Jim Maser

President, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne

Even as the dominant
player in liquid-fueled rocket propulsion, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne faces uncertainty as NASA prepares to retire the space shuttle fleet, whose space shuttle main engine (SSME) is the company’s biggest program. Although Pratt & Whitney has a key role in the shuttle’s replacement as prime contractor on the J-2X upper-stage engine for the crew-launching Ares 1 rocket, NASA recently embarked on a 90-day review that could yield a recommendation to scrap that vehicle in favor of an existing rocket.

NASA also plans to develop a heavy-lift rocket for lunar exploration dubbed Ares 5, which in addition to utilizing the J-2X would have a core stage powered by five RS-68 main engines, which Pratt & Whitney designed for the Delta 4 rocket. But major spending on Ares 5 is still several years away, and some question whether U.S. President Barack Obama is serious enough about returning astronauts to the Moon to go through with that investment.

Pratt & Whitney’s other big customer is United Launch Alliance (ULA), builder and operator of the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets that serve as the U.S. government’s primary means of launching scientific, military and weather satellites. In addition to building the Delta 4’s main engine, Pratt & Whitney supports the effort under which Russian-built RD-180 main engines are supplied for the Atlas 5, and also provides the RL10 upper-stage engine, variants of which are used on both launchers.

Jim Maser, who took the reins of Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne in 2006, the year after it was created via merger, acknowledges space propulsion is not a growth industry these days. While still focused on the core market, he is applying the company’s engineering capabilities in other areas including coal gasification, advanced solar power and fuel-efficient internal combustion engines.

Maser spoke recently with Space News editor Warren Ferster and staff writer Becky Iannotta.

How are you rationalizing the production capabilities of the Pratt & Whitney plant in

West Palm Beach
, with the old Boeing Rocketdyne facility in
Canoga Park

The big part of the rationalization going on right now is the rationalization with heritage Rocketdyne inCanogaPark. There’s a facility on Canoga Avenue and a facility on De Soto Avenue, so the focus of our consolidation over the next few years is really consolidating everything from Canoga to De Soto. The SSME obviously will no longer be in production so we did not want to have to move and recertify everything that has to do with the SSME so we’ve stood up De Soto for RS-68 and J-2X.

We’re envisioning that consolidation will take probably in the ballpark of another four years from now. We could shorten it a little, but that’s not likely. It’s possible that it could extend a little just to make it affordable on a year-to-year basis.

Are there any efficiencies to be had between

West Palm Beach

What we’ve been working on is seeing whether – with our common suppliers – there’s a way to consolidate a bit. We buy castings for instance maybe from a similar supplier. If we can pool our buys into one larger buy as opposed to separate buys from
, one from West Palm, one from
, there’s some synergies in terms of bundling orders.

How realistic is the notion that, if U.S.-Russian relations deteriorate badly, Pratt & Whitney

could manufacture the Atlas 5’s RD-180 main engine domestically?

Well, certainly we have all the paperwork to do it, and through our co-production efforts – which ended last July because they’re no longer being funded – we have demonstrated what we believe are the hardest parts of that engine to build, the most technologically complex. So, could we pick it up and build the rest explicitly just from the paperwork received? Honestly, I would say that would be a challenge. We would be willing to give it a try, but the environment we’ve been operating under is that we would stand up a domestic production capability with process support from the Russians. And that process support would probably only have to last a few years and we could take it over ourselves. Overall, our general position has been we can do this engine in four to five years and a number we’re throwing out there is about $700 million.

What if

doesn’t cooperate?

Given that we’ve already proven that we can take the drawings and prints and processes for the hardest stuff to build on that engine and we’ve built it, I believe we could do it, but it could take longer and cost more than the number I quoted you.

The Delta 4 has not been launching much of late. How has that affected your RS-68 production effort?

We would like to build up to
10 to 12
engines per year. But we recognize for the foreseeable future – and that means probably for the next 10 to 15 years – our production rates are likely to be on the order of four to six engines per year. So what we’re doing is making sure our factories are properly sized for that production rate with the ability to scale up as necessary.

Pratt & Whitney provides the divert and attitude control thruster system for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile interceptor. Is this a growth area for you?

That’s the one that’s transitioned into production this year so we’re optimistic that’ll continue and maybe even grow, but we don’t have aggressive growth in our business plans. But we’re preparing ourselves in case it should turn into a growth program.

Where else do you see the growth potential?

In our traditional core liquid propulsion business I don’t see any growth for the next 10 to 15 years. As we transition from SSME to J-2X, Ares 1 and then eventually Ares 5 with RS-68B – we’re doing RS-68A now – there’s a nice evolutionary path for these programs. But when you look at our transition through these paths, it’s still not a lot of growth. Our strategy is to leverage all the capability we’ve built through doing what is a very difficult business, and what we characterize as extreme engineering that we believe can be leveraged into other areas.

The other thing is our systems engineering and integration of propulsion systems, so we’re trying to move up into propulsion systems. If we could provide not just an engine but perhaps an engine module that includes everything that goes along with an engine – pressure vessels and that sort of thing – then you could kind of plug it into the bottom of a tank and it’d be easier for a vehicle person or systems integrator to just buy that interface. We believe we can offer more value providing that integrated system in our specialty and then perhaps some vehicle people could.

Who is the potential customer?

We’re looking at the idea potentially for Ares 5, which will have multiple RS-68 engines. Since we’re the engine supplier and they all have to work together, it would make sense if we delivered them all together. Now that’s not their baseline plan, but we’re starting to discuss that possibility.

Currently you produce two versions of the RL10 upper-stage engine, one for Atlas 5 and one for Delta 4. Is there any thought being given to going down to just one variant for both vehicles?

We’re working with ULA and their customers on that possible evolution. We all think it makes sense; the question is what’s the timeframe in which we can do that and how affordable is it. I think there’s general agreement that evolving to a common engine for Atlas and Delta would be the right way to go. The question is do we evolve to some hybrid version of that.

The Atlas 5’s Centaur upper stage is a pretty complex piece of hardware. Would it be easier to adapt the Delta 4 to the Centaur RL10 than the other way around?

That’s right. And I think we’re generally drawing that conclusion too and that’s what we’re looking at, at a fairly high level.

The timeframe we’re looking at is the 2012 timeframe, something like that.

Is your work on NASA’s shuttle replacement system going to be enough to maintain your work force after the existing orbiter fleet retires?

The key to that is obviously the funding for the transition from shuttle to Ares 1 and then the continued funding to Ares 5. We would like to see the Ares 5 work start sooner but we’ve got that plan laid out; combined with some of these growth initiatives we have, and what we think will be some natural attrition, we think we’ll have a relatively smooth transition in 2010 over to the Ares 1 vehicle.

Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne has been studying a methane-fueled variant of the RL10. What benefits does methane offer as a rocket fuel?

Methane has more energy than kerosene – quite a bit less than hydrogen – but it also has a nice density profile. So you get a little more energy for pretty good density out of methane and it’s much easier to handle than hydrogen. Hydrogen’s a very challenging propellant to work with and its density drives fairly large upper stage volumes. In all the studies I’ve done for upper stages, it’s hard to not want to go to hydrogen. But there are, I believe, upper stage applications where methane could work, meet the performance needs and offer a little bit better packaging, reliability and performance. They’re looking at methane for exploration, for possibly ascent from the Moon for instance, they’re certainly looking at methane for Mars and there may be some other exploration possibilities also for this fuel.