Exclusive-Boeing clashes with major supplier ahead of Starliner spacecraft launch

The CST-100 Starliner will be launched on May 19 in Florida aboard an Atlas 5 rocket en route to the International Space Station. Boeing wants to show NASA that the spacecraft can safely deliver astronauts to and from the orbital outpost. Software failures halted a similar unmanned test flight in 2019.

The mission is an important step in re -establishing Boeing as a viable rival to billionaire businessman Elon Musk’s SpaceX, a step complicated by Boeing’s disagreement with propulsion system supplier Aerojet, according to three people who spoke to cover of ‘anonymity.

Boeing, which is headquartered in Chicago, and Aerojet, which is headquartered in El Segundo, Calif., Clashed over the cause of the problem involving fuel valves in the Starliner’s propulsion system that forced it to postpone a test flight last year. July where the two companies passed the buck, sources said.

The previously unreported conflict comes at a time when Boeing is struggling to emerge from a series of crises that have damaged its airliner business and then its money.

The Aerojet dispute is the latest illustration of Boeing’s struggles with Starliner, a program that has cost the company $ 595 million since 2019. Financially, the company lobbied for the Starliner test.

In a statement issued by a Reuters spokesman, Boeing acknowledged for the first time that it ultimately intended to redesign the Starliner’s valve system to avoid a recurrence of the problem that forced the postponement of the test flight last year. . The Boeing statement says “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 avoid the Starliner in space were found stuck and unresponsive in the closed position, prompting the postponement last year.

Various technical setbacks pushed the Starliner’s first flight with people aboard into an unknown future, placing it behind Musk’s SpaceX, the Crew Dragon capsule, built under the same NASA’s program as Starliner, has already delivered five crews of astronauts for the Americans. galaxy agency.

NASA hopes Boeing can provide additional options for bringing astronauts to the space station. In March, NASA gave SpaceX three additional missions to make up for Boeing’s delays.

A team of engineers from Boeing and NASA generally agree that the cause of the valve adhesion was a chemical reaction between propellant, aluminum materials and moisture intrusion from the Starliner’s damp launch site in Florida.

Aerojet engineers and lawyers see something different, blaming a chemical cleaner used by Boeing in ground tests, two of the sources said.

A representative for Aerojet declined to comment.

ROOT CAUSES

“Testing has been completed to determine the root of the valve problem,” Boeing said in its statement, and the work did not find the issues Aerojet described.

NASA shared that view, Steve Stich, who oversees Boeing and SpaceX crewing programs for the space agency, told Reuters.

Boeing also said the Aerojet failed to meet its contractual requirements to make the propulsion system robust enough to withstand problems caused by chemical reactions.

Last week, Boeing returned the Starliner to the launch pad for the third time before the next launch, after replacing the propulsion system with a new one featuring a temporary fix that prevents moisture from penetrating the valve section.

Boeing and NASA said they did not re-create the fully stuck valves within nine months of testing, but instead measured the level at which the valves were struggling to open.

This technique was used to quickly get the Starliner back on the launch pad, two of the sources said.

NASA, Boeing, Aerojet and independent safety advisers are scheduled to meet this week to precisely determine the cause of the valve issues and decide if the temporary fix will work.

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

“It’s ridiculous,” said a person involved in the joint Boeing-NASA investigation into the value of Aerojet’s claim, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential deals with providers. “Getting a valve manufacturer or a propulsion system supplier to write, ‘Yes, I’m wrong’ … that’s never going to happen.”

After the testing and software issues that caused the Starliner to fail to dock the space station in 2019, NASA officials admitted they trusted Boeing too much when they decided to spend more engineering supervision on the new SpaceX than in the aerospace glove.

The fight with the Aerojet was not Boeing’s first fight with a Starliner contractor. In 2017, the Starliner had an accident in a ground test that forced the president of another contractor to undergo a medical leg amputation. The subcontractor sued, and Boeing later settled the case.

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