Wings in Space–Part 2
So…the plot thickens.
As part of the process of the GAO (Government Accountability Office) protest by Sierra Nevada Corporation of NASA’s contract award to Boeing and SpaceX (see last week’s post), NASA has directed both of those companies to suspend work under those CCtCap contracts. The GAO has until January 5th to release a finding in their investigation and this suspension may last until then. No public mention seems to have been made as to whether or not they can continue development under their own funding (and financial risk).
The question is…does it matter? Is this suspension because the NASA contracts and funding is currently up in the air? Or is it just to ensure the fairness of the process for Dream Chaser?
All three of these companies still chase milestones from their earlier CCiCap contracts. This suspension by NASA does not affect that progress or timeline in any way.
All of the funding for these CCtCap contracts still depends on future Congressional votes anyway. So the money was always uncertain.
SpaceX is single-mindedly motivated by Mars and have already said that they are prepared and willing to go it alone if they have to. Commercial Crew is just a stepping stone. If they don’t win out in the investigation (unlikely), then it would slow them down but not stop them. Do you think that there are significant contract award specific activities that they can separate out of their larger plans so they can “suspend” them for three months?
Boeing is a different story. It is clear from the wording of SNC’s protest that it is the Boeing award that they have targeted in their complaint, claiming that their bid was almost $1 billion dollars less. Boeing as a company (the opinions of individuals within the company may vary from this) is in it for the money. Now I know it sounds harsh and unfair for me to say that, because it is true that all three of these competitors are businesses that want the CCtCap funding. However, the term “strictly business” really does trim down the motivational goals for a project. For Boeing, this is just one of many projects that can either benefit the company financially or not. Boeing is not on any kind of crusade like SpaceX and Sierra Nevada to dramatically advance the technology, change the face of how launches are purchased by Federal agencies, or lower launch costs. They make more money, long-term, the old way. The new way just means competition, change, cost-cutting, and loss of dominance…all things that established companies like Boeing would prefer to steer markets away from. If the CST-100 program relies on CCtCap to be profitable, and those funds are cut off, then the project could die at the hands of Boeing bean-counters.
On the other hand, Boeing also pursues future plans with Bigelow Aerospace. Bigelow makes inflatable space habitats and have had their work suspended for a while now because of the current lack of frequent human launch capability. They sent up a demonstration space station a while ago that is still in orbit.
The direction from NASA to suspend work under CCtCap might mean that once Boeing has performed all of their work under CCiCap they might just moth-ball the CST-100 for a little while as they await a final decision from the GAO. That kind of action still generates losses however, so they might instead decide to just bite the bullet and take the risk of continuing work anyway. If they don’t stop developing, and lose the contract, the losses are higher than if they’d stopped. But if they keep working and the contract stays with them anyway, then they prevent the losses (and loss of momentum) that moth-balling the project would have caused.
I can only conclude that the only potential for harm from the suspension would come to Boeing, but only if they step off of the path.
There is probably a list of activities that NASA can’t (openly) participate in during a suspension, but were there very many of those scheduled for before January anyway? If there were, then how many of them are so linear that they affect timelines? SpaceX has multiple, integrated, projects going on that support, but do not directly and exclusively rely on, CCtCap. Actually, now that I think about it, so does Boeing.
What about Dream Chaser? If a lot of New Space folks perceive that this suspension delays the progress of Commercial Space, then it could hurt SN’s public relations…especially if the GAO takes too long, delaying the effort measurably in the process, and then finds against SN. Others might see the possibility of human rating an orbiting space plane by 2017 as worth the headaches and possible delays of a GAO investigation.
I think that the Government Accountability Office, an entity of Congress, is not going to bend over backwards to help the New Space effort. They will look for a path that damages Boeing a little bit, just enough to try and make them look the victim, while trying to damage and delay the New Space effort. I think that means a Jan 5th decision that changes nothing in the substance of the contract awards but still tries to sow further seeds of public doubt as to why NASA and the President are even trying this new competitive approach in the first place.
SpaceX is not harmed or delayed by this, and neither is the Commercial Crew program. The GAO investigation will shed a little light on the decision process for the CCtCap contract awards and that will be refreshing anyway.