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Eric Berger - Jun 7, 2023 11:28 pm UTC
A Colorado-based company, Wilson Aerospace, is suing Boeing for what it claims to be theft of its intellectual property. At issue is a specific tool, known as a Fluid Fitting Torque Device-3, that Wilson developed and Boeing said it needed to attach four main engines to the Space Launch System rocket.
The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in US District Court in Seattle, where Boeing was originally based. The lawsuit alleges that Boeing reached out to Wilson in March 2014 after learning that the company had created the special torque device, which can precisely install high-torque fittings and nuts in tightly confined spaces.
The engine section at the bottom of the Space Launch System rocket, where four RS-25 engines are mated to the large core stage with its propellant and oxidizer tanks, is one such tight space. Boeing is the prime contractor for the core stage of the Space Launch System rocket, which launched NASA's uncrewed Artemis I mission around the Moon in November 2022.
Without the engines installed and fitted perfectly, the rocket could not launch, the lawsuit states. This was an existential threat to the entire SLS project and especially to Boeing’s continued involvement in the lucrative project. Boeing had not yet figured out a way to attach all the components because the tight, confined spaces at the 'boat tail' of the rocket did not permit the use of Boeing’s existing tools; nor did any other tools calibrate the torque needed with the extreme precision required by NASA for the SLS program.
Wilson said that Boeing wanted to use its torque device because it could operate in this tight space and with the force and precision needed.
According to the lawsuit, after some initial discussions, Boeing arranged for a live demonstration of Wilson's torque device, during which participants could handle and operate it to verify the tool's capability and performance. What Wilson claims it did not realize, however, is that some of the participants in this demonstration were not Boeing employees.
Wilson later learned that at least seven of those in attendance for the live presentation were external to Boeing and were, at the time, employees of Wilson’s direct competitors, the lawsuit states. This fact was concealed from Wilson who was deceived by Boeing and the 'Bogus Boeing Employees' into giving the presentation by falsely suggesting to Wilson that everyone was a Boeing employee.
The complaint alleges that Boeing subsequently used information from this demonstration, as well as proprietary drawings and designs, to work with Wilson's competitors to develop a cheaper solution. Boeing concealed these facts from Wilson as part of its scheme to defraud Wilson and to transmit Wilson’s IP to its direct competitors, the lawsuit states.
In response to the 74-page lawsuit, a Boeing spokesperson told Ars: This lawsuit is rife with inaccuracies and omissions. We will vigorously defend against this in court.
There are many more allegations in the lawsuit, which attempts to demonstrate that Boeing has long been engaged in efforts to steal intellectual property from suppliers and contractors and then use the shield of its work with NASA and the US Department of Defense to protect itself from these activities.
Wilson Aerospace seeks a jury trial and punitive damages for what it claims is theft of its property and hopes to deter such conduct in the future.
Typically such a lawsuit does not end up in court before a jury. But if it did, it might reveal some details about Boeing's development of the core stage and multiple problems with leaks during fueling attempts of the vehicle at Florida's Kennedy Space Center.
For example, the lawsuit states, Boeing’s mismatched tools of inferior quality were a cause of the leaks experienced in the SLS projects, and likely caused leaks in equipment of Boeing’s joint venture partners and licensees, which discovery will uncover.
The Space Launch System performed admirably when it finally lifted off last November, flawlessly delivering the Orion spacecraft into orbit. However, by the time the rocket did so, it was six years late from its original launch date of late 2016 and billions of dollars over budget.
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