Boeing sues Virgin Galactic over mothership project

Boeing sues Virgin Galactic over mothership project

WASHINGTON — Boeing and a subsidiary have filed suit against Virgin Galactic, alleging that the suborbital spaceflight company has refused to pay more than $25 million and misappropriated trade secrets associated with a project to develop a new aircraft.

In the suit, filed March 21 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Boeing and Aurora Flight Sciences, a Boeing subsidiary, said that Virgin Galactic stopped paying the companies for work on the design of a new “mothership” aircraft for Virgin’s suborbital vehicles and retained proprietary information that, in some cases, was inadvertently provided.

Virgin Galactic announced in July 2022 it selected Aurora Flight Sciences to build the aircraft that would replace VMS Eve, the aircraft currently used as the air-launch platform for its suborbital spaceplanes. That contract called for the production of two aircraft, the first of which would be delivered in 2025. The companies did not disclose the value of the contract.

According to the lawsuit, work on that contract ended after the completion of a second task order in May 2023 supporting preliminary design work on the aircraft. “Aurora concluded that it would not be possible for Virgin Galactic to produce the new Mothership Virgin Galactic wanted, on the budget available to it, on the timeline Virgin Galactic hoped to meet,” the suit states.

Boeing and Aurora state that nearly $26.4 million in invoices from the two task orders remain unpaid by Virgin Galactic. The companies said they made multiple requests of Virgin to pay the outstanding invoices but “have been unable to resolve the dispute.”

The lawsuit also alleges that Virgin Galactic has refused to destroy proprietary information Aurora provided as part of the work. That included technical specifications dubbed the “equations” used to model aircraft performance that were inadvertently given to Virgin as part of the project.

That information, Boeing and Aurora said, are trade secrets. “These equations allow Boeing and Aurora to model aircraft stability and control with exceptional accuracy beyond that which is commonly available in the aerospace industry,” the lawsuit states. “These equations are valuable to Boeing and Aurora because they give it a distinct competitive advantage in accurately modeling aircraft stability and control.”

The two companies said they asked Virgin Galactic to destroy the documents that contain those equations, but Virgin declined to do so, claiming it had intellectual property rights to them as part of the agreement.

The lawsuit makes similar claims about a separate document that Aurora provided Virgin Galactic with test data regarding a composite material. Aurora directed Virgin to destroy the document but Virgin declined to do so, arguing the agreement gave it rights to the document.

Boeing and Aurora are seeking damages for the unpaid invoices as well as unspecified amounts for misappropriations of trade secrets.

“We believe this lawsuit is wrong on the facts and the law, and we will vigorously defend ourselves in the appropriate forum,” a Virgin Galactic spokesperson told SpaceNews. The company has not commented further on the suit.

Virgin Galactic has deemphasized development of a new mothership aircraft in recent earnings calls as it focuses on production of its new Delta-class suborbital spaceplane, slated to begin test flights in 2025 and enter commercial service in 2026. The company plans to use its existing VMS Eve for those initial flights.

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