Depending on how it ultimately shakes out, U.S. President Barack Obama’s proposed new direction for NASA could work out well for Sacramento, Calif.-based Aerojet, the only U.S. company still active in both solid- and liquid-fueled rocket propulsion.
Aerojet is a key provider of in-space propulsion for NASA’s Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, which was marked for termination along with the rest of the agency’s Moon-bound Constellation program when Obama unveiled his 2011 budget request in February. The president later decided to retain a scaled-back version of Orion for use as a crew lifeboat at the international space station, however, meaning Aerojet likely will keep some of the propulsion work, a notable exception being solid-fueled motors for a Launch Abort System that will not be needed since the capsule will now launch unmanned.
Meanwhile, NASA, with $6 billion budgeted for exploration-related technology development over the next five years, appears to be leaning toward a heavy-lift rocket powered by a kerosene-fueled main engine. This would give Aerojet and its main rival in liquid-fueled rocket propulsion, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, the kind of opportunity that comes around once — maybe twice — in a generation.
Scott Seymour, who took the reins at Aerojet in January, says Aerojet’s work modifying the Russian-built NK-33 main engine for Orbital Sciences Corp.’s planned Taurus 2 medium-lift rocket, coupled with a U.S. Air Force research contract and internally funded research and development (R&D), has positioned the company well for the engine work, should it materialize.
But there are no guarantees, a lesson Aerojet learned the hard way in the 1990s when Congress canceled what looked to be the company’s franchise program: the Advanced Solid Rocket Motor, which was supposed to replace the giant solid motors used aboard the soon-to-be-retired space shuttle.
Since then, the company sold off its Azusa, Calif.-based defense electronics division while acquiring tactical and in-space propulsion firms. Total employment at Aerojet is around 3,100, down from over 4,000 in the mid-1980s but up slightly from 2,934 in 1995.
Seymour spoke recently with Space News Editor Warren Ferster.
What’s your biggest program right now?
Orion is definitely right up there with the biggest programs.
What does NASA’s proposed new direction mean for Aerojet?
If this is the hand we’re going to be dealt, how do we make the best out of this hand? So there’s $6 billion of upside on the top line here going forward and the R&D that comes with it; we’re embracing that and looking forward to that. We’ve had this idea that we’re sharing with people on a hydrocarbon boost, heavy-lift capability for the nation, which we believe for the long haul is something that the nation needs. In fact, that’s only one instantiation of a family of engines that the country would be well put to move forward on. We carry a bunch of R&D over with discretionary investments and hedging our bets in different fields of technology and future capabilities that would enable different missions, whether it’s on the tactical side, on the lift side, in space, whatever. Here we said, “OK, if this is where we’re going, and there’s going to be R&D geared toward future human spaceflight and exploration, what are some of the needs that are likely to come out of this?” And hydrocarbon boost is one.
So you think you’re well positioned for a hydrocarbon engine development program?
We definitely are, and it’s a big deal for us and it definitely is right down our alley. We have a small research contract with the Air Force Research Laboratory on this concept, and we’ve had it for a couple of years and it continues to run forward. We’re working with some partners and we’re all set going forward. We’ve been sharing our ideas with people in the government and otherwise on our concept, and certainly our competitors are doing the same. These things don’t come along that often.
Should the government forgo a winner-take-all competition in favor of a national industrial team approach to the engine development?
The first question is, does such an arrangement ultimately help the government? Does it help the customer, does it help the country? For the businesses involved, some threshold questions are: Does the teaming arrangement take them out of a core competency of theirs that they really look forward to growing and competing in on an ongoing basis? Would that arrangement involve stripping that away in order to have that team relationship work? That would be troublesome for us. I believe in general that competition is definitely what the nation wants to try to preserve to the extent that it can.
Is the solid-rocket strap-on motor for the Atlas 5 rocket one of your bigger programs?
We would definitely call that a franchise program as well. The business basically is oriented for the most part around the space business, the missile defense business and the tactical propulsion and armaments, and there are all sorts of programs in each one of those. We talked about Orion, but we certainly have a lot of business coming up: We’re with Bigelow Aerospace on the Sundancer activity; we’re working with Orbital Sciences on Taurus 2 with the NK-33 — now AJ26 — motor; we’re out there with Sierra Nevada. We definitely cover the waterfront, and part of that diversification is what enables us.
Would you consider the NK-33 a franchise program at this point?
Yes, in a different connotation though. Don’t forget, at one stage we were very robust in the liquids and the same with solids; we went through a down period in solids and Atlas gave us the ability to re-emerge on the solids side. We’re going through that same cycle right now on the liquids side, and NK-33 is a great program that is positioning us and getting us the robustness that we’re going to need to take on this hydrocarbon boost program, which clearly will be a future franchise program. The key point we need to emphasize is it’s the AJ26 because unlike the other Russian engine, Aerojet does a whole bunch of modifications to it to make the NK-33 into an AJ26.
How does your business break down between space, missile defense and tactical programs?
I would say defense would be two-thirds and space one-third.
With the space shuttle retiring and the Ares rocket program marked for cancellation, there’s a lot of concern about the solid propulsion industrial base. Your thoughts?
Before any of this was announced, back last summer, there were various commissions and we made inputs. Our input was, starting with solids, that we certainly believe that there was enough work for two, just as we believe there is for two liquids. We’ve all got to get in there and, looking at our business model, make our own individual business decisions, which we at Aerojet have done — and that was to right-size and adjust the enterprise for the business that was likely to be out there going forward. We also said that there were certain areas that, given the state of the business, you still were going to have some outliers. One is ammonium perchlorate solid-rocket fuel. The nation, we believe, is going to have to pay special attention to that and probably come up with a solution for making sure there is a supply because there is an area where demand just probably isn’t going to be there.
What can the government do to stabilize the industrial base?
One approach would be to step in and somehow guarantee some demand, so somebody could actually evolve a business model based on that demand being there. Another one would be where large facilities would be involved — for a special-size motor or from an energetic standpoint needing a footprint of a certain size. For every contractor trying to stay in the game, the business case wouldn’t be there to try to carry that kind of facility. So in that case the government could have such a facility and when you got to that stage of the assembly process the companies involved on the solid side would have to gravitate toward the government’s facility and use it. That was an idea that we put forward.
Have you talked to, your competitor in solid-rocket motors, about this?
I think our competitor is aware of what we’re saying and vice versa, and I think like anything else, a couple of companies have different views on the same subject.
Aerojet builds stages for the Standard Missile-3 interceptor. How important a program is that for the company?
It’s a big deal — the whole missile defense family. We also have this divert and attitude control system; that’s a great capability.
What ICBM work does Aerojet have these days?
For Northrop Grumman, we do the service life extension for the Minuteman 3 fourth stage out of Clearfield, Utah. We have some people there basically looking at obsolescence that occurs; they go out and replace those obsolete parts on the contract down there. Then, of course, we have work in Virginia on the D5 Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile.