DUBAI, U.A.E. — Boeing announced Oct. 27 it is taking an additional $185 million charge against its earnings to cover the costs to get its CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle flying again.
The company announced the charge in its release of its second quarter financial results, saying the charge was caused by “the second uncrewed Orbital Flight Test now anticipated in 2022 and the latest assessment of remaining work.” The company took a $410 million charge in January 2020 to cover the costs it anticipated at the time to complete a second uncrewed flight after software problems truncated the original OFT mission in December 2019.
Boeing had planned to perform that second uncrewed test flight, OFT-2, in early August but scrubbed a launch attempt hours before scheduled liftoff when valves in the spacecraft’s propulsion system failed to open. Engineers found that 13 valves were stuck shut, most likely when nitrogen tetroxide propellant seeped through the valves and mixed with moisture, creating nitric acid that corroded the valves.
At an Oct. 19 briefing, NASA and Boeing officials said they were continuing to investigate the problem, including why the corrosion was seen on the Starliner for OFT-2 when it did not take place before the first OFT mission or during a hotfire test of the Starliner service module and a pad abort test in 2019. That ongoing work included removing valves from the spacecraft for extensive testing, as well as exposing similar valves to the same conditions, such as humidity and temperature, experienced for OFT-2.
Boeing Chief Executive David Calhoun briefly discussed the issue during an earnings call with financial analysts. “As was recently shared, the NASA and Boeing teams have identified the most probable cause of the valve malfunction on our commercial crew Starliner, and we are working through corrective and preventive actions,” he said. “We are currently working toward opportunities for the second Orbital Flight Test launch in 2022, pending hardware readiness, the rocket manifest and space station availability.”
“As we have demonstrated, we will continue to prioritize the safety of our employees, crew members and spacecraft as we progress,” he added. He did not discuss the issue in further detail, and none of the analysts who asked questions on the call brought it up.
When Boeing took the original earnings charge, it said it did so because it committed to redo the uncrewed flight test at no expense to NASA, a point a Boeing executive reaffirmed at the Oct. 19 briefing. “There’s no additional charges that will be going to the government for this. This is something that The Boeing Company will make sure we’ve got covered as we get this vehicle prepared,” said John Vollmer, vice president and program manager for Boeing’s commercial crew program.
He declined to say whether these additional costs would prevent Boeing from ever making a profit on the Starliner program, for which the company received a $4.2 billion fixed-price contract from NASA to develop and operate in 2014. “I will say that we are 100% committed to fulfilling our contract with the government, and we intend to do that,” he said.
Boeing’s struggles stand in contrast with NASA’s other commercial crew provider, SpaceX, which is gearing up for its third operational crewed mission to the International Space Station on Oct. 31. Those plans have not been slowed down by technical glitches, including one with the toilet on Crew Dragon for which SpaceX is completing a fix ahead of that launch.
“They’ve had some challenges, there’s no doubt about it,” NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy said of Boeing in an Oct. 27 interview during the 72nd International Astronautical Congress here.
She declined to comment on any differences in the approaches Boeing and SpaceX take to addressing technical issues, other than Boeing has long used a traditional systems engineering approach when working with NASA. “We’re all learning from each other because sometimes you really need that systems engineering approach to resolve issues, and then other times you can go fast without problems,” she said.
“It’s an interesting question. It hasn’t escaped notice that it has taken longer,” she said of Boeing. “But, we’re working with them. It’s hard.”