Aerojet Rocketdyne Resolute It Can Complete Work on New Rocket Engine by 2019 (Updated)


NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- Aerojet Rocketdyne executives insisted Sept. 15 that the company can complete work on a replacement for the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine by 2019, provided the Air Force allocates enough money for work to begin in earnest this year.

Julie Van Kleeck, vice president of advanced space and launch, said she expects the Air Force to award the first major tranche of funding sometime during the first quarter of fiscal year 2016. How much money the service intends to award and to whom is unknown. It has about $160 million to spend although it may not allocate all of it, she said.

Another unknown factor is whether Aerojet Rocketdyne will acquire its launch service provider, United Launch Alliance, a joint Boeing-Lockheed Martin company that has enjoyed a near monopoly on lofting heavy national security payloads to orbit. It is developing a new class of rockets called the Vulcan to replace the Atlas and Delta rockets and is working with start-up Blue Origin, which is developing a new engine.

Van Kleeck declined to answer questions on its $2 billion bid for ULA during a meeting with reporters on the sidelines of the Air Force Association conference here other than to say that a potential acquisition is a business decision, not a technical one.

Congress in the 2015 budget allocated $220 million to replace the RD-180, a Russian manufactured engine used on the Atlas 5 rocket. The crisis in Ukraine and potential threats of sanctions pointed to the dependence on the rival nation for an engine used on national security launch missions. Congress responded by authorizing and providing the initial funding for a replacement to be developed by 2019.

Aerojet Rocketdyne executives have insisted that they could meet that deadline with a new AR-1 engine, while Air Force officials and United Launch Alliance, the Atlas 5 launch provider, have stated that it is not realistic.

The caveat is receiving the needed development money on time, Van Kleeck said. If the first major allocation is insufficient, Aerojet Rocketdyne wouldn't be able to meet the deadline. 
"How [the Air Force] actually spreads the money out and how does it come to us?" are the unknowns, she said. "The Air Force has a lot of flexibility on how much it can award," she said.

Steve Cook, vice president for corporate development at Dynetics, an Aerojet Rocketdyne partner on the AR-1 program, pointed out that its engine program has grown out of Air Force and NASA research and development programs that have been ongoing for years.

Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, has whittled the amount of time it takes to make some components from months to days, he said. For example, earlier in September the two companies successfully test fired a gas generator that supplies fuel to the F-1 engine used on NASA's Saturn rockets. The legacy generator took 15 months to build. The 3D manufactured version took 15 days to make, he said.

Aerojet Rocketdyne, while it has not been chosen as ULA's partner on its Vulcan program, continues to work with the company to study how its AR-1 would be integrated onto the new rocket, Van Kleeck said. Aerojet Rocketdyne concluded that it would cost "10s of millions" to learn how to integrate the new engine on an Atlas 5, while it would cost "100s of millions" to do so on the Vulcan.
The Blue Origin's BE-4 engine uses liquid natural gas for fuel while the AR-1 is sticking with the traditional kerosene. ULA is studying both types of fuel for its Vulcan program, she said. Development of the BE-4 is being funded by billionaire Jeff Bezos.

"The Vulcan using kerosene can essentially move into the infrastructure it has, but with the LNG you have to have new infrastructure," she said.

Cook pushed back on the notion that it will be a big challenge to integrate the AR-1 onto an Atlas 5. "The Atlas has 56 flights under its belt. It's well understood. It's well characterized," he said. While he said there is no such thing as a simple drop-in for a new engine onto a new rocket, it has been done often and is a well understood engineering process. "We have even switched fuels on rockets before," he added.

Along with the possibility of Aerojet Rocketdyne acquiring ULA, and shaking up its partnership with Blue Origins, the other factor in the launch market is SpaceX, which is developing its Falcon Heavy rocket with the intentions of competing for heavy national security payloads. SpaceX founder Elon Musk has said the company doesn't require any federal funding.

"They certainly have been a force in the marketplace, not just here but worldwide. You see a number of changes that other countries are adapting ... to respond" to SpaceX. It does a number of processes differently, Van Kleeck said. But it is important to maintain focus in the launch business on reliability, she said.

SpaceX suffered a loss in June when a rocket carrying cargo to the international space station exploded. 

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Julie Van Kleeck's name.

Topics: Space

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