Is The Future Bright for Aerojet Rocketdyne?

Rows of RS-25 Space Shuttle Main Engines at NASA Kennedy Space Center Space Shuttle Main Engine Processing Facility to ship to Stennis Space Center Photo Credit Alan Walters AmericaSpace
A row of Rocketdyne-built RS-25 Space Shuttle Main Engines just before being shipped to Stennis Space Center for use on the Space Launch System program. Photo Credit: Alan Walters /

Last week, California-based Aerojet and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne—the two premier rocket-power providers in the United States—finalized their merger, almost a year after it was first announced. GenCorp, Inc., the aerospace and technology firm which has owned Aerojet since 2005, declared Monday 17 June that it had completed the $550 million purchase of PWR from parent company United Technologies Corp. The pair have now been relaunched as “Aerojet Rocketdyne,” and GenCorp has pledged the U.S. government that the merger will save $100 million each year.

The initial agreements for the merger were signed last July. “The deal is the latest chapter of consolidation in the aerospace industry,” noted the Los Angeles Times, “which has unfolded over the last two decades and has cost tens of thousands of jobs throughout the Southland.” At the time of last year’s initial agreement, GenCorp CEO Scott Seymour praised its “strategic value” and described the merger as an enterprise which would be “better positioned to compete in a dynamic, highly competitive marketplace and provide more affordable products for our customers.”

The twin engines of Antares' first stage, developed by Aerojet, were originally part of the Soviet Union's ill-fated N-1 lunar booster. Photo Credit: Orbital Sciences Corporation
The twin engines of Antares’ first stage, developed by Aerojet, were originally part of the Soviet Union’s ill-fated N-1 lunar booster. Photo Credit: Orbital Sciences Corporation

Originally formed by North American Aviation after World War II, Rocketdyne later built the Saturn rocket family’s H-1, F-1, and J-2 engines, which supported Project Apollo in its effort to boost the first men to the Moon. After becoming part of Rockwell International in 1967, it assembled the space shuttle’s liquid-fueled main engines and was sold to Boeing in 1996 and finally Pratt & Whitney in 2005. It currently builds the RS-68 first-stage engine for United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV, as well as the RL-10 upper-stage engine for the Delta IV and Atlas V. However, the end of the shuttle era led to a serious downturn for the Canoga Park, Calif.-based company. In late 2011, Pratt & Whitney announced its intent to sell Rocketdyne to help finance a $16.5 billion purchase of aerospace supplier Goodrich Corp.

Last week’s Aerojet-Rocketdyne merger is actually worth more than GenCorp’s $450 million estimated stock-price value, which aroused surprise and awareness of increased risk for job security within the two companies. The acquisition was delayed in October 2012, when “additional information” was requested from both GenCorp and United Technologies by the Federal Trade Commission. “The FTC’s requests,” it was reported at the time, “extend the waiting period during which the parties may not close the acquisition until 30 days after GenCorp and United Technologies have substantially complied with the requests.” As expected, that closure duly took place in the first half of 2013.The merger effectively places Aerojet Rocketdyne as the most powerful commercial builder of rocket engines in the United States. In addition to United Launch Alliance, key customers also include Orbital Sciences Corp., whose Aerojet-built AJ-26 engines boosted the first Antares mission on 21 April and is expected to support several launches of the Cygnus resupply craft to the International Space Station from September onwards.

Flying in its 'Block I' configuration, with four Space Shuttle-era Main Engines, a pair of five-segment Solid Rocket Boosters and a Delta-derived interim Cryogenic Propulsion System (iCPS), the first flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) in December 2017 will despatch the first crew-capable vehicle to the Moon since the Apollo era. Image Credit: NASA
Flying in its “Block I” configuration, with four Space Shuttle-era Main Engines, the first Space Launch System (SLS) mission in December 2017 will despatch the first crew-capable vehicle to the Moon since the Apollo era. Image Credit: NASA

Shortly after the announcement of the merger, Warren Boley—president of Aerojet since July 2012—was confirmed as president and CEO of Aerojet Rocketdyne. “In his role,” noted the company in a 17 June news release, “Boley provides strategic leadership and oversight of all management and operations functions for the Aerojet Rocketdyne enterprise, which includes more than 5,300 employees at 16 sites across the United States and throughout the world.”

The merger brings together two previous rivals for U.S. government rocket contracts, although GenCorp’s Seymour remains optimistic for the future. “Combined, we bring decades of history that launched the first space age and put mission-critical technology into the hands of our warfighters,” he said. “Our vision for the future is a shared one. We have the best workforce in the industry and we are committed to 100% safety and mission success as we continue to deliver performance, drive innovation and create opportunity. We will continue to be a leader in the next space age.”

That next age is hoped to include a core role in the development of NASA’s mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) booster, which aims to deliver humans beyond Earth orbit for the first time in five decades. Prior to its acquisition, Rocketdyne was favorably positioned as a candidate to build the giant rocket, with RS-25 shuttle main engines utilized for its core stage and RL-10 engines for its second stage. As for Aerojet, the company is presently contracted to provide 20 AJ-26 engines for upcoming Antares missions, although Orbital Sciences has expressed an interest in the Russian-built RD-180 engine as a more suitable long-term alternative and to create a foothold in the medium-class launch industry. This produced a measure of surprise from Boley, who described the potential engine-change decision as “not the conversation you are usually having after your first successful launch.”



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  1. As it currently stands, Aerojet Rocketdyne is hardly a premiere rocket engine builder. It is more a museum of old, re-branded rocket engines, many of them Russian-built, others dating from the early days of NASA. RS-68 is the newest engine in the inventory, and it has technical weaknesses that prevented it from practical use on Ares V. Aerojet Rocketdyne’s first press release did not boast of a new U.S. development effort. Instead, it talked about how a Russian company could build more engines upon which it could affix its label. Wouldn’t it be nice if a U.S. rocket engine company actually developed and built its own engines?

  2. Well, it is nice to have all liquid fuel engine experts under one roof where they can compare notes at last.

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