Boeing fires back at NASA Inspector General regarding commercial crew report

Space

WASHINGTON — Boeing said Nov. 18 that a report issued last week by NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) regarding the commercial crew program, including claims that the company considered withdrawing from the program, was inaccurate.

In a lengthy release, Boeing took on a number of statements in the Nov. 14 OIG report that concluded that NASA overpaid Boeing by hundreds of millions of dollars for work on the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, including claims by unnamed NASA officials that the payments were needed “to ensure the contractor continued as a second crew transportation provider.”

“Boeing has made significant investments in the Commercial Crew program, and we are fully committed to flying the CST-100 Starliner and keeping the International Space Station crewed and operational,” the company stated. “Any implication that we ever wavered in our participation in Commercial Crew is false.”

That statement was one of several rebuttals of conclusions made in the OIG report, focused on NASA’s decision to provide Boeing $287.2 million for “additional flexibilities” in its commercial crew work to address a potential gap in crew access. The report concluded that other approaches to dealing with that gap, including buying Soyuz seats, made $187 million of that additional funding unnecessary.

“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 in the table,” Boeing countered. “We cut lead time to launch by two-thirds and doubled the launch rate for an overall price increase of only 5%.”

Boeing also took issue with a chart in the report that estimated the per-seat cost of flying astronauts on Starliner at $90 million, which is higher than both SpaceX’s estimated cost of $55 million as well as NASA’s purchases of Soyuz seats, which have been as high as $86 million a seat. The Boeing and SpaceX cost estimates, the report stated, were estimated by taking the total value of each company’s contract, subtracting the cost to develop the spacecraft, and then assuming four astronauts on each of the six operational missions each contract covers.

“Boeing rejects the average seat price assessment in the IG report,” the company responded. It argued that each mission will include “the equivalent of a fifth passenger in cargo” that should be taken into account. That would reduce the average seat price to a little more than $70 million, still higher than SpaceX even if its Crew Dragon does not carry the equivalent of a fifth passenger in cargo.

Boeing, though, would not provide a specific per-seat price for its missions. “For proprietary, competitive reasons Boeing does not disclose specific pricing information, but we are confident our average seat pricing to NASA is below the figure cited.”

The company argued its higher contract value was due to the fact that SpaceX had, in effect, a head start since its Crew Dragon vehicle is based on the cargo version of the spacecraft developed for the commercial cargo program. “Because of our history in spaceflight, we understood how difficult this program would be on a short timeline, and priced our offering accordingly,” the company stated, while “positioning our pricing to be sustainable long-term.”

Boeing also made some criticism of SpaceX by emphasizing the “superior value” of Starliner. That includes using “the most reliable lifter in the business,” United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5, as well as landing Starliner “on land, not a splashdown, something Boeing considers much safer.” SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will splash down, as will NASA’s Orion spacecraft.

The company also emphasized that all qualification tests of its parachutes have been completed “without a single test failure, demonstrating the resiliency of our parachute system even in dual-fault scenarios.” SpaceX has acknowledged failures in some past tests, although it recently completed 13 consecutive successful tests.

The statement does not note, though, that one of Starliner’s three main parachutes failed to deploy during the vehicle’s pad abort test Nov. 4. Boeing had previously classified that as a “deployment anomaly, not a parachute failure” that was caused by a misplaced pin that was supposed to link a drogue parachute with the main parachute.

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