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Aerojet to Produce Moon-Bound Rockets

At the Chatsworth campus of Aerojet Rocketdyne, preparations are in place to make additional rocket engines for use on NASA’s Space Launch System that will take humans back to the moon and potentially to Mars. The company, a subsidiary of Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings, Inc. in El Segundo, received on May 1 a $1.8 billion contract to produce 18 RS-25 engines. Jim Maser, senior vice president for space at Aerojet Rocketdyne, said the contract creates a stable business environment and leverages the heritage of an engine that first flew in 1981. The RS-25 is a modified version of the Space Shuttle main engine that has been updated with new controllers and adapted for the new launch system. At launch, the engines will produce 2 million pounds of thrust. “It’s an exciting next chapter in this engine and for NASA human space flight,” Maser said in an interview with the Business Journal. “Now, instead of going to low earth orbit as the Shuttle always did, we’re going back to the moon.” The RS-25 was designed in the 1970s as a reusable engine. With the SLS, it will be a one-time engine. “So now what we are doing is taking advantage of modern design methods and modern manufacturing methods to get the cost of the engine down and make it even more manufacturable,” Maser said. A big part of the cost reduction comes from the use of additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing. The company has identified about 35 pieces of the RS-25 that are suitable for additive manufacturing and is looking for more, Maser said. What the company has done is take a component that had been 20 individual pieces that were welded together and then had to go through a laborious inspection process, he added. “In an additive machine, we can produce that part in one piece in a shorter period of time at a much lower cost,” Maser said. The rocket-engine maker has already delivered 16 RS-25s to NASA for testing, enough to power the first four flights of the new heavy rocket. Those engines were left over from the Space Shuttle program, which ended in 2011. Aerojet is currently on track to produce two RS-25 engines a year and will then ramp up to produce four engines a year. The company is in the middle of an expansion right now that will turn the first floor of one building at its Chatsworth facility into a smaller machine manufacturing area, Maser said. “We are adding on to the facility and creating space so we can process more engines at the same time,” he explained. Additionally, the company has added about 60 fitters, welders, machinists, quality engineers and inspection engineers to handle the additional volume. The employees at the Chatsworth location are a mix of newer, younger folks and those with more experience, whom Maser described as craftsman or artisan types. “There is a number of different areas where you can be a fitter or machinist or a welder, but to be working on rocket engines for human space flight it is exciting to get out there and see the folks be so engaged and so proud of their work,” Maser said.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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