Aerojet Rocketdyne Sacramento
Aerojet Rocketdyne is moving rocket engine work from its historic facility near Sacramento, California, turning it into a back-office center. Credit: Google Maps

WASHINGTON — Aerojet Rocketdyne announced it has installed a steel casting bell at its new facility in Camden, Arkansas, where it will develop and produce large solid rocket motors.

Aerojet Rocketdyne’s vacuum chamber casting bell

The company said March 12 it expects the 17,000 square-foot facility to open for business later this spring. Aerojet Rocketdyne broke ground in spring 2019 and estimates the plant cost more than $15 million to build.

Aerojet Rocketdyne President and CEO Eileen Drake called the installation of the casting bell a “major milestone” in the company’s efforts to remain a viable supplier of large solid rocket motors for national security programs such as the Air Force’s Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program and the Missile Defense Agency’s Next Generation Interceptor program.

The company’s solid rocket business suffered a major blow in 2015 when United Launch Alliance picked Orbital ATK (acquired by Northrop Grumman in 2017) as its exclusive supplier of solid boosters for the Atlas 5 rocket and for Vulcan, its next-generation launch vehicle.

Aerojet subsequently shut down its large solid rocket motor production facility in Sacramento, California, and started to make plans to reconstitute the line in Camden.

Northrop Grumman is now the dominant player in the solid rocket market and is currently the only bidder for the $63 billion Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program to develop a new intercontinental ballistic missile for the U.S. Air Force. Aerojet Rocketdyne in September joined Northrop Grumman’s GBSD team, ensuring that Aerojet can continue to produce solid rockets.

The vacuum chamber casting bell was relocated to Camden from Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Sacramento facility, where it was used to produce large rocket boosters for the Atlas 5. At Camden, the company will produce warheads for the U.S. military in addition to large solid rocket motors for GBSD or other programs. The facility will be able to manufacture motors up to 470 inches long and up to 100 inches in diameter.

The casting bell is a vacuum chamber that eliminates air bubbles that can form when propellant is poured into solid rocket motor casings. The chamber also serves as an oven that heats the propellant during the curing process, and then cools it back down to ambient temperature.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...