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Boeing and Aerojet Rocketdyne fight over cause of Starliner valve problem

In a Reuters story today, it was revealed that Boeing and Aerojet Rocketdyne are in a fight over the cause of Starliner valve problem, where thirteen valves failed to work and caused the scrub of a launch attempt last summer, delaying almost a year to next week.

A team of Boeing and NASA engineers is in general agreement that the cause of the stuck valves involves a chemical reaction between propellant, aluminum materials and the intrusion of moisture from Starliner’s humid Florida launch site.

Aerojet engineers and lawyers see it differently, blaming a cleaning chemical that Boeing has used in ground tests, two of the sources said.

It appears that Aerojet is attempting to put the blame on Boeing because it might be liable for the cost of redesigning the valves, as well as other costs associated with the delays since last year.

The article also reveals that the valves being used in the Starliner capsule to be launched next week have only a temporary fix for the problem, and that Boeing intends to redesign them to prevent the problem in the future.

All in all, this whole fiasco does not speak well for either Boeing or Aerojet. It remains completely inexplicable for any spacecraft to be built with this kind of valve problem, now, after six decades of launches from wet and humid Florida. The problem reeks of bad design or poor quality control procedures by both companies.

The article further confirms these quality control problems by this tidbit in its last paragraph:

In 2017, Starliner had an accident during a ground test that forced the president of a different subcontractor to have his leg medically amputated. The subcontractor sued, and Boeing subsequently settled the case.

That this accident has been kept out of the news is somewhat shocking. For it to happen at all reveals a lot about the sloppy way Boeing operates these days.

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9 comments

  • Jeff Wright

    Oh, but having Boeing execs threatened with amputations is perfect-we will call those “cost-minus” contracts. I’ll get my bush axe.

  • Richard M

    All in all, this whole fiasco does not speak well for either Boeing or Aerojet.

    It really doesn’t.

    I am inclined to think that Boeing’s/NASA’s diagnosis is right rather than AJR’s. But it’s a bad look that Boeing didn’t identify it a lot sooner.

    But we also see the value of vertical integration. SpaceX designs and makes its own valves and thrusters. That makes identifying flaws easier and fixing them quicker. (And with no litigation risk.)

  • sippin_bourbon

    Finger pointing.
    Not a good sign.

  • sippin_bourbon

    The other possibility is that neither party has a lot of confidence in the success of this test mission and are trying to lay the ground work for the inevitable cascade of blame that should follow.

    I hope I am wrong.

  • V-Man

    You couldn’t pay me enough to fly on that deathtrap.

  • Col Beausabre

    “But we also see the value of vertical integration.”

    Henry Ford, call your office

    “The plant he built in River Rouge embodied his idea of an integrated operation encompassing production, assembly, and transportation. To complete the vertical integration of his empire, he purchased a railroad, acquired control of 16 coal mines and about 700,000 (285,000 hectares) acres of timberland, built a sawmill, acquired a fleet of Great Lakes freighters to bring ore from his Lake Superior mines, and even bought a glassworks.

    The move from Highland Park to the completed River Rouge plant was accomplished in 1927. At 8 o’clock any morning, just enough ore for the day would arrive on a Ford freighter from Ford mines in Michigan and Minnesota and would be transferred by conveyor to the blast furnaces and transformed into steel with heat supplied by coal from Ford mines in Kentucky. It would continue on through the foundry molds and stamping mills and exactly 28 hours after arrival as ore would emerge as a finished automobile. Similar systems handled lumber for floorboards, rubber for tires, and so on. At the height of its success the company’s holdings stretched from the iron mines of northern Michigan to the jungles of Brazil, and it operated in 33 countries around the globe. Most remarkably, not one cent had been borrowed to pay for any of it. It was all built out of profits from the Model T.”

  • John

    Valves man. If you wanna spacecraft, you gots to have valves. Like I’m talking about valves, you know wat I’m sayin?

  • Mitch S.

    I expect most readers here have heard about Boeing moving it’s HQ out of Chicago.
    I thought “Great!, they realized they needed to move back to Washington to get back to their roots as a great aerospace engineering/manufacturing company”
    But alas the Washington Boeing is moving to ends in D.C. The Virginia suburbs of D.C. that is.
    To focus on “wineing, dining and pocket-lining” pols and bureaucrats.
    They ought to build a brothel on the HQ campus to cover that means of influence too.

  • Edward

    From the article:

    Aerojet engineers and lawyers see it differently, blaming a cleaning chemical that Boeing has used in ground tests, two of the sources said.

    If Aerojet recommended a certain cleaning chemical and Boeing used a different chemical, then Aerojet may be correct. Presumably, Aerojet would have tested their recommended chemical and approved its use but did not test the other chemical and did not approve its use.

    On the other hand, my recollection is that Boeing had operated those valves only a few weeks earlier, so whatever the problem, it almost certainly occurred sometime in those weeks, although it is possible that the root cause occurred earlier.

    Should we be worried that no definitive cause was found? Probably.

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