The industry magazine and web news channel, Aviation Week and Space Technology, has disclosed that the Sierra Nevada Corp (SNC) bid to obtain NASA Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CctCap) funding lost out to Boeing and SpaceX because of concerns over schedule delays. An internal NASA document signed by NASA Associate Administrator, William Gerstenmaier, notes that the Dream Chaser was dropped because of his concerns that the design had the “lowest level of maturity”, with significantly more “technical work and critical design decisions” ahead resulting in increased “schedule uncertainty”.
A late-September protest over the decision by SNC to the US Government Accounting Office (GAO) temporarily caused all commercial crew capsule work to cease at Boeing and SpaceX. A decision on the protest is due in January next year. However, NASA quickly ordered Boeing and SpaceX to restart, stating that national interests and schedule concerns meant that the work had to continue.
SNC has asked the US Court of Federal Claims to prevent this work from carrying on until the protest has been dealt with. However, the court declined to do this.
Comment by David Todd: This column has long noted that as a more sophisticated aerodynamic vehicle, Sierra Nevada Corp’s Dream Chaser, would be the last of the commercial crew competitors to become a working spacecraft. In this regard, Gerstenmaier is correct inhis assessment. However, his decision to drop Dream Chaser altogether is a mistake, as its lifting body “mini-shuttle” is much the best long term design. It its better in terms of probable operational cost, low ‘g’ re-entry performance, landing safety, and cross-range capability.
As such, it would have been more logical for NASA to have chosen one of the “low schedule risk” capsule designs as the “insurance” (our choice would have been Boeing’s CST-100) to pair with the slower-to-develop, but ultimately better, Dream Chaser. Instead Gerstenmaier chose to fund both the Boeing CST-100 capsule and the new manned version of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule which, by the way, may take longer to develop than expected, given its new, high risk, rocket landing technique.
Gerstenmaier is retiring soon, but it will be NASA and the rest of the space community that will have to live for years with the effects of one of his last decisions in office. And a short-sighted and wrong one at that.