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Tuesday, Oct 3, 2023

INTERVIEW – Power Down?

INTERVIEW – Power Down? Rocketdyne propulsion and power head Byron Wood, a 40-year veteran at the Canoga Park firm, steers it through rough voyage as it faces uncertain future By BRAD SMITH Staff Reporter When Byron Wood (photo) came to work for what was then North American Aviation’s Rocketdyne Division in Canoga Park in 1963, the goal was to put American astronauts on the moon by the end of the decade and before the Soviets. Today, as another president speaks about sending American explorers to the moon and Mars, the goal at Rocketdyne is surviving the next decade. In the decades since Project Apollo, Wood has overseen the company’s successful RS-24 space shuttle main engine, or SSME program; the RS-27 engine, used on the Delta II satellite booster; and the RS-68 engine, used on the new Delta IV booster, all for the company now known as Boeing’s Rocketdyne Propulsion and Power division. As vice president and general manager of Rocketdyne since 1998, Wood leads 4,000 employees in four states that generate $700 million annually in revenue for Chicago-based Boeing. That includes some 3,000 in southern California, split between Rocketdyne’s facilities in Canoga Park, West Hills, and Chatsworth. The total payroll is $320 million annually and the division spends about $140 million a year with Los Angeles-area vendors. As impressive as those figures are, they are far from the 24,000 people Rocketdyne employed in the 1960s. That slide is mirrored across the American spacecraft propulsion business, whose “Big Three” are Rocketdyne, Hartford, Conn.-based United Technologies Corp.’s Pratt & Whitney subsidiary, and Sacramento-based GenCorp Inc.’s Aerojet division. Wood is outspoken about whether Boeing and companies like it can continue supporting their space propulsion divisions in the face of repeated shifts in public policy regarding space, from both Republican and Democratic administrations and from Congress. Since the shuttle’s maiden flight in 1981, priorities have shifted from reusable launch vehicles to expendable boosters to reusables and back to expendables; from an American space station to an international station to a renewed American manned space effort aimed at the moon and Mars; from large, complex robotic spacecraft to smaller “faster, better, cheaper” missions and back somewhat again; and from reusable manned spacecraft to potentially expendable capsules. Question: Is there enough business in space propulsion for three suppliers? Answer: I think the biggest question is `is there any business?’ If you look at the market, the expendable launch market is flat and it’s going to stay flat. It’s up a little bit from where it was last year, when we counted a low point of 13 Rocketdyne engine launches, because we look at the number of engines launched rather than just launches because we sell engines I’ve told people if we had one launch a year that would be fine with us – if the vehicle had 100 engines on it. Q: What are those numbers? A: Last year it was 13 and that was four short as far as shuttle launches were concerned. This year we don’t have any shuttle launches either and we’re showing 17, so that’s up a little; in 2005, hopefully with the shuttle coming back, we show ourselves leveling off at approximately 22 to 25 launches a year for the foreseeable future. Q: Does that include any new payloads arising from the Bush Administration’s proposals for new missions to the moon and Mars? A: That doesn’t take into account anything that might come out of the exploration vision. The exploration vision talks about starting robot missions in 2008 that could expand the Delta II business or Delta IV for that matter. We haven’t made an attempt to include that. Q: What do you think of the president’s “Vision for Space Exploration?” A: As far as the exploration vision is concerned, I think you find good support for the concept I’m not sure there’s good support for the financial backing for it. Q: Do you think it would make a difference if the president is re-elected or if (Democratic) Sen. John Kerry is elected president? A: Some people have said if the Democrats win this year it is down the drain, but I think not at all I think the support for the Vision is solid, and I don’t think there’s any evidence the country is going to get rid of NASA. There’s very strong public support for space and the Gallup poll shows strong support for things like the Vision. Q: How does that translate to funding? A: People always get confused about the money. NASA’s budget is seven-tenths of one percent of the national budget and people think that for some reason when money is given to the space program, in the back of people’s mind, they think we take that money and blast it off into space. Really (the money translates to) jobs; high-paid, high-end, the high tech type of jobs which everybody says we should aspire to in this country . Q: Do you think the U.S. will abandon a domestic space industry? A: I really can’t believe, when it’s all said and done, this country would walk away from its ability to go to space. I really think this country will wake up one of these days; I thought when the Chinese put a person into space that would wake us up but I was surprised at the minimal amount of play that got. Q: How does the industry cope with these sorts of policy shifts, from its major customer, we’ve seen in the past couple of decades? A: A lot of what’s wrong is that NASA, up to now, has done almost nothing but programs that start and stop. They spend a lot of their money investing in competitions and starting technologies that are not necessarily synergistic or complementary, so consequently the (propulsion) companies are dying on the vine. Q: The aerospace industry as a whole has consolidated over the last decade; is there even enough potential business for three different product lines that, ultimately, compete with each other? A: The problem with the industry is that it is not re-investing in itself; it is not pushing the frontier in terms of research technology and development to do the kinds of things to keep the U.S. out in front. Q: What could change that? A: If you took a more positive approach to it, where you said `the U.S. needs to recognize it needs to stay number one in space and therefore needs to invest in technology and research,’ which is pretty much what the three companies are all about if the country would come to the conclusion “yeah, we need to that” there probably is enough of that kind of business to keep three companies going. Q: You spoke at the AIAA’s Joint Propulsion Conference in Florida last month, and suggested a “national” propulsion company, which many analysts have suggested means Boeing is selling Rocketdyne? A: A lot of people interpreted that the wrong way what I meant was that it was a company that was underwritten by the government to provide a long term, steady investment in propulsion technology and development. Q: Is there an example of that sort of (public-private R & D;) company out there? A: The Aerospace Co. would be the closest parallel, but they don’t build anything (the research company) could build something (as) a one of a kind and once it became a production thing it would go to a contractor; but instead of spending money on competitions and conflicting technologies you would have to set up a board of directors for outer space technology advancement that includes NASA and it might include the Air Force. Q: So it’s sort of a National Institutes of Health kind of model; a National Institute of Astronautics? A: The fact if the matter is I don’t know what the heck I’m talking about (in terms of an organizational model). The answer to the basic question is there is absolutely not enough business for three companies, and there might not be enough business for one company. Q: Is that necessarily a bad thing? A: I think there are some people in this country who think that’s fine too and we’ll just go buy it offshore and there’s a lot off reasons to do that. There’s good stuff that is offshore. We could, of course, but then we have relinquished the ability to control the way we go into space and how we look at space. Q: Can you say anything flatly, one way or the other, about the potential for mergers, acquisitions, joint ventures, or spin-offs? A: Like I tell everybody, Rocketdyne hasn’t been sold, Rocketdyne is not for sale, but Rocketdyne could be bought and that’s really the way to look at it. Obviously Boeing needs Rocketdyne; the shuttle is not going to go very far, and Delta IV and Delta II are not going to be very healthy, and so they certainly want to see Rocketdyne be very healthy. On the other hand, if Rocketdyne was part of something outside of Boeing it might open up more markets for Rocketdyne and thus contribute to them being more successful. Q: What you’re saying is the companies aren’t going to be willing, basically, to provide the overhead to keep your people in place while the government decides what to do, if anything. A: And I can’t blame them for it; if you’re in business you look at the conditions and the environment and you say it’s not a good investment right now; it’s not that it’s a bad investment, but it’s not as good an investment as a lot of other things. Q: When’s the break point, where your institutional memory retires and there’s no capability to ramp up, because the capacity has already been dispersed. Where is that point? A: I think it’s within the next five years, in that kind of ballpark I look at somewhere between 2009 and 2010 as when the cliff might hit. SNAPSHOT: Byron Wood Title: Vice President and General Manager, Rocketdyne Propulsion and Power Education: Bachelor of Science in Nuclear Physics, University of California, Berkeley Career Turning Point: Joining Rocketdyne in 1963 Personal: Married, two children

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