76.7 F
San Fernando
Friday, Jan 27, 2023
-Advertisement-

Rocket Engine Maker in Orbit Over Mars Mission

The Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings Inc. campus in Chatsworth is about to get a huge boost from NASA’s planned multibillion-dollar mission to send a man to Mars. The government space agency has chosen the company’s RS-25 engines that provided lift for the space shuttle as the primary source of propulsion for the Space Launch System, a new heavy-lift rocket that will take astronauts first to the moon and then on to the red planet. 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 – but those are modified versions of engines originally built for the space shuttle program. Aerojet Rocketdyne expects that building new versions of the engine will eventually account for half of the work for the 1,300 technicians, engineers and others employed at the plant. The De Soto Avenue and Nordhoff Street facility also makes engines used on the Delta IV and Atlas V rockets that take military and intelligence satellites into space and is a subcontractor on the CST-100 space capsule being developed by Boeing Co. to take astronauts to the International Space Station. NASA expects to spend $7 billion on all facets of its Space Launch System through 2018. There are estimates it ultimately will cost in the hundreds of billions to get a man to Mars, perhaps in 2035. It’s unclear exactly how many RS-25s will be needed and Aerojet Rocketdyne has not released costs for each engine for proprietary reasons. But some speculative estimates peg the cost at $40 million, though it could be substantially lower. Either way, the program should be a big revenue generator. The decision by NASA to use the proven RS-25 engine comes at a critical time for Aerojet Rocketdyne, which is headquartered outside Sacramento and operates facilities in 10 other states. It recently announced up to 500 staff layoffs primarily in Sacramento to reduce costs and improve efficiencies as it faces pricing and other pressures from its aerospace and defense customers. And a year ago it made staffing cuts in the Valley, eliminating more than 160 positions due to the winding down of some NASA-related programs. It is unclear if the Space Launch System work would result in net hires. “We are ramping up capabilities here in Chatsworth to start production of the engines again,” said Jim Paulsen, vice president of program execution for advanced space and launch, who is based in the Valley. The Mars mission work comes as a new generation of space pioneers are providing competition to legacy rocket makers. Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies – or SpaceX – in Hawthorne has built rockets to supply the International Space Station. And Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos has started Blue Origins, a Kent, Wash. space vehicle and rocket engine manufacturer. That revolution in the industry may partially explain why despite the new orders coming to the Chatsworth plant, there has been turmoil in Aerojet’s executive suite. President Warren Boley left in February and Chairman and Chief Executive Scott Seymour resigned in late May, with neither giving advance notice of their departures. Eileen Drake was named the new chief executive effective June 1. When Boley left, a media report quoted sources saying Boley and Seymour had differences about the company’s future. Seymour’s departure was especially surprising. It came one day after visiting the Chatsworth facility on May 28 with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. Both talked to employees and reporters about the Space Launch System program and its importance to both NASA and Aerojet Rocketdyne. Seymour had noted the Chatsworth plant would handle the majority of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Mars mission work. Industry speculation over Seymour’s resignation prompted the company to note in a June 1 Securities and Exchange Commission filing that it “was not the result of any disagreement related to any matter involving the company’s operations, policies or practices.” Still investors may not be pleased. While the company’s stock price has made huge gains since the recession, trading around $2 in 2009, it recently slipped from an all time high of $23.39 in March as losses have piled up. In its last fiscal year, the company recorded a net loss of $53 million on revenue of $1.6 billion. Then in the fiscal first quarter ended Feb. 28, the company lost $3.9 million (-7 cents a share) on revenue of $319 million. Shares closed at $20.62 on June 10. Michael Ciarmoli, an analyst with Keybanc Capital Markets in Cleveland who follows space contractors, said he has heard Seymour may have had a health issue, while Boley’s departure may have had to do with pressures to bring costs down. “It is a matter of importance especially when you have the rise of tech entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos encroaching into the space realm,” he said. Whatever the reasons for the departures, Joseph DeNardi, an aerospace industry analyst in Baltimore with Stifel, Nicolaus & Co. Inc., said it’s hard to overstate the importance of the Space Launch System work for Aerojet Rocketdyne. “It is the cornerstone of NASA’s plans to resume missions to the moon and then even beyond that,” he said. “It certainly is one of their higher priority programs.” Manufacturing efficiencies Rocketdyne has been established in the Valley for some 60 years under different ownership, all while supplying rocket engines for the nation’s space programs. The company built the engines used on the Saturn V rockets that took Apollo astronauts to the moon. In 2012, GenCorp bought Rocketdyne from United Technologies Inc., in Hartford, Conn., in a deal valued at $550 million. The new owner merged it with its Aerojet division, forming Aerojet Rocketdyne. In April GenCorp changed its corporate name to Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings, reflecting the rocket maker’s importance to the company. Since 2012, the new ownership has sought ways to lower costs, including consolidating operations in Chatsworth from Canoga Park. That is why new work from the Space Launch System is so critical. The rocket would be the most powerful ever built and would carry a four-person capsule dubbed Orion. For deep-space missions, it will stand more than 380 feet tall, weigh 6.5 million pounds and carry a payload of 143 tons. The first test flight of the rocket is scheduled to take place before November 2018. The first manned mission is scheduled for 2021. The 9.2 million pounds of thrust will be generated by four liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen-powered RS-25 engines. The 16 engines already supplied to NASA are undergoing testing at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, most recently on May 28. A key way that the company plans to bring down manufacturing costs is through the use of industrial 3-D printers, which lay down a nickel alloy material in layers to create the parts. Costs are lowered because no molds are needed to make the pieces and they require no machining or welding, Paulsen said. Traditionally, rocket engine parts are made by computer-aided milling machines and other equipment. “It is restarting the production with a focus on affordability,” he said, adding the plant has two 3-D printing machines and will soon take delivery of a third. While Paulsen would not give specific dollar figures on the savings, the use of modern manufacturing techniques can bring a 30 percent savings. “With the (3D printing) and some more design changes, we have a target of 50 percent,” he added. Lower costs are especially important because the RS-25 engines made for the space shuttle were intended to be reusable, while with the Space Launch System the rockets will be used just once, similar to the Apollo program. Last year, the company made a small, 5,000-pound thrust engine entirely with a printer and successfully tested it. In March, injectors made with a printer withstood testing for the AR-1 engine under development in Sacramento. The AR-1 will replace a Russian-made engine now being used on Atlas rockets to launch U.S. defense satellites. But even parts still made on milling machines benefit from improvements in the manufacturing process from 30 years ago. “We used to need six machines for a manifold on the nozzle and now you just need one machine,” Paulsen said. Funding flow With any government-sponsored program, funding for the Space Launch System is a key component. In that regard, the program has good support, said Keybanc’s Ciarmoli. For the 2016 fiscal year, NASA requested $1.4 billion for the program. The House of Representatives approved that amount this month and tacked on an additional $550 million. “There is definitely good dollar flow,” he said. “If you look at any of the plans to get to Mars, all that is going to be predicated on the Space Launch System.” Aerojet Rocketdyne does not disclose revenue from specific programs. Still, as the Space Launch System moves forward it forecasts that program generating up to 10 percent of the total revenue. “The first flight is still a ways away but once that gets into operation and there’s a regular launch tempo, it will help drive them ahead of their peers in organic revenue growth potential,” Ciarmoli said. The importance of Aerojet Rocketdyne to the Valley’s economy cannot be overestimated. Kenn Phillips, the chief executive of the Valley Economic Alliance, a business attraction and retention organization in Sherman Oaks, said some of the smartest people in the nation are found at Los Angeles area aerospace companies, Aerojet Rocketdyne among them. The high paying, high-end manufacturing jobs create disposable income for cars, retail products, restaurant meals and other activities that in turn create more jobs, Phillips said. Supplying a large program like the Space Launch System can mean a trickle-down of work. “The subcontracts for these types of jobs are large and they can go to local companies,” said Phillips, who worked at Rocketdyne when it was owned by Boeing.

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.
-Advertisement-

Featured Articles

-Advertisement-
-Advertisement-

Related Articles

-Advertisement-
-Advertisement-