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Aerojet Rocketdyne move to El Segundo adds to SoCal's growing aerospace community

Aerojet Rocketdyne move to El Segundo adds to SoCal's growing aerospace community
An overview of Aerojet Rocketdyne's manufacturing facility, where they are working on the AR1 rocket engine, in Canoga Park on April 18, 2016. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

In a move that adds to the growing cluster of space companies based in Southern California, the parent company of rocket engine maker Aerojet Rocketdyne is moving its corporate headquarters from the Sacramento area to El Segundo.

Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings Inc. will make the move from Rancho Cordova over the next six to eight weeks. It will initially relocate about 25 employees, including Chief Executive Eileen Drake, legal counsel and support staff, Aerojet spokesman Glenn Mahone said.

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Some employees had already moved down this last month.

The company has more than 1,300 employees in Rancho Cordova and will maintain its plant there.

Mahone cited the proximity to Southern California customers such as Boeing Co. and Raytheon Co. as the primary reason for the move.

"We want to be close to our customers and be near them so that we can have various meetings," he said. "We think it's going to make us much, much more efficient."

He also said the close connection to Los Angeles International Airport was a supporting factor in the decision.

Aerojet is building the AR1, a rocket engine powered by liquid oxygen and kerosene that is intended to replace the RD-180 Russian rocket engines being used by a joint venture of Boeing  and Lockheed Martin Corp. to blast national security satellites into orbit. Aerojet is competing against Blue Origin, backed by Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos, to win a contract for the replacement.

Aerojet has said its engine will be flight-qualified by 2019.

The company is also working with Boeing on its CST-100 Starliner's service module propulsion system, which is intended to carry astronauts to the International Space Station. Boeing has said the first crewed flight test of the spacecraft will happen in 2018.

It is a rare headquarters win for the Los Angeles area, which is often cited as an expensive place to do business. But lately a resurgent private space industry has cropped up here.

Elon Musk's SpaceX is based in Hawthorne, just a few miles from El Segundo, and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, which is focused both on space tourism and launching small satellites into orbit from a large plane, is headquartered in Long Beach. Upstart small-satellite launch company Rocket Lab is also near LAX.

"Companies like SpaceX and Virgin and dozens of others have reinvigorated the market here," said Greg Autry, assistant professor of clinical entrepreneurship at USC. "It's almost hard to tell the difference between a SpaceX and a United Launch Alliance. They are now serious aerospace competitors."

Though the Southern California aerospace industry has declined since its heyday during World War II and the Space Race, experts say the region still has a number of advantages.

The area boasts research universities such as USC, UCLA and Caltech, as well as a skilled workforce, said Peter Westwick, an adjunct professor of history at USC and editor of the book "Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Century in Southern California."

"There still is a pretty substantial aerospace footprint here in Los Angeles," Westwick said.

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He noted that the communications satellites industry, drone manufacturers and new space companies share the region alongside traditional defense companies such as Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman Corp., which have maintained facilities in Southern California.

"When people think about L.A., they think about Hollywood and Disneyland and beaches," Westwick said. "They forget that aerospace was the major industry in Los Angeles, the major economic driver."

Aerojet's new El Segundo headquarters will be its third facility in Southern California.

The company has a 100,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Canoga Park, which has several machines that create parts through additive manufacturing, better known as 3-D printing.

Aerojet also has a specialized manufacturing site for metallic pressure vessels in Vernon.

In addition to Aerojet Rocketdyne, Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings includes Easton Real Estate, which intends to build a master-planned community in the Sacramento area.

For more business news, follow me @smasunaga

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