Why NASA Selected the CCDev 2 Winners

Illustration of SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft arriving at the International Space Station. Credit: NASA
I’ve done a deep dive into NASA’s selection process for its CCDev 2 awards. NASA chose eight finalists for due diligence and made four awards totaling $269.3 million, all largely focused on human vehicles. Today, I’ll be examining the six finalists that applied for funding to build commercial crew spacecraft. The information below comes from the Selection Statement signed by Philip McAlister, acting director of Commercial Spaceflight Development, which provides an in-depth description of the evaluation and award processes.

CCDev 2 Applications Selected for Due Diligence and Awards

Company

Project

CCDev 2 Technical Approach Rating

CCDev2 Business Information Rating

CCDev 1 Awards

CCDev 2 Awards

Total CCDev Awards
The Boeing Company

CST-100 Crew Vehicle

$18 million

$92.3 million

$110.3 million

SpaceX

Human-rated Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft

0

$75 million

$75 million

Sierra Nevada Corporation

Dream Chaser Spacecraft

$20 million

$80 million

$100 million

Blue Origin

Orbital Crew Vehicle

$3.7 million

$22 million

$25.7 million

Orbital Sciences Corporation

Prometheus Spacecraft

0

0

0

Excalibur Almaz

Orbital Crew Vehicle

0

0

0

TOTAL:

$311 million

 

Ratings Key
Very High Level of Confidence
High Level of Confidence
Moderate Level of Confidence
Low Level of Confidence
Very Low Level of Confidence

Three of those four selected proposals — by Boeing, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin — had been funded under the first phase of CCDev last year. SpaceX did not participate in the first round because the amount of money involved — $50 million — was too low. However, NASA has been funding development of the company’s Falcon rocket and Dragon spacecraft under a separate program to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. SpaceX received CCDev funds to human-rate those vehicles.

In making the selection, McAlister said he was focused on two priorities. He placed a greater emphasis on crew vehicles over rockets because the latter are much further along in development. This helps explain why proposals by ULA and ATK — which both focused exclusively on rockets — were rejected. In selecting the crew proposals, McAlister wanted a balanced portfolio that would give the space agency a variety of options moving forward.

“I felt this portfolio of companies and CTS concepts is the best overall use of the CCDev 2 funding. Within the selected concepts, there is diversity in spacecraft approaches (two capsules, a lifting body, and a biconic shape spacecraft) and in the launch vehicles they propose to use. All proposals showed an understanding of the importance of safety and a commitment to safe spaceflight. I believe this portfolio will significantly mature the design and development of system elements and accelerate the availability of CTS capabilities.”

Boeing's CST-100 crew transport. (Credit: Boeing)

Boeing and SpaceX

These companies, which are working on 7-person capsules, received the highest marks from the review team in NASA’s color coded rating system.  Boeing received a Blue rating (“Very High Level of Confidence”) for its Technical Approach and a Green rating (“High Level of Confidence”) on Business Considerations for its Apollo-style CST-100 spacecraft. For SpaceX, the colors were reversed, with a Green rating on technical matters and a Blue one for its business plans.

The key strengths that reviewers found for both proposals included:

  • Ability to accelerate their projects
  • Very strong technical approaches
  • Strong commitments to the public-private partnership approach
  • Leveraged considerable prior development work, reducing risks and providing high levels of confidence in their system designs.

The winners are certainly the odd couple of this program. Boeing is an aerospace behemoth founded in 1916 with decades of human space experience that is run by executives who most people couldn’t name. SpaceX is a 9-year-old start-up with no human flight experience that was founded by a brash South African millionaire who appears on The Colbert Report and whose personal life is tabloid fodder.

Lifting Bodies: SNC vs. OSC

SNC Dream Chaser docks with the International Space Station. (Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation)

McAlister wanted to include at least one lifting body vehicle in the CCDev 2 portfolio. Although this type of spacecraft involves significant technical challenges compared with capsules, they offer better cross range performance, ability to land on multiple runways, lower entry g-forces, and quick crew access and egress.

The choice came down between SNC’s Dream Chaser and OSC’s Prometheus. Both proposals received ratings of Green (“High Level of Confidence”) and White (“Moderate Level of Confidence”), although in different categories. Orbital’s proposal scored higher (Green) on Technical Approach than SNC’s plan (White). However, those ratings were reversed for SNC, with the Colorado company receiving a Green rating for its Business Information.

Orbital Sciences Corporation's Prometheus blended lifting body vehicle. (Credit: OSC)

The Selection Statement indicates that SNC’s proposal was considered superior in a number of areas:

  • Demonstrated a strong commitment to public-private partnership
  • Could reach preliminary design review at end of CCDev 2 whereas Orbital Sciences would reach system design review
  • 7-crew seats for Dream Chaser vs. 4 seats for Orbital’s Prometheus
  • SNC’s Atlas V launcher variant was preferable to Orbital’s Atlas V variant because it allows for more weight growth in the vehicle.

However, SNC’s Dream Chaser was not without problems:

“The SNC proposal had a significant weakness in its abort system risk. There remained significant concern on the part of the PEP with respect to the development of appropriate launch abort systems requirements and launch abort capabilities. Also, SNC did not appear to adequately recognize the important NASA placed on this risk. However, I felt this risk could be addressed during development, and given the advantages associated with the SNC proposal cited above, I more highly rated the SNC proposal than the Orbital Sciences proposal.”

There were also issues with funding priorities and commitment levels that got sorted out during the review process.

“I felt that the proposed baseline level of investment in SNC’s concept at this stage was not the most effective use of the limited funding available for CCDev 2 effort. As each of the participants in due diligence was requested to do, SNC proposed alternate, prioritized milestones that featured a reduced government investment and maintained significant acceleration of their CTS concept. Thus, I selected this option for award.”

OSC officials expressed their disappointment in the wake of this decision and indicated that they might shut down their human spaceflight efforts instead of continuing them with the company’s own funds.

Blue Origin

Jeff Bezos’ secretive startup received a White rating on its Technical Approach and a Green rating for its Business Information, scores identical to those received by SNC. McAlister said that there was much to recommend the proposal, which NASA had funded under CCDev 1:

“Blue Origin’s proposed concept of flying a moderate lift biconic shape spacecraft offered significant operational capability, thereby reducing overall risk to the crew and enhancing mission success. In addition, the ‘walk before you run’ with suborbital demonstrations first then orbital demonstrations was realistic and achievable. Also, their business strategy of focusing on commercial crew first and adding complementing markets (e.g., cargo missions) demonstrated their commitment to a commercial CTS capability. Blue Origin demonstrated realism in future markets through diminished dependency on early revenues for sustainability, demonstrating commitment to a long-range strategy that was unique among the proposers. These reasons, along with the weighting for spacecraft, diversity and business considerations led me to select Blue Origin for award, but at a reduced funding level from their baseline proposal.”

Excalibur Almaz

Artist's conception of the private Excalibur Almaz space station in orbit. (Credit: Excalibur Almaz)

Excalibur Almaz, based in the Isle of Man, was a surprise pick for due diligence. The company is developing a space station and crew vehicle based on old Soviet military hardware flown in the 1970’s and 198o’s. As a foreign company, it would need to have a presence in the United States as well as partners here. But, little is publicly known about these matters.

NASA reviewers actually liked the company’s proposal, calling it an “innovative and unique” approach based on flight-tested hardware with a “comprehensive description of their process to evaluate and document overall program/vehicle risks.” However, the proposal fell short in a number of key areas.

“The Excalibur Almaz proposal was the lowest rated proposal of the eight companies selected for due diligence and it was the only one that received a yellow rating (for Business Considerations). In addition, there was a consistent theme in many of the proposal’s weakness, which was that the proposal lacked sufficient detail to determine crucial aspects of the CTS concept’s technical, business and safety content. For example, there was a lack of detail regarding the team’s engineering and manufacturing experience to fabricate and operate the Almaz vehicle, lack of detail about integration of the vehicle, lack of detail about acquisition of hardware, and lack of detail about the resources need for the CCDev 2 work. I felt this lack of detail increased the risk for enabling a commercial CTS capability. This fact, in conjunction with the relatively lower ratings, led me to not select Excalibur Almaz for award.”

Conclusion

NASA has chosen an interesting portfolio of project to support that are being pursued by a collection of established and start-up companies. If the winners can execute on their milestone over the next 13 months, the space agency will be in the enviable position of being able to select among four viable crew vehicles. With a fixed amount of public money available, the choices could be quite difficult.