Chicago Firm Protests Space Station Cargo Contract

Private Spaceflight Firm Takes Aims at NASA Cargo Flights
This artist's illustration depicts the automated PlanetSpace Modular Cargo Carrier supply ship as it is attached to the International Space Station using the outpost's robotic arm. Inset: An ATK booster launches the cargo ship spaceward. (Image credit: Lockheed Martin/PlanetSpace/ATK.)

WASHINGTON -Chicago-based PlanetSpace has filed a protest against NASA's decision to awardspace station resupply contracts valued at $3.5 billion to two other firms, oneof which earned the lowest score for a bid that proposed the highest price.

The protestwas filed with the U.S. Government Accountability (GAO) Office Jan. 14. The GAO is required to issue its ruling by April 24.

PlanetSpace,a start-up company whose subcontractors include Boeing Co. of Chicago,Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Minneapolis-based AlliantTechsystems (ATK), earned a higher score and offered a lower price than OrbitalSciences Corp. of Dulles, Va.

NASA,however, selected Orbital Sciences and Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceExploration Technologies (SpaceX) to haul 20 tons of cargo to the spacestation through 2016 under separate contracts potentially worth $3.1 billioneach. Theinitial award calls for SpaceX to provide 12 flights for $1.6 billion andOrbital Sciences to provide eight flights for $1.9 billion.

SpaceX earnedthe highest score from NASA's Source Evaluation Board and offered thelowest price, followed by PlanetSpace which earned the second-highest score.

PlanetSpace"received a higher Mission Suitability score, from NASA's SourceEvaluation Board (SEB), and was lower in Cost than one of the two proposalsselected by NASA. Thus, the PlanetSpace proposal represented better value tothe Government. We believe that the GAO will find that flaws in the procurementjustify award to PlanetSpace. We look forward to the GAO's review of thiscase," PlanetSpace officials said in a Jan. 15 press release announcingthe protest.

Accordingto source selection documents, Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associateadministrator for space operations, believed PlanetSpace relied too heavily onits subcontractors. He also expressed concern that the firm proposed using anexisting rocket to provide initial cargo delivery before switching to theAthena 3 solid-fueled rocket ATK proposed to build in time to enter service in2013.

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Becky Ianotta is a former SpaceNews reporter covering space industry and policy news from 2008 to 2009. Becky earned a bachelor's degree in English/Journalism from the University of Miami. She spent five years as an editor with the Key West Citizen in Florida before joining the SpaceNews team. She later wrote for Air Force Times before taking her current position as communication director for Mother's Against Drunk Driving.