Boeing takes $410 million charge to cover potential additional commercial crew test flight

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WASHINGTON — Boeing is taking a $410 million charge to its earnings to cover a potential additional uncrewed test flight of its CST-100 Starliner, although company officials say there’s no decision yet about whether such a flight is necessary.

The company said in its fourth quarter earnings release Jan. 29 that it was taking the charge “primarily to provision for an additional uncrewed mission for the Commercial Crew program, performance and mix.” It noted that NASA was still reviewing data from the Orbital Flight Test (OFT) mission in December that was cut short, without a docking at the International Space Station, by a timer problem.

“NASA is in the process of reviewing the data from our December 2019 mission,” Greg Smith, chief financial officer at Boeing, said in an earnings call. “NASA’s approval is required to proceed with a flight test with astronauts on board. Given this obligation, we are provisioned for another uncrewed mission.” Neither he nor Boeing’s new chief executive, David Calhoun, elaborated on that during the call, which was devoted primarily to issues related to the company’s 737 MAX airliner.

Boeing officials, speaking at the 23rd Annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference here Jan. 29, did not directly address that charge, but played up the aspects of the test flight that went well while noting the investigation into the root cause of the timer problem was ongoing.

“We’ve been doing a lot of work internally looking at the results and we found that the vehicle actually performed exceptionally when you look at all the other activities that it did,” said Peter McGrath, global sales and marketing director for space exploration at Boeing Defense and Space. “Right now we’re working with NASA, with an independent team, to look at root cause and corrective actions we need to do for the next mission.”

“The mission didn’t go as planned because we made a mistake,” said Jim Chilton, senior vice president for space and launch at Boeing Defense and Space. The timer issue, he said, caused the spacecraft to think it was in a different phase of the mission immediately after separation from its Atlas 5 launch vehicle.

Other aspects of the spacecraft, he said, performed well. That included, he said, the spacecraft’s thrusters, a topic of particular scrutiny since they were stressed during the mission. “We had a great propulsion test. It was in advertent. We didn’t plan to fire those thrusters as many times in a row early in first flight as we did,” he said. “The good news is they worked like a charm.”

Some of the thrusters did have to be turned off because they heated up, Chilton said. Those thrusters were turned back on “incrementally,” he said, with the exception of one thruster that did not turn back on. “We feel pretty good about our propulsion system.”

He added that a few things “surprised” them, such as initial communications problems once Starliner was in orbit, which may be simply the attitude the spacecraft was in. He said an initial set of data reviews from the mission should be completed by the end of this week. “We’re really not seeing any big showstoppers, although we do see things we think we’ll change,” he said.

In an interview after his remarks, Chilton said the decision to take the $410 million charge was a precautionary one. “We’re ready for anything,” he said. “NASA is going to decide what we should do next, but they could decide to refly an OFT, and if that’s what they want to do, we’re ready for it.”

There is no formal timeline for a decision on whether to fly another uncrewed Starliner, although Chilton said that he expected it to come by the end of February.