Boeing’s disputes with Starliner spacecraft suppliers uncovered

Image for article titled An amputated leg and 13 faulty valves: Boeing's disputes with Starliner spacecraft suppliers uncovered

Photo: Boeing

All set for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft to fly to the International Space Station for the first time. The Starliner is expected to lift off on a ULA Atlas V rocket on Thursday, May 19 at 22:54 UTC.

In this uncrewed test mission, Boeing will have to demonstrate to NASA that the Starliner is capable of docking and undocking from the International Space Station autonomously and safely performing atmospheric reentry for astronauts in the Commercial Crew Program.

This is the same test that SpaceX’s Crew Dragon ship successfully carried out in March 2019, but the Boeing capsule did not suffer the same fate. On its maiden flight in December 2019, the Starliner was unable to dock with the International Space Station due to a mis-set clock and two critical software failures. In July 2021, a second orbital test flight was called off because 13 of 24 oxidizer valves in the spacecraft’s propulsion system failed to open during ground tests.

The valves were corroded, but Boeing did not then find the cause of the problem. Now a report from Reuters uncovers the dispute between the company and one of its key suppliers, Aerojet Rocketdyne, over the valves.

According to the report, there is a disagreement between Boeing and Aerojet about the root cause of the problem. Boeing believes that the valves became stuck due to a chemical reaction between the oxidizer, the aluminum parts and a moisture intrusion at the launch site (the Kennedy Space Center in Florida). Aerojet’s engineers and lawyers, for their part, blame a cleaning chemical that Boeing used during its ground tests.

Boeing argues that Aerojet failed to meet one of its contractual requirements: to make the Starliner’s propulsion system strong enough to withstand such chemical reactions. NASA is on your side.

Boeing sources privately commented that Aerojet’s explanation of the valve problem is an attempt to deflect responsibility for the costly Starliner delay and avoid paying for a redesigned valve system, Reuters explains. That said, Boeing hasn’t redesigned any valves in the nine months since testing. With the approval of NASA, the company has implemented a temporary solution to prevent moisture from seeping into this part of the spacecraft before getting to work on a complete redesign, which it does not rule out.

In any case, this is not the first dispute between Boeing and one of the Starliner’s suppliers. The company settled out of court with Timothy Lachenmeier, president of a company called NearSpace, after the man lost a leg in parachute testing.

In 2017, Lachenmeier and his team they were preparing the starliner to test the ship’s parachutes in a balloon flight of 12 km altitude. The Starliner was tied to the ground. Lachenmeier was on a ladder next to the capsule making adjustments when the balloon’s cable cutters activated prematurely and hurled the craft upward, knocking the ladder to one side. Lachenmeier fell from a height of six meters. After four months of medical procedures, he underwent a below-the-knee amputation of his right leg. In a lawsuit filed in 2020, the man alleged that Boeing had supplied him with the ladders he used during the test and that they had been banned from the company for two years “because they knew they could cause catastrophic injuries.”

Beyond these legal disputes with its suppliers, Boeing faces a huge image problem with the CST-100 Starliner. The spacecraft was supposed to compete with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon to deliver astronauts to low-Earth orbit from US soil, but the Crew Dragon has already flown five manned flights for NASA and two for private companies, while the Starliner has yet to fly. has docked with the International Space Station for its uncrewed test.

For the sanity of Boeing engineers and the company’s finances, let’s hope Thursday’s test goes well. Boeing has accumulated 595 million dollars of cost overruns in the Starliner program since 2019. The money comes out of his pocket, since the contract with NASA is fixed price.

Leave a Comment