Aerojet at 70: Humble Beginnings, Heady Future


Video courtesy of Aerojet

Seventy years ago this week, the aerospace company, Aerojet, was founded. Based out of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) the fledgling firm was started by Dr. Theodore von Kármán and five of his colleagues. The company’s formative years actually revolved around aircraft, albeit with a rocketry “twist.” Some seven decades later, the company has developed a wide range of products for both military as well as space exploration purposes.

Initially, Aerojet produced propulsion systems that provided aircraft with Jet Assisted Take Off or “JATO” capabilities that allowed aircraft weighed down with weapons or supplies to safely take off from the decks of aircraft carriers. After the end of WWII, the company turned its focus in the same direction where the rest of the world was looking – outside the atmosphere.

In 1941 Aerojet was producing Jet Assisted Take Off propulsion systems to allow heavily-laden aircraft to more easily lift off from aircraft carriers. Photo Credit: Aerojet

In the 1960s, Aerojet produced solid rocket motors used in the Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) as well as the Polaris submarine-based missile system. It also began working on the Titan launch system which would teach a nascent space agency called NASA – how to fly in space. Aerojet provided liquid rocket engines to Titans I-IV and in so doing aided NASA’s Gemini Program. This oft-forgotten part of NASA’s human space flight history is also one of the agency’s most important. It was with Gemini that NASA learned to conduct rendezvous, extra-vehicular activities and many other space flight skills that were not just crucial to the Apollo missions to the Moon, but vital to the basic space exploration “toolkit” that is employed today.

“The company was launched with a small amount of capital and today we’re a $1 billion industry leader. Our history is rooted in America’s commitment to defense and space exploration,” said Aerojet’s Vice-President of Communications, Glenn Mahone. “We’ve been part of every human spaceflight program starting with Gemini and our propulsion has helped power exploration since the launch of Vanguard in 1958. Our legacy and commitment to performance uniquely positions the company to tackle the modern challenges of economic and sustainable spaceflight. A lot of work we’re doing now is evolving heritage hardware for modern applications. You have to understand and respect the past to power the future.”

Aerojet supplied the liquid-fueled rocket engines on the Titan rocket. This opened the door to the company's involvement with U.S. human space flight efforts. Photo Credit: Aerojet

In the early days of the space age, NASA turned again and again to the expertise of Aerojet. According to an Aerojet press release, the company estimates that three out of every four rockets launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in 1966 – were powered by propulsion systems provided by Aerojet.

For the first time in human history humanity ventured past the safe confines of its homeworld and landed on another world – the Moon. When the Apollo astronauts conducted their history-making missions it was the Aerojet Service Propulsion System that placed them into lunar orbit and pulled them back out again to begin the three-day journey back to Earth.

When it comes to the unmanned sentinels that explore our solar system, many of the better-known missions utilized Aerojet systems. Voyager, Viking, Messenger, Cassini, Curiosity, the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity and many, many others all used systems in some way to accomplish (and currently carry out) their objectives. The Messenger spacecraft currently orbiting Mercury, the closest planet to our Sun, was placed in orbit using rockets provided by Aerojet. In fact, all of NASA’s Discovery missions have employed systems built by the Rancho-Cordova, California-based company.

“Performance is a universal language. An expert team delivering capabilities and hardware that outperforms itself on every mission will always be in demand, Mahone said. “In space, there are no repair shops; outstanding performance is a requirement.”

Every U.S. mission to Mars has used Aerojet systems in some capacity. This began with the navigation and descent systems on the Viking landers and has been carried through to multiple systems on the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity which is scheduled to arrive at the Red Planet in August.

The Reaction Control System or RCS used on the space shuttle is located in the nose section of orbiter and allowed the shuttles to "fly" in space. Photo Credit: NASA

In 1981, after several years of being grounded, the U.S. human space flight program thundered back to orbit aboard the United States’ first space plane – the space shuttle. Aerojet developed the thrusters used in the space shuttle’s Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) pods. These pods can be seen on either side of the space shuttle’s vertical tail fin.

Aerojet also produced the Reaction Control System (RCS). The Vernier RCS thrusters were used to alter the orbiter’s altitude for payload insertions, docking to the Mir and International Space Station and other critical course maneuvers. These systems were used for the thirty-year span of the shuttle program.

With the close of the shuttle era, Aerojet turned its focus on the new directions and objectives that NASA had turned its attentions to. The Orion spacecraft, built by Lockheed-Martin, uses numerous thrusters built by Aerojet. Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares launch vehicle will use Aerojet’s AJ26 liquid-fueled rocket engine.

There are several versions of the United Launch Alliance's Atlas V family of rockets that utilize solid rocket boosters to propel their payloads into orbit. This particular launch is the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity, currently on its way to the Red Planet. Photo Credit: Alan Walters /

There are versions of the Atlas V rocket that employ Aerojet solid rocket boosters (SRBs). These boosters have a 100 percent proven track record on the 15 missions that have used them over the past decade. The Atlas V can use anywhere between one to five of these SRBs depending on the requirements of that particular mission. NASA missions that have used this iteration of Atlas V include New Horizons, Juno and the MSL Curiosity mission to Mars.

The European Space Agency's Automated Transfer Vehicle or ATV employs thrusters built by Aerojet. The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency or JAXA, also utilizes systems built by Aerojet on their unmanned cargo vessel, the HTV. Photo Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace/Optique Video du CSG - J.M. Guillon

Aerojet is currently the only U.S. firm that produces both liquid and solid-fueled rocket systems. A decade ago, in 2002, the company acquired Space Propulsion and Fire Suppression business from General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems. A year later Aerojet purchased Atlantic Research Corporation. Adding these two companies to Aerojet’s portfolio allowed the company to strengthen and diversify the propulsion systems that it offers. Hydrazine thrusters, electric propulsion systems as well as auxiliary rocket motors all were added to the company’s list of offerings – and capabilities.

The company’s reputation has garnered attention with space agencies other than NASA. Both the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) as well as the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s HTV use Aerojet thrusters to accurately dock and berth to the International Space Station. A fact Mahone highlighted.

“With seven decades behind us, we’re positioning for the future. We are teamed with commercial companies to help power the missions of this new marketplace. We remain focused on NASA’s challenge of SLS and progressing on our commitment to deliver propulsion for Orion,” Mahone said. “In the coming week, Aerojet engines will maneuver ATV as it approaches the space station, and later this spring, the company will be delivering its 100th HiPAT engine along with the 50th Atlas flight-ready solid rocket booster. This August, our propulsion will help land the Mars Science Laboratory mission on the red planet, and we are continuing to innovate propulsion solutions for a variety of customers and missions.”




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