Boeing clashes with key supplier before Starliner spacecraft launches

The CST-100 Starliner is scheduled to launch on May 19 in Florida aboard an Atlas 5 rocket to the International Space Station, with Boeing aiming to show NASA that the spacecraft is safe to carry astronauts to and from the outpost. orbit. Software failures shortened a similar 2019 unmanned test flight.

The mission is a crucial step toward re-establishing Boeing as a viable SpaceX competitor for billionaire businessman Elon Musk, an effort complicated by Boeing’s dispute with propulsion system supplier Aerojet, according to three people who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Chicago-based Boeing (ΒΑ (ΒΑ)) and El Segundo, Aerojet based in California (ARJD (AJRD)) disagree over the cause of a problem with the fuel valves in the Starliner propulsion system that forced the postponement of a test flight last July, with the two companies blaming each other, the sources said.

The dispute, which has not been mentioned before, comes at a time when Boeing is already trying to emerge from a series of crises that have curtailed its aircraft operations and drained cash.

The Aerojet controversy is the latest depiction of Boeing’s fights with Starliner, a program that has cost the company $ 595 million since 2019. in the Starliner test.

In a statement to Reuters, Boeing acknowledged for the first time that it finally intends to redesign the Starliner valve system to prevent a recurrence of the issue that forced the postponement of last year’s test flight. A Boeing statement said: “We are working on short-term and long-term design changes to the valves.”

Thirteen fuel valves that are part of a propulsion system that helps drive the Starliner into space have been found stuck and do not respond to the closed position, causing last year’s postponement.

Various technical failures pushed the Starliner’s first manned flight into an unknown future, placing it far behind Musk SpaceX, whose Crew Dragon capsule, developed under the same NASA program as the Starliner, has already flown. five astronaut crews for the US space service.

NASA hopes Boeing can offer additional options for transporting astronauts to the space station. NASA in March assigned SpaceX three more missions to compensate for Boeing delays.

A team of Boeing and NASA engineers generally agrees that the cause of the stuck valves involves a chemical reaction between propellant, aluminum materials and the ingress of moisture from the Starliner’s wet launch site in Florida.

Aeronautical engineers and lawyers see it differently, blaming a cleaning chemical used by Boeing in ground tests, two sources said.

An Aerojet spokesman declined to comment.


“Tests to determine the root cause of the valve problem have been completed,” Boeing said in a statement, and the work did not identify the problems described by Aerojet.

NASA shares this view, Steve Stich, who oversees the Boeing and SpaceX crew programs for space service, told Reuters.

Boeing also said that Aerojet did not meet its conventional requirements to make the propulsion system durable enough to withstand the problems caused by chemical reactions.

Boeing last week drove the Starliner back to the launch pad for a third time before the upcoming launch, replacing the propulsion system with a new one with a temporary repair that prevents moisture from entering the valve section.

Boeing and NASA said they did not recreate any fully stuck valves during the nine months of testing, but rather measured the degree to which the valves were difficult to open.

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This approach was used to bring the Starliner back to the launch site quickly, two sources said.

NASA, Boeing, Aerojet and independent safety consultants will meet this week to reach a final decision on the cause of the valve problems and decide if the temporary fix will work.

Boeing officials are privately considering Aerojet’s explanation for the defective valves as an attempt to divert responsibility for the costly Starliner delay and avoid paying for a redesigned valve system, two sources said.

“It’s funny,” said one person who participated in the Boeing-NASA joint investigation into the value of Aerojet’s claim, speaking anonymously to discuss confidential supplier relationships. “Ask a valve manufacturer or propulsion system provider to write, ‘Yes, I broke it’ … this will never happen.”

After tests and software problems caused Starliner to fail to land on the space station in 2019, NASA officials acknowledged that they had placed too much trust in Boeing when they decided to devote more mechanical oversight to the newer SpaceX giant than the aerospace giant.

The rivalry with Aerojet is not the first Boeing Starliner subcontractor dispute. In 2017, Starliner had an accident during a ground test that forced the president of a different subcontractor to medically amputate his leg. The subcontractor sued and Boeing then settled the case.

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