For Aerojet, there’s no shame in being No. 2. With more than 3,200 employees and roughly $750 million in sales, the Sacramento, Calif., company ranks second to Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne in liquid propulsion and second to Alliant Techsystems in solid propulsion. Of the three, only Aerojet remains active in both segments of the business.
“We’ve done well in our position as No. 2 and have been able to compete and win,” Aerojet President Scott Neish says.
Recent wins for the company include last year’s $109.7 million contract to develop a hydrocarbon engine technology demonstrator for the U.S. Air Force. Aerojet also won smaller contracts under which it will provide developmental engines for NASA’s Ares 1 crew launch vehicle first-stage roll control system and do some initial work on propulsion options for the U.S. space agency’s proposed lunar lander.
Aerojet previously secured work on NASA’s Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle program, building and testing the main jettison motor for the launch abort system as well as supplying in-space propulsion systems.
Neish, 60, joined Aerojet in 2002 when parent company GenCorp acquired the in-space propulsion business he had been running for General Dynamics. Neish was named Aerojet president in 2005 and has been serving as acting chief executive officer of GenCorp since Terry Hall resigned in March amid a shareholder dispute.
The new title gives Neish responsibility, at least for now, for GenCorp’s other main business – real estate. The company owns more than 4,800 hectares of land around Sacramento that it hopes to sell off once it proves to federal and state environmental regulators that it has cleaned up the damage done by decades of propulsion work. In March, California released 920 hectares of GenCorp’s land holdings from environmental restrictions. The following month, the company sold a 160-hectare parcel to a builder for $10 million.
Neish spoke with Space News staff writer Brian Berger.
What opportunities do you see ahead at NASA?
We have significant roles on the Orion and Ares programs. We are interested in lunar ascent propulsion and other possibilities associated with going to the Moon and beyond. And obviously we are very active in the in-space propulsion arena and we have a lot of product and different technologies to offer there. We’re actually very happy with the opportunities we are seeing in the Vision for Space Exploration. It is also worth noting that we have been on every Discovery mission that NASA has flown, providing the in-space propulsion. So we are excited about a lot of the science missions.
Do you see opportunities to support emerging space tourism companies such as Virgin Galactic?
We do actually. We have talked with several of the more entrepreneurial space companies and we think there are roles for us. We’ve talked with Virgin Galactic, Bigelow [Aerospace] and others. It’s early days yet. But we do have quite a wide variety of proven propulsion we think can be of benefit to them. We’re optimistic and think it’s an emerging market we can play in.
Launch vehicle startup Space Exploration Technologies has a reputation for doing almost everything in-house. Are you finding that same kind of go-it-alone attitude among the entrepreneurial firms you’re talking to?
It’s pretty variable. Certainly there are people like Elon [Musk, chief executive of Space Exploration Technologies] who want the control of doing it themselves. Then there are others who simply see propulsion as an enabler for their concepts and they are quite happy to buy it from people who have a proven track record. There are both attitudes out there.
How big is the emerging space market?
We are still trying to assess that. We are trying to match our investments and efforts to where we think the market is going in the near future. In the longer term I think it’s to some extent going to vary based on how successful they are. They are starting with simple, non-orbital space tourism but when that capability is well-established and they take it beyond that we will see how successful they are.
Where did the merger of Pratt & Whitney and Rocketdyne leave Aerojet as a provider of liquid-fueled propulsion systems?
Our position here is that we are really the only large company that provides both liquid and solid propulsion. … We think we are trying harder so we are not dismayed with the No. 2 position. There are still solid opportunities for us in both areas.
Are there any plans to diversify beyond propulsion?
We have substantial environment issues at the Sacramento plant. So we have a fair amount of expertise in dealing with environmental issues and we think we may be able to help other people with technologies that are really just an offshoot of cleaning up our own business. We can probably help other people including government installations and agencies. And there are green energy applications for technologies we have expertise in. We have a substantial amount of expertise in chemical energy management and power management. So there may be opportunities for us in the emerging green energy markets.
We are in the process of developing solar power for our own use on our site and also for commercial use. We are working with partners – we are not going to be a solar cell provider or anything like that. But we have land and we have expertise in power management so we can be a good partner in those types of things.
Are there any acquisition targets out there for Aerojet?
There are. The larger opportunities in consolidation have largely happened at this point, but there are smaller firms. And there are related technology areas and if they answer a market need and fit well with our capabilities, we certainly are open to acquisition and looking for the right fit. But we are not going to force it either.
Has consolidation of the U.S. propulsion industry run its course, then?
Never say never. But we think so. We are down to basically two competitors in both the liquid and solid propulsion market, and I think many of our customers don’t want there to be fewer than that and there’s probably not room for more than that.
Are there any key tests of Orion or Ares propulsion systems on the near-term horizon?
We are very excited that we just completed the first full-scale test of the jettison motor for the [Orion] launch abort system. That was the first full-scale test of any propulsion on Orion. That program is going very well for us. We will have some tests before long on some of the in-space propulsion elements for Orion as well, and following behind that some of the Ares upper-stage propulsion.
The first pad abort test is around the end of the year.
Are you concerned about the upcoming political transition and its potential impact on NASA?
We really feel very strongly that the vision needs to continue as is. This is the first major change in U.S. space policy in three decades and it’s not the sort of thing that should be changed every administration, and so far that hasn’t been the history. We don’t believe that there is likely to be a huge shift in the nation’s space priority with the change of administration. There may be different views on levels of funding and timing and that sort of thing. We don’t think there will be any wholesale change in direction.
Aerojet is supplying the AJ-26, an upgraded version of the Russian-built NK-33 engine, for Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Taurus 2 rocket, a key component of that company’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) space station logistics solution. Will restrictions on space station-related deals between NASA and Russia impact AJ-26?
This is not the first time that U.S. companies have proposed using the engines [as part of the COTS program]. We were on Kistler and later Rocketplane Kistler. Those engines were baselined on the missions as well. In the past we’ve gotten a clear read from NASA that those engines were permissible for use for the COTS missions.
How many do you have?
We have 37 of the NK-33s and another half-dozen or so of the NK-43, which is an in-space version of the NK-33. With Taurus 2 using two per flight, our existing inventory could support around 18 flights. We actually have to buy a few more of the baseline engines from the Russians. They are readily available from Russia. When the market looks like it’s appropriate we can begin U.S. production.
Can Aerojet really build the engines here?
A lot of people have had some bad experiences on that. Our experience with the Russians has been very good. We have the engines. We have done our own refurbishment of those engines. We’ve tested them here and are very familiar with them. We have all of the technical data package that’s all been converted to the American system. It’s not the RD-180 situation. It’s a very different situation. We have all the intellectual property. We have agreements in place that we are going to update with the Russians. We have the intellectual property and the experience, we’ve refurbished the engines here in the United States, tested them ourselves on our own test stands. It’s a very different situation than the RD-180.