SpaceX Won Lunar Gateway Logistics Contract on Price, Quality; Boeing Eliminated From Bidding

Illustration of the SpaceX Dragon XL as it is deployed from the Falcon Heavy’s second stage in high Earth orbit on its way to the Gateway in lunar orbit. (Credits: SpaceX)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

SpaceX won a multi-billion NASA contract to transport supplies to the lunar Gateway by providing a superior cargo ship with more capacity at a lower price than three major aerospace giants, according to a source selection document released by the space agency.

NASA eliminated Boeing from the competition because its proposal had the lowest mission suitability score while asking for the highest price. The evaluation board found eight weaknesses, four strengths and not a single significant strength in the company’s technical approach.

Proposals by Northrop Grumman and Sierra Nevada were ranked second and third highest, respectively. Each company received one significant strength and multiple strengths and weaknesses on its technical approach.

NASA released a 24-page redacted version of the source selection document that provides details on how bids were evaluated. The document was signed by Ken Bowersox, the deputy associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations.

The Gateway will be a human-tended space station placed in lunar orbit that will provide a base for the exploration of the surface.

SpaceX won the Gateway Logistics Services contract to deliver experiments, equipment and supplies to the Gateway using its new Dragon XL vehicle, which will be launched by the Falcon Heavy rocket.

“SpaceX has the Superior Technical Approach, a slightly superior Management Plan, and has, by a small margin, the best Past Performance among the other offerors,” Bowersox wrote. “This, combined with the fact it also proposed the lowest evaluated price, leads me to select SpaceX for the initial GLS contract based on initial proposals.”

The table below which was taken from the document, shows how NASA ranked the proposals on technical, management, and small business utilization.

The table below shows a breakdown of the strengths and weaknesses of the four proposals. One significant weakness apiece was significantly redacted for Northrop Grumman, Sierra Nevada and Boeing for legal reasons.

CompanySignificant Strengths Strengths Weaknesses Significant Weaknesses
SpaceX> Total cargo delivery capacity significantly exceeds cargo delivery requirements
> An efficient
baseline cargo stowage system design that supports on-orbit storage and trash
management
> Heritage design
> Level of failure tolerance exceed requirements
> Excess spacecraft battery capacity
> Single common GLS configuration for missions
> Fast transit time exceeds NASA requirement
> Pressurized cargo late load capability exceeds requirements
> Effective approach to safety critical software
> Mission extension flexibility
> Launch vehicle / space vehicle interface not clearly defined
> Dragon XL Delta-V margin and Falcon Heavy performance capability
> Intermodule ventilation concept
> Gateway Time triggered ethernet interface
> Dragon XL service section in close proximity to crew
None
Northrop Grumman> Exploration Cygnus cargo stowage design significantly exceeds requirements; large dedicated volume for crew to perform cargo packing, unpacking, and handling tasks and dedicate volume for trash and other payload activities. > Heritage design
> Levels of failure tolerance exceeds requirements
> Design life exceeds 1-year on-dock requirement
> High payload data rate during transit
> Single common GLS configuration for missions
> Fast transit time exceeds NASA requirement
> Pressurized cargo late load capability exceeds requirements
> Launch vehicle / space vehicle interface not clearly defined
> Fast transit propellant margin not significantly described
> Failure to submit a Safety and Health Plan
> 1 significant weakness redacted
Sierra Nevada> Small business subcontracting plan
that demonstrates a strong commitment to supporting small business participation with a
significantly high small business goal
> Heritage design
> Levels of failure tolerance exceeds requirements
> Power allocation for payloads exceeds requirement
> Mission extension flexibility
> Single common GLS configuration for missions
> Launch vehicle / space vehicle interface not clearly defined
> Negative launch vehicle performance margin
> Restrictive pressurized cargo stowage design
> 1 significant weakness redacted
BoeingNone> Heritage designs
> Levels of failure tolerance exceed requirements
> Design life exceeds 1-year on-dock requirement
> CLS-250 capacity exceeds cargo delivery requirements
> low launch vehicle and spacecraft mass margins
> Apogee thruster location may imperil unpressurized cargo
spacecraft
> Does not use Single point electrical grounding
> Incorrect dimensions applied for delivery of robotic arm XLA component
> Proposed changes to work plan
> The proposed approach to NASA insight does not meet the NASA insight notification, accommodations, or compliance requirements
> An exception taken to providing source code as required under DRD GLS-108, launch vehicle flight software Input for independent verification and validation (IV&V), and DRD GLS-220, Mission Specific Software.
> 1 significant weakness redacted

SpaceX exceeded NASA’s requirements on cargo delivery capacity, level of failure tolerance, battery capacity, fast transit time to the Gateway, and the ability to load cargo just prior to launch.

SpaceX also received high marks for its ongoing work for NASA.

“SpaceX has performed relevant work in every facet implicated by GLS’ scope,” Bowersox wrote. “By virtue of its [Commercial Resupply Services] contract to deliver cargo to the ISS and their Commercial Crew contract to deliver crew to ISS, SpaceX has demonstrated launch services, spacecraft development, [Rendezvous, Proximity Operations, and Docking], habitable systems development and operations, management and integration of complex systems, cargo integration, and mission operations.”

Bowersox wrote that the five weaknesses found in SpaceX’s technical proposal were minor and correctable.

At the other end of the scale, Boeing’s proposal was found insufficient on a range of technical factors. Deficiencies included incorrect dimensions applied for delivery of a robotic arm component and an unwillingness to share core software core with NASA.

“Since Boeing’s proposal was the highest priced and the lowest rated under the Mission Suitability factor, while additionally providing a conditional fixed price, I have decided to eliminate Boeing from further award consideration. This offeror’s evaluation results and my assessment thereof, combined with the relative order of importance of the RFP’s evaluation factors, have led me to conclude that Boeing is not competitive for award,” Bowersox wrote.

The request for proposal (RFP) allowed Bowersox to award more than one GLS contract. However, he said it was not in the government’s best interest to do so.

“NASA is planning multiple supply missions in which the cargo spacecraft will stay at the Gateway for six to 12 months at a time,” NASA said in a press release. “These firm-fixed price, indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contracts for logistics services guarantee two missions per logistics services provider with a maximum total value of $7 billion across all contracts as additional missions are needed.”

“Furthermore, the on-ramp clause in the RFP will allow these other offerors to submit GLS proposals in the future,’ Bowersox wrote.