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Thursday, January 8, 2015

Dream Chaser Space Plane Marches Toward Flight Despite GAO Protest Denial

As reported by Space Flight Insider: The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO ) denied a protest filed by Sierra Nevada Corporation on Jan. 5, after the Louisville, Colorado-based firm’s Dream Chaser spacecraft was not selected to move forward under the Commercial Crew transportation Capability phase of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The protest was filed after the Sept. 16, 2014 announcement that NASA had selected Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft to provide transportation services for astronauts to the International Space Station.

In their protest, SNC stated that the evaluation NASA conducted went outside what the space agency had said would be conducted. Deviating from the criteria that SNC had expected Dream Chaser to encounter. The company also suggested that competitors were not provided with notification as to what the central objectives would be in terms of the determining factors in the evaluation and selection process.

Sierra Nevada tapped United Launch Alliance's Atlas V to provide
the boost required to get Dream Chaser to orbit.  This might still
take place as both ESA and JAXA have expressed interest in the
The GAO described the various spacecraft that had been offered up by the competitors under the Commercial Crew Program as follows:

Sierra Nevada offered its Dream Chaser crew transportation system (a lifting body spacecraft), launched using United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 launch vehicle, and landed horizontally on normal runways.  Sierra Nevada’s price was $2.55 billion.

Boeing offered its CST-100 crew transportation system (a capsule spacecraft), also launched using United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 launch vehicle, and landed using parachute and airbag systems for hard-surface landings, or contingency water landings.  Boeing’s price was $3.01 billion.

SpaceX offered its Crew Dragon crew transportation system (also a capsule spacecraft), launched using SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle, and landed using parachutes and propulsive soft landing systems for hard-surface landings, or contingency water landings.  SpaceX’s price was $1.75 billion.

NASA had decided that CST-100 and Dragon V2 represented the best proposals in terms of a return on the government’s investment under commercial crew. The CST-100 was viewed as the strongest of the three candidates for technical, management reasons as well as past performance by its manufacturer, Boeing. In terms of SpaceX, the most dominate cause for the selection of the Dragon V2 - was its lower cost.

NASA issued the following response to the GAO’s decision.

“The GAO has notified NASA that it has denied Sierra Nevada Corporation’s protest of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contract awards. NASA is pleased the GAO’s decision allows the agency to move forward and continue working with Boeing and SpaceX on the Launch America initiative that will enable safe and reliable crew transportation to and from the International Space Station on American spacecraft launched from the United States, ending the nation’s sole reliance on Russia for such transportation. The case remains under the protective order and blackout until the GAO releases its decision.”

The GAO stated that despite contentions made by SNC, the Request For Proposals that NASA issued – stated clearly that each proposal would be reviewed with the objective of having the spacecraft be certified by the close of 2017.

SNC also had questioned the validity of SpaceX’s claims concerning the price and financial resources that were at the company’s disposal. According to Sierra Nevada, this served to skew the evaluation process, specifically the mission suitability evaluation factor. The GAO stated that these claims were not supported either by the evaluation record or by the terms of the solicitation.

In regard to the aspects of the various offerings under CCtCap, the GAO issued the following statement: The GAO decision takes no position on the relative merits of these proposal approaches to NASA’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability Contract.  Instead, GAO reviewed the conclusions reached by NASA to determine if they were reasonable, and consistent with the evaluation approach NASA set out in its solicitation.

Specifics about the decision made by the GAO contained sensitive information concerning source selection and proprietary nature, as such, these elements were not released to the general public and were only made available to either select NASA personnel or to outside counsel (those admitted under the GAO protective order issued for this protest). A public version is expected to be released in the near future (within the next few weeks).

Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser space plane was unique among the CCP candidates as it was the only lifting-body design, essentially a mini shuttle which would have been launched atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA ) Atlas V 401 booster, rendezvoused and docked to the space station – and then landed back at Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility. Even though NASA might have taken a pass on the Dream Chaser – other space agencies have expressed interest in the design. Both the European Space Agency and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency are considering the spacecraft for use.