Boeing clashes with key supplier ahead of Starliner spacecraft launch

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

The mission is a crucial step towards restoring Boeing as a viable rival to billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX, an effort complicated by Boeing’s disagreement with propulsion systems supplier Aerojet, according to three people who spoke out. on condition of anonymity.

Chicago-based Boeing (BA (BA)) and Aerojet, based in El Segundo, Calif. (ARJD (AJRD)) disagree over the cause of a problem involving 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 previously unreported disagreement comes at a time when Boeing is already scrambling to emerge from successive crises that have dogged its jetliner business and drained cash.

The Aerojet dispute is the latest illustration of Boeing’s struggles with Starliner, a program that has cost the company $595 million in fees since 2019. Faced with NASA’s fixed-price contracts that leave Boeing with little financial leeway , the company continued the Starliner test.

Boeing, in a statement provided by a spokesperson to Reuters, acknowledged for the first time that it ultimately intends to redesign Starliner’s valve system to prevent the problem that forced the postponement of the flight from last year’s trial does not happen again. Boeing’s statement states that “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 steer Starliner through space were discovered stuck and unresponsive in the closed position, leading to last year’s postponement.

The various technical setbacks have pushed Starliner’s first flight with people on board into an unknown future, putting it far behind Musk’s SpaceX, whose Crew Dragon capsule, developed under the same NASA program as Starliner, has already piloted five crews of astronauts for the US space agency.

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

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

Aerojet engineers and lawyers see it differently, blaming a cleaning chemical that Boeing used during ground tests, two of the sources said.

A representative for Aerojet declined to comment.


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

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

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

Last week, Boeing brought Starliner back to the launch pad for the third time before the upcoming launch, after replacing the propulsion system with a new one with a temporary solution that prevents moisture from seeping into the section of the valve.

Boeing and NASA said they did not recreate fully seized valves during nine months of testing, instead measuring the degree to which the valves struggled to open.

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

NASA, Boeing, Aerojet and independent safety advisers are due to meet this week to come to a final decision on the cause of the valve issues and whether the temporary fix will work.

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

“It’s laughable,” a person involved in the joint Boeing-NASA value investigation said of Aerojet’s claim, speaking anonymously to discuss confidential supplier relationships. “Asking a valve maker or propulsion system supplier to write, ‘Yeah, I screwed that up’…that’s never gonna happen.”

After tests and software glitches caused Starliner’s failure in 2019 to dock with the space station, NASA officials admitted they had placed too much faith in Boeing when they decided to spend more technical oversight to the new SpaceX than to the aerospace giant.

The feud with Aerojet is not Boeing’s first Starliner subcontractor feud. In 2017, Starliner had an accident during a ground test that forced the president of another contractor to have his leg medically amputated. The subcontractor sued and Boeing later settled the case.

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