Profile: Scott Neish

President, Aerojet

Aerojet was not involved in the big mergers that realigned the U.S. space propulsion industry in the last five years, but the Sacramento, Calif., company emerged from the upheaval as the only one active in all segments of the business.

Alliant Techsystems purchased Thiokol to become the top U.S. supplier of large solid-rocket motors, while Pratt & Whitney bought Boeing’s Rocketdyne division to assume a similar position in liquid-fueled engines. Aerojet is the main competition for both companies, and also builds in-space propulsion systems for satellites.

This is not to say Aerojet was idle during the industry’s consolidation — it explored a joint venture with Pratt & Whitney and also courted Rocketdyne. Neither of those deals came to fruition, but Aerojet in the meantime shed its defense electronics business and snapped up the in-space propulsion business of General Dynamics as well as Atlantic Research Corp., a leading supplier of solid-rocket motors for tactical-missile and missile-defense applications.

Scott Neish says the acquisitions, coupled with double-digit organic growth in recent years, have made Aerojet a $600 million company. But he expects growth to level off to single digits in the years ahead due to budgetary challenges facing his two main customers, the U.S. Defense Department and NASA.

Aerojet also is indirectly involved in the real estate business by virtue of the 12,600 acres (5,040 hectares) it owns in the Sacramento area. Parent company GenCorp is hoping to convert nearly half of that land into cash. For that to happen, much of it must be purged of contaminants that have built up over the years as a byproduct of rocket motor production and testing.

Neish spoke recently with Space News deputy editor Warren Ferster and staff writer Brian Berger.

Is consolidation over in the U.S. propulsion industry?

It’s unlikely in the near future that there’s going to be any other substantial consolidation.

Is Aerojet competitive in strategic propulsion with Alliant Techsystems and Pratt & Whitney?

Oh, we are still competitive. We looked at some of the acquisitions, but our view of the value of things that were on the table was different than other folks. GD Aerospace was a market leader in in-space propulsion and Atlantic Research Corp. was a market leader in tactical propulsion, so we acquired a couple of market leader positions. We were not successful in attempts to play in the Rocketdyne acquisition. That happens. We’re still looking, but the opportunities are probably going to be few and far between going forward.

Aerojet has an arrangement with the Pentagon that allows it to recover 88 percent of its environmental cleanup costs through government contracts. Does adding these costs to contracts affect Aerojet’s competitiveness?

It’s a competitiveness issue, yes, and that is one of the reasons we’re very focused on operational excellence and making sure that we’re lowering our costs, both direct and overhead costs, because we do carry an extra burden with the remediation costs. But most propulsion companies have similar issues. I don’t know what arrangements other companies have, but everyone has a burden to bear.

Are there any opportunities on the horizon for Aerojet in large liquid-fueled rocket engines?

The Air Force has the hydrocarbon boost program that is looking toward a large liquid booster engine. That’s a technology program. The product is a long ways away but we’re participating in that.

Aerojet has been marketing the Russian NK 33 engine for a decade, but Rocketplane Kistler’s planned launcher, which would utilize the NK-33, faces an uncertain future. Is anybody else interested?

We’re still interested in Kistler but there are also people that are interested in those engines for the Hybrid Launch Vehicle for the Air Force.

Are you bothered by the fact that Alliant Techsystems has been selected as the lead contractor on the Crew Launch Vehicle?

Well, that’s always a concern, of course. But that’s NASA’s stated strategy — they’re going to go with Rocketdyne and Alliant Techsystems for the new vehicle and we’re going to adapt to that and we’re going to try and show how we can add value to that. And we think there are ways that we can. Obviously upper-stage propulsion is something we’ve been talking with NASA and with the prime teams about. And we think we can help Rocketdyne on the J2X, so we’re talking with them about what we can do to help them.

The J2X is a Rocketdyne-heritage engine. What can you offer there?

We have a number of technologies that we may be able to help them with: pumps, valves, advanced nozzles, channel-wall nozzle technology.

Can Aerojet play a significant role on NASA’s planned Crew Exploration Vehicle?

Well, we’re working with both prime teams on that, and because we are, I think I’d rather not get too specific. We have a long heritage of broad product offerings in … in-space propulsion, both out of Sacramento and out of Redmond, Wash., and we have some newer technologies that may be breakthrough or enabling for future missions like the green propellants and the throttleable solids, the nuclear propulsion.

If NASA were to select a liquid-oxygen-methane main engine for the Crew Exploration Vehicle, would Aerojet be at a competitive disadvantage relative to companies with design contracts in that area?

No. We’re probably beyond where the folks are that won those contracts in terms of our demonstrated technology. We’re as good on methane as anybody. We have more live test experience with methane than probably anyone else.

Is Aerojet going to be able to recover its investment in the solid-rocket strap-on motors it developed for Lockheed Martin’s Atlas 5 launcher?

No, we’re probably not. But we think it can be a good contributing product for us going forward. We have restructured that program … I’d rather not discuss our profitability on the program but just say that we believe at the current price and volumes it can be a contributor for us going forward. We built 15 last year and are currently building seven a year going forward. So we haven’t demonstrated profitability but we think we will be profitable at that rate going forward with the contract restructuring.

Are there any other applications for that motor besides Atlas 5?

We’ve talked with other folks about using it as a solid-boost motor for a launch vehicle.

As a maker of on-orbit thrusters for commercial as well as government satellites, Aerojet has a stake in export reform. Has there been any progress on that front?

There are still big challenges. We haven’t seen a lot of change in that situation. It’s disappointing.

How would you characterize the health of the U.S. propulsion industry post consolidation?

I think stable, tending toward healthy. Certainly we have our challenges — it’s not a walk in the park.

What is your biggest concern?

The Air Force has a lot of very old airplanes. And the Navy needs some ships and the Army has their priorities and the expenses for them are not trivial. Replacing old systems is going to eat up a lot of their budget. So I worry that there’s not going to be enough left over to do the kind of product development that’s necessary to maintain an industrial base that really has the capability.

You mentioned that Aerojet has been working on variable-thrust solid-rocket motor technology. How does that work?

We’ve done two things, we’ve done solids that relight, but we’ve also achieved a turndown ratio approaching a 20-to-1 difference in thrust with a controllable solid. Basically you have a fixed nozzle and a tapered pintle that has an actuator that runs it in and out of the nozzle to change the nozzle diameter.