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.

Bruno: Vulcan engine downselect is Blue’s to lose

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos speaks in front of his company's New Shepard suborbital vehicle on display at the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs April 5. Bezos said the company still plans to start flying people on suborbital space tourism flights by the end of 2018, although the company has yet to start selling tickets or even setting a ticket price. Development of New Shepard, he said, is informing the company's plans for an orbital launch vehicle, New Glenn, that will use the same BE-4 engines that United Launch Alliance is considering for its Vulcan rocket. Credit: Chuck Bigger for SpaceNews

COLORADO SPRINGS — United Launch Alliance is prepared to select Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine for its Vulcan launch vehicle this year if the engine passes an upcoming series of tests, the company’s chief executive said April 5.

In an interview during the 33rd Space Symposium here, Tory Bruno said that tests of the BE-4 engine, scheduled to begin “very soon” at Blue Origin’s test site in West Texas, are the last major hurdle the engine must clear before ULA decides to use it on Vulcan.

“The economic factors are largely in place now and the thing that is outstanding is the technical risk,” Bruno said. “That’s why we keep talking about the engine firing.”

A major aspect of the engine tests, he said, is to determine the degree of combustion instability the BE-4 has when the engine starts. “Any time when you are developing a new rocket engine, any time you change the scale or the fuel, you are at risk of this phenomenon,” he said. The BE-4 engine is the largest engine developed to date that uses methane as fuel, rather than more common alternatives like kerosene or liquid hydrogen.

“We look first to the combustion instability as the chief technical risk that must be retired before we’d be able to pick an engine,” Bruno said. He anticipated a series of tests, lasting for several weeks, where the engine’s thrust is gradually increased to measure its performance and determine if it suffers from combustion instability.

Bruno said he was encouraged by tests of some key engine components, including the preburner, a smaller version of the main engine that powers the engine’s turbomachinery. “The good news is the preburner is running like a top,” he said. “We’re starting to get more and more confidence that we’re going to have a good experience when we run a full-scale engine.”

If the tests all go as planned, Bruno said ULA could be ready to formally select the BE-4 in as soon as 60 to 90 days. “But it could take longer,” he added. “It’s not on the calendar.”

Tory Bruno Jeff Bezos BE-4
Tony Bruno (left), Jeff Bezos and the BE-4 engine at 2014 press conference. Credit: SpaceNews/Brian Berger

Rob Meyerson, president of Blue Origin, confirmed in an April 5 interview that test of the BE-4 will start in the next several weeks. One engine is already at the company’s test site, with two more shipping there soon.

“We wanted to go into the test program hardware-rich,” he said. With those engines and other equipment at the test site, “we can move through the test program quite rapidly.” He said that testing would continue after ULA made its decision, with final certification of the BE-4 planned for late 2018 or early 2019.

While Bruno will make the decision about the engine, he will get plenty of advice. He said he recently established an independent non-advocate review (INR) team of outside experts to review the overall engine evaluation process. That team includes former Secretary of the Air Force Sheila Widnall; retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Susan Mashiko, former deputy director of the National Reconnaissance Office; and Ray Johnson, former vice president for space launch operations at the Aerospace Corp.

Bruno said Congress also established a separate INR team, comprised of engineers from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, to review the engine selection process. “I was actually happy to hear that they did that,” Bruno said, adding that this team had access to the same data as ULA’s own review team.

Rob Meyerson, president of Blue Origin, confirmed in an April 5 interview that test of the BE-4 will start in the next several weeks. Credit: Tom Kimmel
Rob Meyerson, president of Blue Origin, confirmed in an April 5 interview that test of the BE-4 will start in the next several weeks. Credit: Tom Kimmel

Bruno added that he expected the Air Force would also seek access to the test data and provide ULA with its own opinion about the engine. “I will hear all of those opinions and it will be super easy if everybody says the same thing,” he said. “If they do not, then we will resolve that. And then we will make a choice.”

Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR1 engine remains the alternative for Vulcan should the BE-4 run into technical problems. Development of the AR1 is 18 to 24 months behind the BE-4, he said, because it started later. “I have confidence they can get their engine to work” because of its use of a more conventional fuel, kerosene.

Blue Origin, though, has the financial edge. Bruno said ULA already has a firm fixed-price deal with Blue Origin for “a large enough quantity” of engines that covers initial Vulcan missions. Those engines will be produced initially at Blue Origin’s factory in Kent, Washington.

“Their production capability actually looks quite good,” Bruno said of those initial BE-4 engine plans. “My INR heads came back to me and said they are very comfortable with that production capability already.”

Later engines will be built at a separate facility Blue Origin plans to develop in the next few years that will be designed to produce dozens of engines a year. “We’re in the process of site selection for a full production site,” Meyerson said. He declined to identify the locations being considered, but said a decision should be made in the next six months.

Bruno said that he expected to decide on the Vulcan engine this year, but wouldn’t be rushed into one. “I get to make this decision, like, once. This is a big decision and if you don’t get it right, it’s very hard to come back from that,” he said. “So I’m going to take my time and listen to all these experts and stakeholders and then do it.”