Virgin Galactic mothership
Virgin Galactic selected Aurora Flight Sciences to build two new "mothership" aircraft for its next-generation suborbital spaceplanes in 2022. Credit: Virgin Galactic

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Virgin Galactic has filed a countersuit against Boeing over a project to develop a new mothership aircraft, arguing in part that Boeing performed poorly.

The suit, filed April 4 in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, comes two weeks after Boeing filed suit against Virgin Galactic in Virginia, alleging that Virgin refused to pay more than $25 million in invoices on the project and misappropriated trade secrets.

The dispute revolves around a project announced in 2022 to develop a new aircraft that would replace Virgin’s existing VMS Eve as an air-launch platform for its suborbital spaceplanes. Boeing, in its suit, said that work on the project ended in 2023 after preliminary design work on the plane by Aurora Flight Sciences, a Boeing subsidiary, concluded that the aircraft could not be built on the timeline or budget desired by Virgin Galactic.

Virgin, in its suit, claims that Boeing performed “shoddy and incomplete” work on the initial phases of the project, which included an integrated baseline review (IBR) and preliminary design review (PDR). Neither review was acceptable, Virgin stated.

“The quality of the IBR Boeing conducted was so poor that Virgin Galactic and Boeing agreed that Boeing was required to redo the review,” the complaint states. The second IBR was even worse, Virgin said, providing less than half of the required deliverables, and failed to include items such as organization charts, a program execution plan and risk management process.

Virgin’s complaint states that in the subsequent PDR, Boeing provided only 348 of the required 580 “artifacts,” or items of intellectual property and supporting analyses required. “These 348 artifacts were of such poor quality that only sixty percent (60%) of them had any value,” Virgin stated. “These missing artifacts related to critical aspects of the Mothership program, including avionics, design, flight physics, propulsion, stress engineering, vehicle sub-systems, and material and process.”

“Boeing’s failures with respect to its agreement with Virgin Galactic are consistent with Boeing’s record of poor quality control and mismanagement,” the complaint concluded.

The suit also addresses allegations by Boeing that Virgin Galactic misappropriated its trade secrets in the form of two “math models” of the mothership design that Boeing says in its suit that it inadvertently provided to Virgin along with test data about a composite material. Virgin says the documents are either intellectual property that belongs to Virgin Galactic or which it has a license to use under the master agreement between Boeing and Virgin.

Virgin, in the suit, seeks declaratory judgement that it did not misappropriate trade secrets as well as damages that, at a minimum, represent the difference between the $45.6 million Virgin paid Boeing under the contract and the “substantially lower actual value” of the work performed. The complaint does not provide the company’s estimate for that actual value.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...