officials evaluating the proposals were concerned about the ability of all three competitors to stay on schedule.

NASA released Jan. 16 the source selection statement for the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) award. The 29-page document, signed by NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations William Gerstenmaier and dated Sept. 15, describes the analysis of proposals submitted by Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp., and SpaceX to develop and test systems to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

The document says Boeing had the best scores of the three companies in two key parameters, mission suitability and past performance. Boeing had a rating of “excellent” in the two major mission suitability areas, technical and managerial, and “very high” in past performance, the highest ratings offered. Both Sierra Nevada and SpaceX got the next highest ratings, “very good” in the mission suitability areas and “high” in past performance.

In price, which carried the same weight in the evaluation as mission suitability and past performance combined, the NASA statement noted that SpaceX was the lowest, followed by Sierra Nevada and then Boeing. The statement did not include exact prices, but stated that Sierra Nevada’s price was “significantly higher” than what SpaceX offered.

Boeing outscored SpaceX in all three mission suitability categories. Credit: GAO report.
Boeing outscored SpaceX in all three mission suitability categories. Credit: GAO report.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office offered more details about the proposals when it released Jan. 20 a redacted version of its Jan. 5 decision to deny a protest filed by the losing bidder, Sierra Nevada. The GAO rejected claims by the company that NASA placed an undue emphasis on schedule in its evaluation of the CCtCap proposals, or that the agency performed an inadequate review of the price offered by SpaceX.

The GAO document included the detailed scores in the mission suitability portion of proposals. Boeing had the highest score, with 913 points out of 1,000, followed by SpaceX with 849 points and Sierra Nevada with 829. Sierra Nevada scored higher than SpaceX in the management portion of the overall mission suitability section, with 356 points versus SpaceX’s 344.

While the GAO report redacted some price details, it did state that SpaceX’s overall price was $1.75 billion, while Sierra Nevada bid $2.55 billion and Boeing $3.01 billion. The GAO noted that SpaceX’s price was an unspecified percentage lower than NASA’s own models for the development of a vehicle, but that the company had “cost-structure advantages” such as vertical integration that explained its lower cost.

In the NASA statement’s summary, Gerstenmaier singled out SpaceX as having the best price and good scores in mission suitability and past performance. “Although I have some technical concerns about this proposal, overall it is very good,” he wrote.

Gerstenmaier then weighed Boeing’s proposal, with its higher cost but also better technical scores, against Sierra Nevada’s bid. “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 [Sierra Nevada] proposal,” he concluded.

Schedule Risks

William Gerstenmaier

The NASA source evaluation board tasked with evaluating the CCtCap proposals raised schedule issues with all three bids. The one weakness the board found with Boeing’s proposal was with a “compressed flight test schedule” for its CST-100 spacecraft. The board also cited a “compressed certification schedule” as one of two technical weaknesses with SpaceX’s proposal.

For Sierra Nevada, the board noted “schedule risk from system complexity and lack of maturity” as one of four technical weaknesses in that company’s proposal. Gerstenmaier, in his review of the board’s analysis in the statement, stated Sierra Nevada had yet to make a decision on the main propulsion system for its Dream Chaser vehicle. “This is evidence of an evolving design that will lead to schedule risk and uncertainty,” he wrote.

Gerstenmaier appeared less worried about schedule issues with Boeing and SpaceX. His confidence in Boeing, he said, was based on both its technical plan as well as its past performance on other spaceflight programs, including the space shuttle and the ISS. “This increases my confidence that Boeing has a solid plan and will be able to complete the development of their system to NASA’s standards within the needed timeframe,” he said.

He was skeptical SpaceX would be able to complete NASA certification of its Dragon spacecraft by mid-2017, as the company proposed, citing the likelihood of slips in earlier phases in development. “These early slips could result in longer and more significant impacts to completing certification,” he wrote.

SpaceX, though, planned to complete certification earlier than either Boeing or Sierra Nevada, giving it more margin to achieve NASA’s goal of certification by the end of 2017. “SpaceX has more schedule margin than the other companies to accommodate and adjust work as issues are refined and resolved,” Gerstenmaier said.


Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...