Boeing is said to clash with key supplier Aerojet Rocketdyne ahead of the launch of the Starliner spacecraft

Boeing is at odds with Aerojet Rocketdyne, a key supplier for its Starliner spacecraft, as the US aerospace giant races to test launch the unmanned astronaut capsule and improve its reputation in the space sector, people familiar with the matter said.

The CST-100 Starliner is scheduled to launch May 19 from Florida on an Atlas 5 rocket bound for the International Space Station, with Boeing aiming to show NASA the spacecraft can safely ferry astronauts to and from the orbiting outpost. Software errors interrupted a similar unmanned test flight in 2019.

The mission is a crucial step in re-establishing Boeing as a viable rival to billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX, a propulsion system complicated by Boeing’s disagreements with propulsion systems supplier Aerojet, according to three people who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Chicago-based Boeing and El Segundo, Calif.-based Aerojet are at odds over the cause of a fuel valve problem in the Starliner propulsion system that forced a postponement of a test flight last July, with the two companies blaming each other, the sources said called.

The disagreement, which has not been previously reported, comes at a time when Boeing is already trying to emerge from successive crises that have hampered its jetliner business and drained cash.

The Aerojet dispute is the latest example of Boeing’s struggles with Starliner, a program that has cost the company US$595 million (around Rs.4,598 billion) in fees since 2019. In the face of NASA fixed-price contracts that leave little financial leeway for Boeing, the company has pushed ahead with the Starliner test.

Boeing admitted for the first time in a statement from a spokesman to Reuters that it ultimately intends to redesign Starliner’s valve system to prevent a repeat of the problem that forced last year’s test flight postponement. The Boeing statement said, “We are working on short- and long-term design changes to the valves.”

Thirteen fuel valves, part of a propulsion system that helps pilot Starliner into space, became stuck in the closed position and unresponsive, 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 well behind Musk’s SpaceX, whose Crew Dragon capsule, developed in the same NASA program as Starliner, already has five astronaut crews for the US space agency has flown.

NASA hopes Boeing can offer additional options to ferry astronauts to the space station. NASA gave SpaceX three more missions in March to make up for Boeing’s delays.

A team of Boeing and NASA engineers agree that the cause of the sticking valves is a chemical reaction between fuel, aluminum materials and moisture ingress from Starliner’s wet Florida launch pad.

Aerojet engineers and lawyers disagree, blaming a cleaning chemical Boeing used in ground tests, two of the sources said.

An Aerojet representative declined to comment.


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

NASA shares that view, Steve Stich, who oversees 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 tough enough to withstand problems caused by the chemical reactions.

Boeing rolled Starliner back to the launch pad a third time ahead of its upcoming launch last week after swapping out the propulsion system for a new one with a temporary solution that prevents moisture from entering the valve section.

Boeing and NASA said they didn’t recreate fully stuck valves during the nine-month test period, but instead measured the degree to which the valves became difficult to open.

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

NASA, Boeing, Aerojet and independent safety advisers will meet this week to make 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 failed valves as an attempt to deflect responsibility for the costly delay for Starliner 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 issue of Aerojet’s claim, which spoke anonymously to discuss confidential supplier relationships. “Getting a valve manufacturer or an actuation system supplier to write down, ‘Yeah, I messed that up’… that’s never going to happen.”

After testing and software glitches meant Starliner was unable to dock with the space station in 2019, NASA officials conceded they had placed too much trust in Boeing when they decided to give the newer SpaceX more technical oversight than the aerospace giant.

The feud with Aerojet isn’t the first dispute between Boeing and a Starliner subcontractor. In 2017, Starliner had an accident during a ground test that forced the president of another subcontractor to have his leg medically amputated. The subcontractor sued and Boeing subsequently settled the case.

© Thomson Reuters 2022 Boeing is said to clash with key supplier Aerojet Rocketdyne ahead of the launch of the Starliner spacecraft

Ryan Sederquist

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