Political turmoil could give California rocket firm edge over Russians

Political turmoil could give California rocket firm edge over Russians
A replica of the F-1 engine that powered Saturn V rockets to the moon stands outside Aerojet Rocketdyne's facility in Canoga Park. (Aerojet Rocketdyne)

Political fallout over the seizure of Crimea has caused the U.S. government to rethink its partnership with Russia on space programs, which has bolstered business prospects for a historic California rocket company.

Engineers at Aerojet Rocketdyne in Canoga Park are designing a new liquid-fuel rocket engine that would directly compete against one built by a Russian company that's currently used on high-profile launches.


If Aerojet Rocketdyne does end up building the replacement engine, it could mean millions of dollars' worth of contracts and years of work for employees in Canoga Park, who have been stung by layoffs and program cancellations for years.

"It's a potential game-changer on many fronts," said Warren M. Boley, Aerojet Rocketdyne president. "It would build on our ongoing legacy."

If the federal government ultimately decides to buy the idea, it would mark a return to the ingenuity of the rocket engine manufacturing business that helped pioneer space exploration. Aerojet Rocketdyne supplied the colossal Saturn V rocket's major engines for the Apollo moon shots. The company also built the shuttle's reusable main engines.

Game-changing new generations of large rocket engines like these have not been developed since NASA's funding dried up and its manned space program waned.

Although many herald the emergence of Hawthorne upstart Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, its Merlin rocket engine is based on decades-old technology.

"There just hasn't been enough government investment," said Daniel Gouré, national security analyst with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. "A new engine would free us from dependence on Russia. This is an important undertaking from an economic, jobs and national security perspective."

Now, Aerojet Rocketdyne is developing the AR-1, the first engine to be built since Aerojet and Rocketdyne merged last year to become the nation's sole provider of large liquid-fuel rocket engines.

The engine, which would provide 500,000 pounds of thrust, could be installed on a variety of rockets, such as SpaceX's Falcon 9 or Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares. But perhaps the most promising is United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket, which now uses a Russian-made engine, the RD-180.

United Launch Alliance is a joint venture of the nation's two largest weapons makers, Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. As it stands, United Launch Alliance is the sole provider to the Air Force of rockets to launch its school-bus-size satellites for spying, weather forecasting, communications, GPS and other experimental purposes.

The RD-180 engine provides the main thrust for the rocket. The arrangement with Russia, though, is showing some strain.

Last month, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin suggested that his nation might halt U.S. access to its launch vehicles and may use the International Space Station without American participation.

In the wake of Russia's seizure of Crimea, the Pentagon asked the Air Force to review United Launch Alliance's use of the Russian RD-180 engine.

United Launch Alliance said it was not aware of any restrictions. But even if an embargo on the engines takes effect, the company says, it has stockpiled a two-year supply.

Aerojet Rocketdyne said AR-1 engines wouldn't be ready until 2019, and will probably cost up to $25 million for a pair.


The company said it has already spent about $300 million on research and development of the AR-1. No decision has been made on where the engine will be assembled, but there's a good chance that it will be Canoga Park.

Rocketdyne engineers were at the forefront of developing engines in the days of slide rules and drafting tables, before advanced computers took a central role.

It was here that the biggest engines in NASA's manned spaceflight program were put together: the mighty F-1s on the Saturn V and the dependable Space Shuttle's main engines.

Once swarming with engineers and technicians toiling on various programs, the storied site in Canoga Park is now empty. The scores of massive machines once humming and churning out parts for spacecraft sit dormant.

The remaining workforce of about 1,000 has been moved to a facility a few miles away on DeSoto Avenue.

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