By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla (Reuters) - The Government Accountability Office rejected Sierra Nevada Corp’s protest of $6.8 billion in contracts NASA awarded to Boeing Co BA.N and Space Exploration Technologies to develop and fly commercial space taxis, the congressional watchdog agency said on Monday.
The contracts, awarded in September, include test flights to the International Space Station and up to six operational missions per company. Boeing's contract was $4.2 billion. SpaceX, as the privately owned firm is known, was awarded a $2.6 billion contract.
The space taxis will allow NASA to fly U.S. astronauts to the space station, which orbits about 260 miles (418 km) above Earth. Since the space shuttle was retired in 2011, NASA has had to purchase rides from Russia for $63 million per person.
Sierra Nevada objected to NASA's selection of Boeing because its price was $900 million more than Sierra Nevada's. It also argued that NASA failed to follow its own procurement guidelines, which emphasized safety and price over schedule.
The GAO, an independent nonpartisan agency, said that despite Boeing's higher price, NASA considered it the strongest of all three "in terms of technical approach, management approach, and past performance."
The GAO also noted that SpaceX's bid was less than Sierra Nevada's, and that NASA “ultimately concluded that SpaceX’s lower price made it a better value."
As for Sierra Nevada's claim that NASA ignored its procurement rules, the GAO said NASA informed bidders "that their proposals would be evaluated against the goal of certification by the end of 2017.”
In a statement, Sierra Nevada said it was evaluating the GAO’s ruling. “The outcome was not what SNC expected,” it said.
NASA, which hopes to break Russia’s monopoly on crew transport before the end of 2017, said it was “pleased the GAO’s decision allows the agency to move forward.”
Sierra Nevada had hoped to sell NASA its Dream Chaser miniature space shuttle to fly crews to and from the space station.
Sierra Nevada, Boeing, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp ORB.N are competing for a new round of station cargo delivery contracts. Awards are expected this spring.
SpaceX is scheduled to launch its fifth cargo mission at 6:20 a.m. EST (1120 GMT) on Tuesday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. After delivering the capsule into orbit, SpaceX will attempt to land the rocket on a floating platform in the Atlantic Ocean. The test is part of a technology development effort to reuse the rockets and cut launch costs.
(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by David Gregorio)