With the reorganization of PWR — the product of last year’s merger of the rocket propulsion companies Pratt & Whitney and Rocketdyne — nearly complete, the reinvigorated firm is banking on NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration to provide the kind of strong growth opportunities the propulsion industry has not experienced in years.
“There’s a lot of opportunities, though it all depends on what’s first, how it all phases together, and that’s all based on how much funding is coming out of NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration,” PWR President Byron K. Wood said in a Jan. 10 interview with Space News. “Our No. 1 job is to get back to flying [the space shuttle] and to flying safely,” Wood said.
After that, the company’s first new opportunity will come from the conversion of the shuttle’s reusable main engine — currently one of its key products — to an expendable engine that can be used for NASA’s planned Crew Launch Vehicle and heavy-lift launch vehicle.
The Crew Launch Vehicle is part of NASA’s planned replacement for the shuttle system. It will be used initially to launch astronauts to the international space station. NASA’s current architecture for future exploration also calls for the development of a shuttle-derived heavy-lift launcher for missions to the Moon and eventually Mars. Under NASA’s current plans, both of those vehicles would use expendable versions of the space shuttle main engine designed and built by Rocketdyne.
As a company that sells rocket components for the shuttle and the Lockheed Martin Atlas and Boeing Delta families of rockets, Wood said PWR is well positioned to get a nice boost from work on future NASA programs.
In addition to the space shuttle main engine, the combined company also provides the RL-10 upper stage that is used on both the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets and the RS-68 engine that is the main stage of the Delta 4.
Wood predicts that NASA will eventually shift from using the Russian-built Soyuz launch vehicle for trips to the international space station to using the Atlas and Delta rockets developed for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, which could mean additional business for PWR.
“It’s not a big piece of business but I envision we’ll see either EELV [Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle] capture some of that, or the Crew Launch Vehicle capture some of that,” Wood said.
NASA also is planning some unmanned precursor missions to the Moon that Wood said would provide opportunities for sales of upper stages.
The company also is considering offering NASA a new engine in the future that could be used as the Earth departure stage for future lunar vehicles. That engine would be based on designs for both its RL-60 engine and the MB-XX, a liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen engine the company is developing in partnership with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and recently tested in Japan. “We’d call it the PR1 and take the best of both engines,” Wood said.
In the meantime, the company also is waiting to see if NASA or the U.S. Air Force will be ordering any more Delta 2 launch vehicles, which use the RS-27A developed by Rocketdyne as their main stage.
Boeing and Lockheed Martin plan to merge their Atlas and Delta businesses, and there has been some speculation that they would shift some of the Delta 2 launches to the larger vehicles. The merger would be accomplished by the creation of a joint venture called United Launch Alliance. Approval of that deal is pending before the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.
“The Delta 2 has been a great launch vehicle for NASA. It’s been a cost-effective vehicle for them, ” Wood said. “I think the Air Force would like to see NASA use more EELVs — that would be a cost advantage for them. I frankly don’t know how that’ll play out. We basically have finished the Delta 2 engine buy. One day, we hear the next buy won’t be until 2008, 2009, three days later [it’s] ‘ no, we’re going to receive a new buy order imminently.’ I don’t know.”
For now the company has shut down its production line for Delta 2 engines. “All the tooling and facilities are available to us if they ever decide to turn that back on,” Wood said.
The company’s post-merger transition is nearly complete, Wood said, with the exception of a few administrative computer systems that should be completed by March. It now employs about 3,700 people and has retained Pratt & Whitney’s facilities in West Palm Beach, Fla., and Rocketdyne facilities in Canoga Park, Calif.
Overall, Wood predicts that PWR will get to a point where it is building approximately 25 to 26 rocket engines a year. While this is a dramatic step forward from the low point of seven engines the combined company built in 2005, it still is less than what they saw in brighter days, such as 1995 when they had 32 launches.
“So we’ll get back to close to where we were 10 years ago, but I don’t see it going much beyond that unless there is some significant disruption in the industry somewhere,” Wood said.
With the successful launch of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense interceptor Nov. 22, Wood said he also expects more business to come for the company in the area of missile defense. Pratt & Whitney provided the divert and attitude control systems for the missile.
“We’ve clearly demonstrated that capability to the government and quite frankly, we look at that as a pretty good piece of business,” Wood said.