After four years of intensely competitive research and engineering, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has finally chosen the two aeronautics firms that will once again launch American astronauts and their cargo into space – or has it?
Although NASA announced on Sept. 16 that Boeing and SpaceX were awarded a $6.8 billion contract to develop privately funded launch vehicles for NASA crews by 2017, a third finalist in the competition, Louisville, Colo.-based avionics firm Sierra Nevada Corp., said last Thursday that it stills wants in on the orbital action, and may issue a formal protest of the NASA contract.
Ever since the last space shuttle was retired in 2011, NASA has been hitching expensive rides on Russian rockets to send humans and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). To ensure the reliability of future missions, a budget-strapped NASA sought help from the private sector and quickly narrowed down the competition to three firms: Chicago-based Boeing; Elon Musk’s SpaceX, of Hawthorne, Calif.; and Sierra Nevada.
As the two official winners, Boeing received $4.2 billion for further development of its CST-100 vehicle, while SpaceX received $2.6 billion to modify the Dragon capsule for human transport. The Dragon system has already launched successful unmanned missions to ferry cargo to the ISS. Also last week, Reuters reported that the Boeing/Lockheed Martin-backed United Launch Alliance had formed a partnership with Seattle-based rocket company Blue Origin to develop a rocket engine to replace the Russian-made RD-180 it currently uses. Blue Origin was founded by Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos.
While Boeing and SpaceX are focusing on single-use, capsule-based vehicles, Sierra Nevada’s design is based on a reusable “space plane” lifting body called the Dream Chaser, which would be launched atop a conventional Atlas V rocket and then glide back to Earth after re-entry using wings, like a miniature version of the retired space shuttle. Despite losing the bid for manned missions, Sierra Nevada said it is moving forward on a bid for the second-round Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-2) contract to deliver cargo to ISS using the Dream Chaser.
As for the manned mission contract, Aviation Week reported on Thursday that Sierra Nevada is considering filing a formal protest of the NASA decision with the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which could lead to a reconsideration of the contract based on “financial and technical grounds,” a company spokesman said.
Sierra Nevada has had extensive international help developing the Dream Chaser. Financial and industrial partners include the European Space Agency (ESA), the German Aerospace Center (DLR), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Lockheed Martin, the United Launch Alliance, Aerojet Rocketdyne, MacDonald Dettwiler, Jacobs, Moog, Siemens PLM Software, and Southwest Research Institute. The company also has some NASA funding still available that was provided in earlier phases of the crew development competition.