Julie Van Kleeck

Vice President, Space Systems, Aerojet

Julie Van Kleeck understands the need for diversity. As one of the relatively few women to join the aerospace engineering ranks in the early 1980s Van Kleeck strives to balance the space systems staff at Sacramento, Calif.-based Aerojet with recent college graduates – including a growing number of women – and more experienced engineers, many of whom are nearing retirement. Van Kleeck remembers that her start at Aerojet as a 21-year-old college graduate came, not unlike today, at a transitional time for the space industry: the space shuttle had just entered service promising to displace the Titan rocket as the nation’s primary means for putting satellites in orbit.

Since assuming the position of vice president of Aerojet’s Space Systems, Van Kleeck has been trying to maintain a fairly even split among civil, military and commercial space programs. Prior to her promotion in 2005, Van Kleeck worked as Aerojet’s director of space systems business development. She was executive director of the Atlas program, overseeing Aerojet’s production of solid-rocket boosters for the Atlas 5, one of the Titan successors developed under the U.S. Air Force-supported Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.

Currently, Aerojet is providing the main engine and several maneuvering engines for NASA’s planned Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle. Aerojet is also supplying Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace with onboard propulsion systems for the inflatable space modules the firm has in development.

Van Kleeck believes keeping a well-rounded business portfolio will help attract and retain a new generation of engineers who can work on multiple programs amid budget uncertainties that can slow projects or stop them altogether. “When I was hired at 21, I got to start on rockets, and once you’ve done that, you never look back,” she says. “I’m very hopeful we’ll be going back to the Moon, because that’s the kind of thing that will keep people in this and we’ll be able to develop that next generation, not just the people, but the technology.”

Van Kleeck spoke with Space News staff writer Becky Iannotta at the 2009 National Space Symposium in
Colorado Springs

How do you think Aerojet and the space industry as a whole will fare with the new administration?

From the NASA side, we’ve got to see who the new administrator is because that will have an effect on where we go. From a military space standpoint I think there will be continued support but I also think there’s a desire to make sure all the programs are stabilized as we deal with funding challenges there. We’re projecting that Aerojet will stay at least level with some growth in the future, and from what we can tell so far we’re still pretty confident in that.

Where do you see the most potential growth?

If Orion and Ares are deployed as planned we’ll see a fair amount of growth there because we’re just at the beginning of some of the developments and those will grow to be significant programs. With commercial satellites, we’re doing pretty well there and we do see some growth there because we’ve been successful getting on some new platforms like Orbital Sciences’ Star-2 bus. In the military, we have both satellites and launches on Delta 2 and Atlas 5. Launch is about as low as it’s ever been, so I don’t know that it would go much lower than where it is now. We do have two Atlas 5s with solids scheduled to launch this year.

How well is Aerojet positioned for work on the Ares 5 NASA plans to build for lunar missions?

In the area of the steering propulsion and smaller propulsion, we’re probably positioned well. We have a number of different types of things that we do in that area. We do small monopropellant, bipropellant thrusters and small solids. On the larger propulsion they’ve already selected the RS-68 for the liquid engine and there’s a potential competition on the large solids. If those need to be something different than what’s on Ares 1 – and I think that’s going to be driven by performance – but if that competition opens up we’ll be assessing our chances to play in that arena. There’s a pretty strong incumbent there right now but it depends on how different NASA wants it to be. We have a lot of advanced technology in the area of solids that has come out of our Atlas 5 and some of our other strategic business.

What are some of the other big programs Aerojet will be competing for?

We’re working a number of different types of technologies in robotic and human exploration. We believe that as lunar missions develop those will offer some exciting opportunities. We just don’t want to get too excited because that’s not happening tomorrow. We’re hoping we can sustain those programs and work on them sooner rather than later.

Do you plan to compete for any upcoming planetary missions?

We’ve provided propulsion for just about every planetary probe that’s ever been launched and we’re awaiting the competition for the next round of New Frontiers outer planetary missions. We’re talking to the principal investigators and primes that will be competing and we’re hopeful we’ll be represented on those missions as they develop. We expect to participate on the next Discovery mission even if it’s just at the engine level. We’re also providing propulsion on the Mars Science Laboratory and working with the Europeans on ExoMars.

What work is Aerojet doing on the commercial side?

We’re working with some of the newer entrants to the space market, some of the entrepreneurs. We’re building the propulsion module for the Bigelow Aerospace Sundancer inflatable space module. We passed critical design review and we’re starting to build hardware. We would be delivering our propulsion modules next year.

What is it like to work with an entrepreneur compared to NASA or the Defense Department?

Robert Bigelow’s approach comes out of his previous businesses, so for traditional companies there’s a little bit of getting to know one another and understanding that things are going to be a little bit different. We’ve overcome that and we’ve been working pretty well with his team. The difference is when he wants to make a decision, he does. He’s unencumbered so it can be very quick if he wants it to be quick. He doesn’t always understand the constraints that we put upon ourselves as we develop a rocket but I think that’s one of the reasons he hired us. I think he felt Aerojet is a flexible enough company that we bring what you have to have in rockets but we’re also flexible in how we do business and that’s pretty much why we both took a chance with each other.

What is the biggest challenge Aerojet faces?

I used to be totally stressed about work force, but with the economy people have chosen to hang around a little longer. We thought we’d have trouble attracting young people but it hasn’t been that way. One of our challenges will be keeping those young people if these big programs don’t take off or develop the way they should, because the engineers like to be part of a program where they actually get to do something. Nobody wants to just work on paper, especially when you build rockets. We’re excited about these new programs and we want to be able to build and develop the hardware with the new generation. I just hope we really get to do it here soon because the rest of the world is – places like China and India – so we need to, too.

Would more technology development hold the interest of recent college graduates, and should NASA or private companies be leading that development?

It’s fairly thin right now at NASA. Companies can fund it to a degree. We fund a fair amount of technology, and we try to fund those things that we see will find their way into future products. The challenge is picking those things that will really happen. We don’t have a crystal ball, but I think the stops and starts of the past 15 to 20 years have made it more difficult to just depend on industry to develop technology because we have shareholders and we need to go where there are going to be real products. We can’t just build technology for technology’s sake.

How is Aerojet addressing the uncertainty of the future of Ares 1 and Orion?

I think there are funding challenges and I think we’re all waiting to see where the priorities are and what the end date is going to be for Orion and Ares. It’s a matter of what are the funding levels, not just for NASA but how are they going to trickle down all the way to Orion and Ares. We’re working toward the 2015 date but we were funding limited in 2009 and if that continues we’ll have to make adjustments. We’re doing some advanced development work on the roll control thruster for Ares and we’re in competition trying to win some of the smaller propulsion with Boeing on the Ares vehicle.