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Boeing’s fall from grace at NASA

Eric Berger at Ars Technica yesterday uncovered a NASA report that outlined its selection process for awarding a contract for providing cargo to the agency’s proposed Lunar Gateway space station — eventually won by SpaceX — that gave Boeing’s proposal a terrible ranking.

Of the four contenders, [Boeing] had the lowest overall technical and mission suitability scores. In addition, Boeing’s proposal was characterized as “inaccurate” and possessing no “significant strengths.” Boeing also was cited with a “significant weakness” in its proposal for pushing back on providing its software source code.

Due to its high price and ill-suited proposal for the lunar cargo contract, NASA didn’t even consider the proposal among the final bidders. In his assessment late last year, NASA’s acting chief of human spaceflight, Ken Bowersox, wrote, “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.” [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words could possibly be a death sentence for Boeing. The company has numerous other serious problems, including its commercial 737-Max airplane, its KC-46 Pegasus tanker for the Air Force, and of course its SLS rocket for NASA. For NASA to say that it will no longer consider Boeing in future contract bidding, especially since NASA has been one of Boeing’s biggest customers for decades, cannot be good for the company’s already badly suffering bottom line.

Berger also notes how much NASA’s attitude toward Boeing has changed since the agency removed Bill Gerstenmaier as head of its manned space operations. Gerstenmaier had apparently given Boeing the highest marks routinely, and appeared to have lost his ability to look at the company objectively. Moreover, his (and NASA’s) kid-glove treatment of Boeing for decades probably contributed to that company’s sloppy bid on the Lunar Gateway cargo contract. They were likely not used to tough questioning, and didn’t put the proper effort into writing their bid.

For the taxpayer and the American space effort, however, this report is wonderful news. It appears that NASA is breaking its tight and blind partnership with the big space contractors that has for decades handicapped the nation’s ability to get things built in space. These contractors have not been able to deliver, but because of their powerful allies on Congress, NASA has for years kowtowed to them in contract awards.

Now however it appears NASA’s management has become quite willing to reject these powerful companies, despite Congressional backing, in order to get the best deal and the best product, for the nation.

Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

 
Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit. And if you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.

13 comments

  • Phill O

    Third last paragraph

    “They were likely not used to touch questioning”

    such

    Sorry for nitpicking: does show you are being read!

  • Ray Van Dune

    “… I have decided to eliminate Boeing from further award consideration.”

    I think it is inaccurate to read this as “NASA will no longer consider Boeing in future contract bidding”, as the context of Boeing’s elimination seems limited to the competition in question.

  • Ray Van Dune

    #1, I assumed the typo meant “They were likely not used to TOUGH questioning”.

  • Phill O: Thank you. Fixed.

  • Ray Van Dune: Maybe so, but if I was a bigwig at Boeing right now this conclusion by NASA would scare the bejeebers out of me.

  • Ray Van Dune

    Yes, indeed Mr. Zimmerman, it would, and it should!

    But I think it is inconceivable that NASA would in effect say “We will no longer do business with Boeing.”, even if that’s exactly the way they feel!

  • Ray Van Dune: If I was NASA and had gotten as bad a submission from Boeing as this critique suggests, I would make it very clear that I have no intention of considering any of their later submissions seriously, unless those later bids show some effort at serious change.

    And I really think this is exactly what NASA was doing here. They are not telling Boeing they will never do business with them again. They are telling them that to get a contract, they have to get their act together.

  • Wodun

    I understood it the same way Ray Van Dune did.

    Boeing could have done a better job, maybe they didn’t want to work on this project.

  • Considering Boeing’s history of aviation success: 707 and the 700-series of passenger jets, the B-52 has been bringing the noise for 65 years, and the 747 recently passed 50 years in service, the fall has been painful to watch. I lived in Seattle when the company moved to Chicago, and everyone knew it was a Bad Idea. So bad, that Boeing is a business case study in how to wreck a company. I do not know what Boeing specializes in these days, but building stuff that works isn’t it.

  • Col Beausabre

    Boeing specializes in “financial engineering”, not in cutting and bending metal. They were taken over by financiers who destroyed its engineering culture. I say this with sadness as the owner of an MBA with a concentration in Finance

    https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/11/how-boeing-lost-its-bearings/602188/

  • Ray Van Dune

    If someone writes a tell-all book about the murder of Boeing, here are some advance spoilers:
    1. The killer: Phil Condit
    2. The weapon: McDonnell-Douglas

  • I agree with Ray Van Dune’s reading. Also, I would point out that SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is the right size and price for this specific mission. Boeing’s failure here wasn’t just a matter of not putting enough effort in getting their wording on their submission right but the primary fact that their technology is not well suited for this mission. I doubt that they would have won the contract regardless of how amazingly they had written their bid. And I suspect that NASA’s decision went through a fairly objective process and wasn’t primarily based upon how someone felt about Boeing.

  • Richard M

    “Gerstenmaier had apparently given Boeing the highest marks routinely, and appeared to have lost his ability to look at the company objectively. ”

    I do find it telling, though, that Gerst is now working for SpaceX.

    Did Boeing even moot a job offer to him? It seems hard to believe they wouldn’t have..

    I wonder if even Gerst wasn’t starting to sour on Boeing in his final years at NASA.

    Boeing stands desperately in need of a complete housecleaning.

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