The CST-100 Starliner is scheduled to launch in Florida on May 19 aboard an Atlas 5 rocket to the International Space Station, with Boeing aiming to demonstrate to NASA that the spacecraft is safe to transport astronauts to and from the orbital location. Software malfunctions interrupted a similar 2019 test flight without a crew.
The mission is a critical step toward re-establishing Boeing as a viable competitor to billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, an engine complicated by Boeing’s dispute with propulsion provider Aerojet, according to three people who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The dispute, which has not been previously reported, comes at a time when Boeing is already struggling to emerge from successive crises that have crippled its plane business and drained funds.
The Aerojet dispute is the latest example of Boeing’s conflict with Starliner, a program that has been costing the company $595 million in fees since 2019. Faced with fixed-price NASA contracts that leave Boeing plenty of wiggle room financially, the company has pushed ahead with the Starliner test.
Thirteen fuel valves that are part of the propulsion system that helps steer the Starliner in space were discovered stuck and unresponsive in the closed position, prompting a delay last year.
Various technical setbacks have pushed the Starliner’s first flight with people on board into an unknown future, putting it a long way from Musk’s SpaceX, whose Crew Dragon capsule, developed under the same NASA program as Starliner, has five crews for the US space agency.
NASA hopes that Boeing can provide additional options for transporting astronauts to the space station. In March, NASA gave SpaceX three more missions to make up for Boeing’s delays.
A team of Boeing and NASA engineers generally agree that the cause of stuck valves involves a chemical reaction between the fuel and aluminum materials and moisture intrusion from the Starliner wet launch site in Florida.
Two sources said Aerojet engineers and lawyers see the matter differently, blaming a cleaning chemical Boeing used in ground tests.
A representative for Aerojet declined to comment.
“Testing has been completed to determine the root cause of the valve problem,” Boeing said in its statement, and the work did not reveal the problems described by Aerojet.
NASA shares that view, Steve Stitch, who oversees the space agency’s Boeing and SpaceX crew programs, told Reuters.
Boeing also said the Aerojet did not meet its contractual requirements to make the propulsion system flexible enough to withstand problems caused by chemical reactions.
Boeing last week wheeled its Starliner back to the launch pad for the third time before the next launch, after replacing the propulsion system with a new one with a temporary fix that prevents moisture from seeping into the valve section.
Boeing and NASA said they did not completely recreate any stuck valves during the nine months of testing, and instead measure how difficult it is to open the valves.
Two sources said this approach was used to quickly return the Starliner to the launchpad.
NASA, Boeing, Aerojet and independent safety advisors are scheduled to meet this week to come to a final decision on the cause of the valve problems and to determine if the temporary fix will work.
Two of the sources said Boeing officials privately view Aerojet’s interpretation of the faulty valves as an attempt to shift responsibility for Starliner’s costly delays and to avoid paying for the redesigned valve system.
“It’s laughable,” said one of the people involved in Boeing and NASA’s joint value investigation of the Aerojet claim, speaking anonymously to discuss confidential relationships with suppliers. “Getting a valve maker or propulsion system provider to write, ‘Yeah, I screwed that up’…that would never happen.”
After testing and software issues caused the Starliner 2019 to fail to dock at the space station, NASA officials admitted they trusted Boeing a lot when they decided to devote more engineering oversight to the space giant’s newer SpaceX.
The feud with Aerojet isn’t the first feud with Boeing’s Starliner subcontractor. In 2017, Starliner had an accident during a ground test that forced the head of a different subcontractor to medically amputate his leg. The subcontractor sued, and Boeing later settled the case.
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