Boeing Fights Back on NASA Inspector General Report

Boeing Fights Back on NASA Inspector General Report

Boeing issued a strongly worded defense of its work on NASA’s commercial crew program today following a blistering report from NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) last week.  The company disputes many aspects of the OIG report, including its calculation of how much NASA is paying to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) on its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft.

The OIG report concluded NASA is paying Boeing $90 million per seat on the CST-100 Starliner, compared to $55 million per seat for rides on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.  By comparison, it currently pays Russia about $80 million per seat.

A test version of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft during a Pad Abort Test, November 9, 2019. Screengrab.

Boeing declined to say what the right number is for Starliner.  The company asserted that it “does not disclose specific pricing information” for proprietary reasons “but we are confident our average seat pricing to NASA is below the figure cited.” For example, it claims that it is flying the “equivalent” of a fifth passenger because the spacecraft will also be carrying cargo and the OIG pricing should have been based on five, not four, passengers per flight.

However, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon can accommodate up to seven passengers. NASA is choosing to use it for only four and utilize the rest of the volume for cargo, just as it needs only four seats on Starliner and is using the rest for cargo.

Among the OIG’s other findings was that NASA “overpaid” Boeing by $287.2 million because of an arrangement made in 2016 that the agency and Boeing said added flexibility to when the last four of the six contracted missions will launch.

Boeing pushed back on that conclusion both in an initial statement to reporters on Friday and the expanded version issued today.  “Contrary to the conclusion in the IG report, Boeing contends that the benefits in shorter lead time and flexibility in adjusting launch dates are well worth the higher price….”

Today Boeing also restated that, contrary to assertions in the OIG report, it never considered withdrawing from the program if it it did not get the extra money. “Any implication that we ever wavered in our participation in Commercial Crew is false.”  The OIG did not make that assertion itself, but explained that was one of the reasons it was given by NASA for the additional payment.

Boeing went on to describe differences in its system that it believes gives CST-100 Starliner “superior value” that the OIG did not mention: NASA crews can control the vehicle manually if necessary; it uses a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 booster, “the most reliable lifter in the business” (80 launches, with no mission failures); it lands on the ground (like Russia’s Soyuz) instead of water; and Starliner astronauts train in Houston with Boeing and NASA working side-by-side.

The first Starliner crew is composed of two NASA astronauts and one Boeing astronaut, Chris Ferguson, who was a NASA astronaut who flew four missions before joining the company.

By comparison, Crew Dragon is fully automated; uses SpaceX’s own Falcon 9 rocket (78 launches, with one in-flight total failure and one partial failure, not including the loss of a vehicle during a pre-launch test); lands in the ocean like Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo; and the crew members are from NASA’s astronaut office since SpaceX does not have its own astronauts.

When NASA chose Boeing and SpaceX as the commercial crew contractors, Boeing was awarded $4.2 billion while SpaceX won $2.6 billion.  When asked at the time about the discrepancy, NASA replied that it awarded what the companies bid.  Today, Boeing argued it had the more challenging task since SpaceX was modifying an existing vehicle — the cargo version of Dragon — while it was starting from scratch and yet it pretty much is keeping up with SpaceX.

Boeing just completed a Pad Abort Test last week. Space X did its comparable test in 2015, but it is also performing an In-Flight Abort test that is expected to take place in the next few weeks. Boeing chose not to do that test and it is not required under its contract.

Neither Boeing nor SpaceX will commit to when they will launch crews into space.  Both must conduct an uncrewed flight test and a crewed flight test to the International Space Station as part of the certification process.  SpaceX successfully completed its uncrewed test in March — Demo-1.  Boeing will launch its uncrewed test on December 17.  The results of those tests and others will determine when people will board the spacecraft for the first time.  Until then, NASA will remain dependent on Russia to ferry astronauts to and from ISS, a matter of some concern since the last contracted flight NASA has with Russia will launch in April 2020.

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