NASA clears Boeing, SpaceX to resume commercial crew work

CBS News

Rescinding a work stoppage in the wake of a bid protest by losing competitor Sierra Nevada, NASA has told Boeing and SpaceX to resume work on commercial crew spacecraft to avoid possible delays ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station, the agency announced Thursday.

On Sept. 16, NASA awarded Boeing a $4.2 billion contract to build and launch up to six flights of its CST-100 capsule using United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 boosters. SpaceX won a $2.6 billion contract to continue development of its Dragon version 2 crew craft, which will launch atop the company's Falcon 9 rocket.

Losing out in the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract was Sierra Nevada, which is developing a winged lifting body known as the Dream Chaser that would launch atop an Atlas 5 and return to Earth like the space shuttle, gliding to a runway touchdown.

Ten days after the contract award, Sierra Nevada filed a formal protest challenging the CCtCap contract awards to Boeing and SpaceX, claiming the Dream Chaser would save the government some $900 million compared to Boeing's bid.

On Oct. 2, NASA told Boeing and SpaceX to halt government-funded work on the CST-100 and Dragon V2 spacecraft pending resolution of the Sierra Nevada challenge with the U.S. Government Accountability Office, or GAO.

But on Thursday, the space agency changed course.

"On Oct. 9, under statutory authority available to it, NASA has decided to proceed with the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts awarded to The Boeing Company and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. notwithstanding the bid protest filed at the U.S. Government Accountability Office by Sierra Nevada Corporation," NASA said in a statement posted on its commercial crew web page.

"The agency recognizes that failure to provide the CCtCap transportation service as soon as possible poses risks to the International Space Station (ISS) crew, jeopardizes continued operation of the ISS, would delay meeting critical crew size requirements, and may result in the U.S. failing to perform the commitments it made in its international agreements.

"These considerations compelled NASA to use its statutory authority to avoid significant adverse consequences where contract performance remained suspended. NASA has determined that it best serves the United States to continue performance of the CCtCap contracts that will enable safe and reliable travel to and from the ISS from the United States on American spacecraft and end the nation’s sole reliance on Russia for such transportation."

NASA hopes to begin crew ferry flights to the space station using the commercial crew craft starting in 2017.