SpaceX Completes First Commercial Crew Milestone as Protest Clock Winds Down

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WASHINGTON — As SpaceX joins Boeing in completing the first milestones in their commercial crew contracts, the companies and NASA are awaiting a bid-protest decision now due in less than two weeks.

Dragon v2 interior
Interior of SpaceX’s Dragon v2, the co-winner of NASA’s CCtCap award. Credit: SpaceX

NASA announced Dec. 19 that Space Exploration Technologies Corp. completed the first milestone in its Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract, awarded Sept. 16. That milestone, called a certification baseline review, confirms the process that SpaceX will follow to achieve NASA certification of its Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket and Dragon v2 spacecraft to carry astronauts to and from the international space station.

Boeing, the other company to receive a CCtCap milestone, previously achieved a similar milestone, according to a Dec. 1 NASA statement. NASA announced Dec. 22 that Boeing has since completed a second contract milestone, a critical design review of the ground segment of its crew transportation system, which includes mission operations, training, and the assembly, integration and testing of its launch vehicles and spacecraft.

In an interview here Dec. 9, Boeing officials said they were actively working on a third milestone, a safety review.

Interior of a prototype of Boeing's CST-100, which won NASA's CCtCap award. Credit: Boeing
Interior of Boeing’s CST-100, the other winner of NASA’s CCtCap award. Credit: Boeing

Boeing and SpaceX have worked on the contracts despite an ongoing protest of the CCtCap awards by Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. In its protest, filed Sept. 26, SNC argued that its proposal has similar technical merit as the winning ones, but at a cost of up to $900 million less than one of the winning proposals.

SNC did not name the company it was comparing its proposal to, but Boeing received a CCtCap contract valued at $4.2 billion, while SpaceX’s contract was valued at $2.6 billion. Both contracts cover both the development costs of the companies’ respective systems as well as six missions to the ISS, although only two of the six flights are guaranteed.

NASA initially issued a stop-work order shortly after SNC filed the protest, then lifted the order Oct. 9, arguing that the schedule risk posed by waiting until GAO ruled on the protest posed risks to the station and its crew. SNC went to federal court to attempt to rescind that order, but the U.S. Court of Federal Claims rejected that request Oct. 20.

GAO has 100 days to rule on the protest, meaning that it must render a decision no later than Jan. 5. That process has taken place under seal, and the companies and NASA have declined to comment on the case.

SNC's entry for NASA's CCtCap award, Dream Chaser. Credit: SNC video capture
SNC’s entry for NASA’s CCtCap award, Dream Chaser. Credit: SNC video capture

In a Dec. 9 interview, John Elbon, vice president and general manager for space exploration at Boeing, said the company was letting the protest effort play out while they work on the CCtCap contract. “I think NASA did a heck of a job and made a sound decision, and I’m hopeful those who are auditing that decision will see it that way,” he said.

He acknowledged there would be an impact to Boeing should the GAO rule in favor of SNC, which could require NASA to restart the CCtCap competition, but echoed some of NASA’s earlier arguments for allowing contract work to continue during the protest. “I’m more concerned about the impact to the space station, and interrupting the logistics flow of crew, and the impact that it has on the country,” he said.