Aerojet Rocketdyne watching how political changes could affect its business

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WASHINGTON — As aerospace companies enjoy increased Pentagon and NASA spending, at least one executive is mindful of potential changes should a new president be elected in 2020.

In comments at the G.research Aerospace & Defense Conference Sept. 5 in New York, Eileen Drake, president and chief executive of Aerojet Rocketdyne, said her company is benefitting from growth in both civilian space and military programs, ranging from the Space Launch System to hypersonics initiatives.

“The time is now,” she said. “Most of us who have been in this business have never seen a time where we have the administration and Congress this focused both on space and on defense.” She cited as examples of that focus the reestablishment of the National Space Council and, a week ago, the U.S. Space Command.

Asked later if that focus could be threatened if President Trump loses reelection in 2020, Drake acknowledged that, based on past experience, some projects could be in jeopardy. “We’ve all seen, when there’s different administrations, is a different focus,” she said. “I think the focus will continue there on the defense side.”

On space, though, she recalled the decision by the Obama administration to cancel NASA’s Constellation program that it inherited from the George W. Bush administration. “That’s something we are very conscious of,” she said. She specifically mentioned Aerojet’s work providing RS-25 engines for the SLS, which represents the company’s biggest contract in its space portfolio.

“What we do is we work with the other primes that are on SLS and that program — companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman — and we continue to work with the administration, our local, individual state governments, to make sure that those programs are supported and they’re funded,” she said.

Drake said she believed there was considerable support for those major NASA exploration programs, at least currently. “That’s the piece that we can’t control,” she said of the politics surrounding those programs. “We can influence it, we can work to support that, but the political side or dimensions we can’t necessarily control.”

So far, it’s not clear what changes a Democratic president would make if he or she is elected in 2020. None of the approximately 20 candidates for the Democratic nomination have discussed space policy in general, let alone specifics like whether they would continue the Artemis program to land humans on the moon by 2024.

Drake said that Aerojet’s business has been roughly evenly split between defense and space work, but that is shifting a little more towards defense. “In the long run, you’ll see maybe defense more at 60%, and space at 40%, because of the huge focus on defense,” she said. “Space is probably going to be a little ‘flattish’ year over year.”

A big change in the last year for Aerojet Rocketdyne was the decision in September 2018 by United Launch Alliance to select Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine, rather than Aerojet’s AR1, to power the first stage of its Vulcan rocket. Drake said that the company is continuing to work on the engine under an Air Force partnership, and plans to have an AR1 ready for testing in the first quarter of 2020.

For now, though, there are no customers for the AR1. “We believe there will be a market for the AR1 in the medium range,” she said. Company officials said earlier this year that the AR1 could be used to power a medium-class launch vehicle, although none needing that engine are under development currently. “We’ll also be there if some of the primes decide they need a booster engine.”