The CST-100 Starliner is scheduled to launch from an Atlas 5 rocket to the International Space Station on May 19 in Florida, as Boeing aims to show NASA that the spacecraft is safe to transport astronauts to the orbital location. Software failures have reduced the number of similar 2019 unmanned test aircraft.
Billionaire businessman Elon Musk said in an interview with Anonymous that a potential competitor to SpaceX was an important step in re-establishing Boeing, which was further complicated by Boeing’s dispute with the propulsion system provider Aerojet.
The previously undisclosed dispute comes at a time when Boeing is already grappling with a series of crises that have crippled its aircraft business and drained funds.
The controversy over the jet planes is the latest example of Boeing’s struggles with Starliner, which plans to spend $595 million on the company from 2019 onwards. The company has launched a Starliner test, where Boeing cannot be financially swayed by facing fixed-price NASA deals.
Thirteen fuel valves that were part of the propulsion system that enabled the Starliner to operate in space were found stuck in a closed and inactive position, which were postponed last year.
Several technical setbacks propelled the first Starliner into the unknown future, behind Muskin’s SpaceX, whose Dragon crew capsule, built under the same NASA program as the Starliner, sent five astronauts to the US space agency.
NASA hopes Boeing will offer additional options for transporting astronauts to the space station. NASA submitted three more missions to SpaceX in March to make up for Boeing’s delay.
Boeing and a team of NASA engineers generally agreed that the cause of the shut-off valves was a chemical reaction between the impeller and aluminum material and moisture leakage from the launch pad in the humid Florida Starliner.
Two sources said Aerojet engineers and lawyers saw it differently, and blamed it on cleaning chemicals Boeing uses in ground tests.
A representative of Aerojet declined to comment.
“Testing to find the root cause of the valve problem has ended,” Boeing said in a statement, adding that the problems described by Aerojet had not succeeded.
Steve Stitch, who oversees projects for the space agency’s Boeing and SpaceX team, told Reuters that NASA shares that view.
Boeing also said the Aerojet did not meet contract requirements for the flexibility of the propulsion system to resist problems caused by chemical reactions.
Boeing last week returned the Starliner to the launch pad for the third time before the next launch, replacing the new propulsion system with a temporary fix to prevent moisture from seeping into the valve area.
Boeing and NASA did not fully recreate the clogged valves during the nine-month test, instead measuring how hard the valves were to open.
Two sources said that this approach has been used to return the Starliner to the launch pad soon.
NASA, Boeing, Aerojet and independent security advisors are scheduled to meet this week to come to a final decision on the cause of the fuse problem and to determine if the temporary modification will work.
Two sources said Boeing officials are personally considering explaining the defective Aerojet valves to shift responsibility for costly delays to Starliner and avoid paying for the redesigned valve system.
It’s absurd,” said one of the people involved in the Boeing-NASA joint investigation into the value case, who spoke about the Aerojet claim and spoke anonymously to discuss confidential relationships with suppliers. “To write to the valve maker or the propulsion system provider, ‘Yeah, I screwed it up’…never happened.”
NASA officials acknowledge that Boeing relied too heavily on the space agency when it decided to devote more engineering oversight to the new SpaceX than it did, after test failures and software problems with a layover at the 2019 Starliner space station.
The Aerojet feud wasn’t the first battle with Boeing’s Starliner subcontractor. In 2017, Starliner had an accident during a ground test that forced the head of another subcontractor to medically amputate his leg. The subcontractor sued, and Boeing then settled the case.