Thursday, October 02, 2014

Why Boeing Beat SpaceX

Boeing Co. received consistently higher rankings than Space Exploration Technologies Corp. during NASA's recent multibillion-dollar competition to build "space taxis," according to an internal agency document.

The memo—dated Sept. 15 and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal—provides an inside look at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's deliberations and reveals why agency officials rated Boeing's bid better across the board than the one submitted by SpaceX, as the smaller company is called.

Chicago-based Boeing ended up with a contract worth up to $4.2 billion, versus $2.6 billion for Southern California-based SpaceX. The goal is to use company-owned and operated spacecraft to start transporting astronauts into orbit by 2017.

The rivalry was widely viewed as the closest head-to-head matchup yet between a big traditional aerospace contractor such as Boeing and a so-called new-space upstart represented by SpaceX.

But the 29-page document, signed by NASA's associate administrator William Gerstenmaier the day before the awards were announced, depicts more of a one-sided contest. Boeing ranked above SpaceX in every major category, from technical maturity to management competence to likelihood of sticking to a timetable.

Boeing's submission was considered "excellent" for "mission suitability," whereas SpaceX got a "very good" ranking. The numerical scores for that category, according to one person familiar with the details, were separated by more than 60 points out of a possible 1,000. The document shows Boeing also garnered the highest ranking of "excellent" for technical approach and program management, compared with "very good" rankings for SpaceX.

Based on Boeing's performance on a preliminary contract, NASA concluded it had "very high confidence" in that company's likelihood of delivering what it promised—the highest ranking possible.

Despite SpaceX's historic achievement of becoming the first commercial entity to put a capsule into orbit and ferry NASA cargo to and from the international space station, the agency had somewhat less assurance in the company's ability to perform, also based on performance on its own preliminary contract. NASA determined it had "high confidence" in SpaceX's pledges.

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