The purpose of the spaceship's visit is to prove to NASA that Boeing spacecraft can safely transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station. In 2019, a software failure in the spacecraft led to a similar unmanned flight test interruption.
The task is a key step in Boeing's competition with Elon Musk's SpaceX. But Boeing's disagreement with Aerojet, a supplier of propulsion systems, complicates the status quo, according to three people who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In July last year, there was a problem with the fuel valve in the propulsion system of the Starline spacecraft, and Boeing halted the planned launch. Sources said Chicago-based Boeing and El Segundo, Calif.-based Aerojet Rocketdyne disagreed on the cause of the problem, and the two companies were blaming each other.
Boeing's Starline spacecraft has experienced twists and turns since its launch, and the dispute with Aerojet Rocketdyne is only the latest example of a series of problems with the project. Boeing has spent $595 million on the Starline spaceship program since 2019. The company has a fixed-price contract with NASA, and unexpected circumstances have left Boeing with little room for financial manoeuvre, and the company is already pushing the ship test program out of its own pocket.
Boeing admitted for the first time in a statement that it eventually intends to redesign the fuel valve of the Starline spacecraft to prevent a repeat of the problems that delayed the test flight last year. "We are making short-term and long-term design changes to the valve," Boeing said in a statement. "
As part of the propulsion system, fuel valves mainly help the spacecraft fly in space, but Boeing found that 13 of the fuel valves were closed before the launch and there was no response, resulting in a delay in spacecraft testing last year.
Various technical problems make the first manned flight test of the Starline spacecraft still unknown, leaving Boeing far behind Musk's SpaceX. The latter's manned dragon spacecraft has completed five manned space missions for NASA.
NASA hopes Boeing will provide more options for transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station. In March, NASA signed three more manned space missions with SpaceX to make up for the demand gap caused by delays in Boeing's project.
A team of Boeing and NASA engineers agreed that the valve jammed mainly because of chemical reactions between propellants, aluminum and moisture at the Florida launch site.
Aerojet Rocketdyne engineers and lawyers have different views, accusing Boeing of using a chemical cleaner in the spacecraft's ground tests, two sources said.
Aerojet Rocketdyne representatives declined to comment.
"testing to determine the root cause of the valve problem has been completed," Boeing said in a statement. " Boeing did not find the problem described by Aerojet Rocketdyne.
Steve Stich, head of NASA's Boeing and SpaceX manned space programs, said NASA agreed with Boeing.
Boeing also said that Aerojet Rocketdyne's design did not meet the requirements of the contract and that the propulsion system was not flexible enough to withstand problems caused by chemical reactions.
Boeing pushed the Starline spacecraft back to the launch pad for the third time last week, replacing a new propulsion system and preventing water from seeping into the valve through temporary repairs.
Boeing and NASA said that during the nine-month test, they did not repeat the failure that the ship's valve was completely stuck, but measured the extent to which the valve was difficult to open.
Two sources said that this method is to allow the "interstellar line" spacecraft to quickly return to the launch pad.
NASA, Boeing, Aerojet Rocketdyne and independent safety consultants will meet this week to make a final decision on the cause of the valve problem and to determine whether the interim repair plan is effective.
Boeing executives privately believe that Aerojet Rocketdyne's explanation of the valve failure is to pass the buck and avoid paying for the redesigned valve system, according to two sources.
"this is ridiculous," a person involved in the Boeing-NASA joint investigation said of the statement issued by Aerojet Rocketdyne. "ask the valve manufacturer or propulsion system supplier to write 'Yes, I screwed it up'. It will never happen. "
After testing and software problems led to the failure of Starline spacecraft to successfully dock with the International Space Station in 2019, NASA officials admitted that they trusted Boeing too much and decided to exercise more oversight of the new SpaceX company.
The unhappiness with Aerojet Rocketdyne is not the first time Boeing has disagreed with the ship's subcontractor. In 2017, the Starline spacecraft had an accident during a ground test, resulting in an amputation by the president of another subcontractor. The subcontractor filed a lawsuit on the matter, and the two sides subsequently reached a settlement.