Q&A with Linda Cova of Aerojet Rocketdyne

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Profile | Linda Cova
Executive Director of Hydrocarbon Engines, Aerojet Rocketdyne


Propulsion provider Aerojet Rocketdyne finds itself in a delicate position with one of its most important customers, United Launch Alliance, the U.S. government’s primary launch services provider.

ULA faces a congressional mandate to discontinue using the Russian-made RD-180 engine that powers its workhorse Atlas 5 rocket, seemingly providing a long-sought opportunity for Aerojet Rocketdyne. But ULA has chosen to work with another company, Blue Origin, to develop an RD-180 replacement dubbed the BE-4.

Aerojet Rocketdyne’s proposed RD-180 replacement, the AR1, is still in the running, but only as a backup option — ULA expects to make a final decision next year. The AR1 has another disadvantage in that Blue Origin is funding the BE-4 development effort, whereas Aerojet Rocketdyne requires substantial government money to complete its engine.

Congress provided $220 million this year to start developing a replacement for the liquid-oxygen/kerosene-fueled RD-180, but that is of limited help to Aerojet Rocketdyne absent a customer for the AR1. To that end it has begun exploring alternatives. In May, for example, in partnership with two other companies, Aerojet Rocketdyne asked the Air Force about the possibility of obtaining production rights to the Atlas 5, something ULA says is a nonstarter.

In the meantime, Aerojet Rocketdyne continues to supply the hydrogen-fueled RS-68 main engine for ULA’s less-frequently-used Delta 4 rocket, as well as variants of the RL10 upper stage engine for both the Atlas 5 and Delta 4.

Linda Cova’s focus is squarely on the liquid-oxygen/kerosene-fueled AR1, which she says could be developed by 2019 — opinions differ on this — and could be integrated relatively easily with the Atlas 5. It is a development challenge she says she has wanted to take on her entire career.

Cova spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writer Mike Gruss.


Where does the development of AR1 stand today?

We’re really deep in the design process. We are having a preliminary design review late this year. We had a system requirements review in December. We’re also doing some hot-fire testing, some subscale preburner testing.

You’re still on track for 2019?

Yes. The track we’re on, when the government kicks their money loose, we’ll get to 2019 with some margin.

What would you like to see from the Air Force?

What we’ve been advocating is you start the engine development prior to the launch vehicle investments primarily because the engines are the critical path. We see that even with what ULA is doing today. The critical path is usually the engine. We’d like to see that started immediately.

The government has set aside $220 million for engine development this fiscal year, which is now two-thirds over. How soon do you expect the money to be spent?

It could come before the end of the year. We’re hopeful it will come out soon and we’ll actually be on contract for engine work this year.

Will you work on specific technologies or overall design and integration?

It will be basically the full-scale engine engineering manufacturing and development program going into the development with the focus on production.

What do you need from Congress at this point?

The budget request for 2016 [for an RD-180 replacement] is $84.4 million. It needs to be about $200 million again.

Are you confident Congress will provide that money?

Given the requirement for an engine in 2019 to replace the RD-180, I would think that would happen.

How do you convince Congress this makes sense for taxpayers when Blue Origin says it doesn’t need government money to develop the BE-4?

If you look at the dates of being able to fly 180s and when they’re going to have a certified launch vehicle and retiring Delta 4 medium, there is a gap. You could create another monopoly with SpaceX being the only one with the capability. That’s one more reason for an RD-180 replacement. If the government is serious about replacing the RD-180 they should start an engine development program competition, pick the supplier and move forward.

Several companies are likely to bid for engine development money from the government. To have an engine ready by 2019, when would the government have to pick a provider?

It would have to be within the year, if not sooner than that. They have to get the procurement out and a decision made.

ULA and the Air Force doubt your AR1 development timetable. Why is there so much disagreement over this?

One of the misconceptions is that it takes seven years to develop an engine. Aerojet Rocketdyne has demonstrated on the RS-68 program a 5.5-year development timespan. We started AR1 last year and 2015 to 2019 is not four years, it’s five years. It’s one of those things — people look at the math and don’t do that right. This is not a stretch for us at all to be ready in 2019. We’re a little surprised at the amount of questioning on that because we’ve done it that way before. Now, if you don’t have all the facilities in place, if you don’t have all the processes in place, if you have to create a factory, it could take seven years. But for us, we’re leveraging all of our existing infrastructure that we use with the RS-68 and also use for the RS-25. We’re not having to create anything new there. We’re literally just developing the engine and going into production in existing facilities.

ULA questions your assertion that the AR1 can be readily integrated with the Atlas 5. What’s your response?

There’s a lot of discussion that you can’t re-engine a launch vehicle. First of all, the Antares vehicle right now is in the midst of being re-engined. It’s interesting that people forget that’s being done. The Delta 4 went from an RS-68 to an RS-68A, which was a higher-thrust engine. The RL10 has a 50-year heritage of being modified and changed and incorporated into new launch vehicles. It is surprising to me that people don’t recognize it has been done a lot of times.

We have been working with ULA to interface directly into the aft end of the Atlas 5 launch vehicle. All of the liquid-oxygen and kerosene ducts interface identically. They identically interface to the attach points at the bottom of the Atlas 5. We actually took our engine model — which is really two engines integrated into what we call a main propulsion system — and it fit exactly. We could see integration of a main propulsion system into an Atlas 5 while we’re completing our engine qualification or certification. You could do an initial launch in 2020 or, if we finish prior, in 2019.

When did Aerojet make a conscious decision to pursue the AR1?

We’ve been working on this a lot of years. There was a NASA procurement where they were looking at an advanced booster and at that time we were developing what we called the American kerosene engine. So it’s been morphed some to fit exactly the RD-180 requirements. We’ve always advocated if you’re going to develop a national engine you need to develop an RD-180 class, a liquid-oxygen/kerosene engine, because it has so much application. Part of the reason we did two engines versus one is there are smaller launch applications that could use one engine.

What exactly is the nature of your relationship with ULA on the AR1?

They are investing in AR1 and they’re also working with us on what modifications the Atlas 5 would need to incorporate it. When I say it’s a plug-and-play, from an interface perspective, that’s true. We’ve also been told the thrust structure or the thrust takeout at the bottom of the Atlas can take up to 1.2 million pounds of thrust but we need to verify that. And avionics, because we’re flying two engines versus one, will require some modifications. ULA has recently gone to common avionics, a very modern avionics, so it’s not like we’re taking something from 30 years ago and needing to update it. That should be relatively straightforward. Clearly all the infrastructure, everything else at the launch sites stays the same. Everything stays the same. We have been given an envelope we have to stay in to avoid any modification requirements.

Is there a path forward for the AR1 without ULA?

If ULA does not choose the AR1, I doubt the government would continue to fund AR1. It makes sense. There’s an RD-180 issue. That’s what the money is appropriated for solving and resolving. The question is how does the government acquisition deal with that and does a new launch vehicle and a new propellant combination address that or is it an RD-180 replacement? That’s the real question.

What would a rejection of the AR1 mean for Aerojet Rocketdyne?

Aerojet Rocketdyne still supplies a lot of propulsion to ULA. We’ll still be fabricating RS-68s. We’ll still be making AJ-60s. We’ll still be making the RL10s. We’ll continue to do that. We’ll also make the RS-25. AR1 is a significant opportunity. Obviously we believe that given that we’re investing in it. We still have a product portfolio beyond AR1.

What is the size of Aerojet’s own investment in AR1?

We’re investing to get to preliminary design review and I think most people should understand the level of that investment. That includes risk reduction activities and everything else.

And that piggybacks on previous government investment.

Right. We still do have other programs that are working on oxygen-rich staged-combustion. It’s not like we don’t have any other work going on; we do. We’re leveraging all of that.