NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, built by Boeing, with the Orion spacecraft aboard is seen atop a mobile launcher at Launch Pad 39B, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022, after being rolled out to the launch pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA’s Artemis I mission is the first integrated test of the agency’s deep space exploration systems: the Orion spacecraft, SLS rocket, and supporting ground systems. Launch of the uncrewed flight test is targeted for no earlier than Aug. 29. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

SLS Intellectual Property Dispute: Boeing Faces Lawsuit

Colorado-based Wilson Aerospace files lawsuit against Boeing, accusing theft of its tool for attaching engines to the Space Launch System rocket

A Colorado-based aerospace company, Wilson Aerospace, has recently filed a lawsuit against Boeing, accusing the company of “theft” concerning the alleged misappropriation of its intellectual property.

At the center of the dispute is a specialized tool, known as the Fluid Fitting Torque Device-3, developed by Wilson to facilitate the attachment of four main engines to the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket with the Orion spacecraft aboard is seen atop a mobile launcher at Launch Pad 39B, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022, after being rolled out to the launch pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA’s Artemis I mission is the first integrated test of the agency’s deep space exploration systems: the Orion spacecraft, SLS rocket, and supporting ground systems. Launch of the uncrewed flight test is targeted for no earlier than Aug. 29. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)
NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket seen at Launch Pad 39B ahead of Artemis I Mission. Credits: NASA/Joel Kowsky

The lawsuit, filed in the US District Court in Seattle, asserts that Boeing approached Wilson in March 2014 after learning about the unique torque device, which possesses the capability to precisely install high-torque fittings and nuts in tightly confined spaces.


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Unveiling the Tight Space Challenge

The engine section situated at the base of the SLS rocket presents one such cramped environment where four RS-25 engines are connected to the large core stage housing propellant and oxidizer tanks.

The tight configuration of this section made it particularly challenging for Boeing to find suitable tools to fasten the various components together. Moreover, the precision required by NASA for the SLS program demanded an innovative solution that could accommodate the extreme precision necessary for a successful launch.

The base of SLS's Core Stage for Artemis I, built by Boeing, while moving at Michoud Assembly Facility. Credits: NASA/Jude Guidry
The base of SLS’s Core Stage for Artemis I, built by Boeing, while moving at Michoud Assembly Facility. Credits: NASA/Jude Guidry

Then, recognizing the significance of properly fitting engines in the rocket, Boeing sought Wilson’s torque device, acknowledging its ability to operate with force and precision within the limited space constraints.

Subsequently, initial discussions between the two companies led to Boeing organizing a live demonstration of Wilson’s torque device. During this demonstration, participants were permitted to handle and operate the tool to evaluate its capability and performance.

Unfortunately, unbeknownst to Wilson, several individuals present at the demonstration were not Boeing employees, but rather employees of Wilson’s direct competitors.


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Concealed Intentions

In fact, Wilson later discovered that at least seven participants, who appeared to be representatives of Boeing, were actually employed by its competitors. The lawsuit alleges that Boeing deliberately concealed this information, deceiving Wilson into believing that all participants were genuine Boeing employees.

According to the complaint, Boeing illicitly utilized information acquired during the demonstration, along with proprietary drawings and designs, to collaborate with Wilson’s competitors and develop a cheaper alternative.

Also, by intentionally keeping Wilson uninformed, Boeing allegedly perpetrated a scheme to defraud Wilson and transmit its intellectual property to direct competitors.

Boeing’s Response and Legal Implications

Responding to the 74-page lawsuit, a Boeing spokesperson refuted the allegations, asserting that the lawsuit contains inaccuracies and omissions.

Nevertheless, Wilson Aerospace is seeking a jury trial and punitive damages, citing theft of its intellectual property and hoping to discourage such misconduct in the future. While jury trials for such lawsuits are uncommon, the proceedings could potentially expose additional details regarding Boeing’s core stage development and problems encountered during fueling attempts at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Moreover, the lawsuit claims that Boeing’s subpar tools were a contributing factor to leaks observed in the SLS projects, potentially affecting the equipment of Boeing’s joint venture partners and licensees. The company, in fact, brought in total 10 claims against Boeing, including claims of copyright infringement, misappropriation and theft of trade secrets, and fraud.


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Impact on Boeing’s Reputation

Although the Space Launch System eventually fulfilled its mission flawlessly, delivering the Orion spacecraft into orbit in November 2022, its launch was considerably delayed, occurring six years after the original target date of late 2016, and significantly exceeding the allocated budget by billions of dollars.

NASA’s Space Launch System rocket carrying the Orion spacecraft launches on the Artemis I flight test. Credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls
NASA’s Space Launch System rocket carrying the Orion spacecraft launches on the Artemis I flight test. Credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Clearly, the lawsuit against Boeing casts a shadow on the company’s reputation, already threatened by the 737 Max-8 story, the 787 Dreamliner problems and also the Starliner Program, alleging a history of intellectual property theft from suppliers and contractors, with the defense of its actions shielded by its association with NASA and the US Department of Defense.

Importantly, the outcome of this legal battle may shed light on the allegations and potentially impact future partnerships in the aerospace industry.


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Edoardo Giammarino

Edoardo Giammarino

Co-Founder & Administrator. Drummer and Red Cross Volunteer, born in 1997. I like analog photography and videomaking. Firmly music-addicted.

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