House members ask Pentagon to stay the course on launch vehicle development

ULA Vulcan

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of 20 House members has asked the Defense Department not to alter the U.S. Air Force’s plans to fund development of new launch systems.

In the letter to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, dated April 10, the members said the Air Force should continue efforts to develop “complete, robust launch systems” rather than focus on specific components, such as an engine to replace the Russian-built RD-180. That approach, they argued, is the best way to end reliance on the RD-180 while providing assured access to space at reduced cost.

“Investing in the entire launch system through government and industry cost-share partnerships — rather than a specific component — is the fastest, safest, and most affordable way for the taxpayer to achieve these objectives,” they wrote. “Restricting funding only for a domestic engine will result in higher costs for the taxpayer and risks delays in ending use of the RD-180 engine.”

The Air Force made several Rocket Propulsion System awards in early 2016 to support development of both engines and full-scale vehicles, with the winning companies contributing one third of the cost of each award. In March, the Air Force issued a draft request for proposals (RFP) for the next phase of the program, called the Launch Service Agreement, with the full RFP expected this summer.

Under that program, the Air Force is expected to make up to three awards in early 2018 to fund continued development of those vehicles, including certification test flights. Among the companies expected to compete for those awards are Orbital ATK, which is developing a vehicle through its Next Generation Launch program; SpaceX, which received funding to support work on its Raptor methane engine last year; and United Launch Alliance, for its Vulcan vehicle.

Aerojet Rocketdyne also received a Rocket Propulsion System award from the Air Force last year to support work on the company’s AR1 engine, which the company is billing as a replacement for the RD-180 used on ULA’s Atlas 5. ULA has yet to make a formal decision on the engine that will power the first stage of Vulcan, but has indicated as recently as April 5 that Blue Origin’s BE-4 remains the frontrunner over the AR1.

The members who signed the letter include Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee. Twelve Republicans signed the letter, led by Rep. Will Hurd of Texas. Five of the members who signed the letter are from Colorado, where ULA is headquartered, while four are from Washington state, where Blue Origin is based. Three members are from Texas, where both Blue Origin and SpaceX have test facilities.

Absent from the list of members who signed the bill are Reps. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the chairmen of the full House Armed Services Committee and its Strategic Forces Subcommittee, respectively. In February, the two sent a letter to Acting Secretary of the Air Force Lisa Disbrow and James MacStravic, performing the duties of the under secretary of defense for acquisition, calling on the government to have “full access to, oversight of, and approval rights over decision-making about any engine down-select for Vulcan (assuming they will be requesting government funding).”

In the letter, they argued that since ULA is accepting government funding to support the development of Vulcan, the government should also have insight into that process, “especially where one of the technologies is unproven at the required size and power.” That was a reference to Blue Origin’s BE-4, which will be the largest rocket engine developed to date using methane as a fuel, rather than the kerosene used by the RD-180 and AR1 engines.

Thornberry has since backtracked on the comments in that letter, telling reporters last month it was not his intent to micromanage subcontracting decisions.

Rogers, in a recent SpaceNews interview, said he was not satisfied with the pace of development of an RD-180 replacement, but also praised the capabilities of commercial launch companies. “My subcommittee, our full committee, this Congress, is committed to not stop until we have an American-made engine that can get our national security space assets launched,” he said.

Lockheed, Aerojet bet on 3-D printing for manufacturing

Lockheed Martin Space Systems is using "additive manufacturing" - better known as 3-D printing - to greatly decrease costs and lower production time when creating parts like this partially-built tank. Credit: Phillip Swarts

COLORADO SPRINGS – Major aerospace corporations such as Lockheed Martin and Aerojet Rocketdyne are developing greater 3-D printing capabilities as a way to speed production and lower costs.

Speaking to reporters during the 33rd annual Space Symposium last week, both companies said they are expanding the number of components they manufacture via 3-D printing, more formally known as additive manufacturing.

“The advantage that additive [manufacturing] typically provides is not only reduced cost, but it’s really reducing the span time,” said Brian O’Connor, Lockheed Martin Space Systems’ vice president of production.

One example he provided was a spherical titanium tank, comprised of two domes 117 centimeters in diameter, used on one of the company’s A2100 satellite buses. With 3-D printing, manufacturing time has dropped by two-thirds, he said.

“This allows us to cut that span time down from 18 months to go get a tank down to a neighborhood of less than 6 months,” O’Connor said.

The 3-D printing also allows Lockheed to create greater custom designs for satellites and satellite parts to meet specific functions, without needing a huge amount of capital to retool manufacturing capabilities.

“It allows you to do designs that you can’t produce in a normal fashion, you can’t do it in a machining operation in a single part,” O’Connor said. “So it allows that additional degree of freedom for our engineers.”

Lockheed said it is planning to use additive manufacturing on a military satellite for the first time. For the next Air Force Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite, AEHF-6, the company built a remote interface unit, which the company describes as “an aluminum electronic enclosure designed to hold avionic circuits,” using 3-D printing.

Manufacturing time went from six to one and a half months, and the assembly time dropped from 12 hours to just three, the company said, adding that the effort will serve as a model for using similar techniques on other A2100 buses.

NASA’s Juno spacecraft, currently orbiting Jupiter, launched in 2011 with Lockheed’s first 3-D printed parts: a series of eight titanium brackets. The company is also exploring applications for 3-D printing beyond satellites. Lockheed said it’s looking at manufacturing parts that could be included on rockets.

Another company is already using 3-D printing for rocket engines. Aerojet Rocketdyne announced April 3 that it successfully test-fired a full-scale 3-D printed copper thrust chamber assembly for the RL10 rocket engine.

Creating the thrust chamber takes just under a month, the company said, and reduces the part count by more than 90 percent over the current design that uses multiple stainless steel tubes.

Aerojet is now looking at implementing similar 3-D printing techniques for its RS-25 engine that will be used on NASA’s Space Launch System, and the in-development AR1 engine that the company is hoping will be selected to power United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket.

“For rocket engines, it’s actually having a big effect on our business,” said Julie Van Kleeck, vice president of advanced space and launch programs. “It not just works on the cost side of things, but it also allows you to do things you couldn’t do in terms of the types of passages for cooling, and so on.”

“With rocket engines, the prices go down, the build times go down, the development cycles go down,” she said. “The key there is, can you really build what you think you’re building and get the material properties? We live at the edge of engineering with what we do, so our material properties have to be what we think they are.”

Aerojet to move rocket engine work out of historic facility

Aerojet Rocketdyne Sacramento

WASHINGTON — Aerojet Rocketdyne announced a second phase of the company’s consolidation plan April 10 that includes moving development of rocket engines from a decades-old California facility.

Aerojet Rocketdyne said this next phase of the company’s Competitive Improvement Program is intended to create additional cost savings of $85 million a year on top of the $145 million a year it expects from the first phase of that program, announced in 2015.

“Given the dynamic nature of this industry, strategic business decisions such as these, while difficult, are critical to establishing a solid course for our future,” Eileen Drake, president and chief executive of Aerojet Rocketdyne, said in a statement issued after markets closed April 10.

The biggest element of this phase of the work is the shift of engine development work from the company’s facility in the Sacramento suburb of Rancho Cordova, California. That site, used by Aerojet and other aerospace companies since the 1950s, had been used to build and test a variety of solid- and liquid-fuel engines, including the third stage of the Saturn 5 rockets used for the Apollo missions to the moon.

Aerojet Rocketdyne said it will move defense-related projects from Sacramento to Huntsville, Alabama, by the end of 2018. Other work will shift to company facilities in Southern California. The Sacramento site will become a “Shared Services Center of Excellence,” primarily hosting back-office services, once the company completes manufacturing work there by 2019.

The company said 1,100 of the current 1,400 jobs at the Sacramento facility will be relocated or eliminated. The site had also long served as the company’s headquarters, but in mid-2016 its parent company, Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings, moved its headquarters to the Los Angeles suburb of El Segundo, California.

In addition to the Sacramento site, Aerojet Rocketdyne plans to close its facility in Gainesville, Virginia, by the third quarter of 2018. The work there, including engineering and design work for missile programs, will move to Huntsville and another company plant in Orange, Virginia. About 170 jobs in Gainesville will be relocated or eliminated.

The winner in this consolidation is Huntsville. The company said it expects to add 800 jobs there as a result of moving work from California and Virginia. Huntsville is the site of the defense headquarters for the company. In January, the company announced it would build AR1 engines there, creating 100 jobs.

The AR1 is an engine under development by Aerojet Rocketdyne for potential use in United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan launch vehicle. In interviews last week at the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Aerojet executives said work on the AR1 remained on schedule, with test-firings planned for 2018 and final certification in 2019.

ULA, though, has indicated that the BE-4 engine under development by Blue Origin remains the front-runner to be used on Vulcan’s first stage. That engine is set to begin a series of test firing at Blue Origin’s West Texas test site in the next several weeks, and ULA President and Chief Executive Tory Bruno said in an April 5 interview that, if the BE-4 passes those tests, he will likely select it for use on Vulcan.

Aerojet Rocketdyne has argued that it believes that the AR1 is the lowest-risk option for use on Vulcan, noting its performance is similar to the Russian-built RD-180 engine currently used on the Atlas 5. Company officials said that, regardless of ULA’s decision, they plan to continue development of the AR1 under an Air Force contract and, if needed, seek other opportunities for the engine.

Aerojet Rocketdyne estimates the overall cost of its Competitive Improvement Program to be $235.1 million, including $122.1 million for the second phase of the effort. According to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company said the cost of the second phase includes $65.2 million in employee-related costs, $36.2 million in facility costs, and $20.7 million in other costs, including product requalification and knowledge transfer.