Aerojet Rocketdyne is a space and rocket engine company that has made the space shuttle engines, Intercontinental Ballistic Missile engines for the Minuteman and other ICBMs, Atlas V stages and the engines that power the Patriot interceptor missile system. The companies that merged to become Aerojet Rocketdyne have been an integral part of the United States’ space and ICBM efforts since the very beginning. Initially the company was very focused on space launch, working within US missile defense programs for the NRO (National Reconnaissance Office) and NASA. It also works for the United Launch Alliance (ULA), a Boeing/Lockheed joint venture company that is responsible for most of the United States’ space cargo launches. Rocketdyne also has diversified from just doing space launch propulsion into satellite propulsion systems as well.
The company was essentially embedded in the US space launch community and got continuous streams of work from that, especially in areas such as the NRO launches. The National Reconnaissance Office is an approximately $15 billion US agency responsible for manufacturing, launching and operating US spy satellites. Couched amidst secret budgets and high-tech applications, Rocketdyne seemed to be sitting pretty.
Surviving or Thriving in a Commercial Space World
The company has of late faced a number of challenges, however. NASA funding has diminished and become erratic over the years as the agency still struggles to find an inspiring purpose in the post-Space Shuttle era. Huge potential programs such as a manned Mars mission have been cut or repurposed. Increasingly ULA has gotten the spectre of competition from SpaceX and other commercial space companies. ULA itself is also considering looking towards Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin BE-4 engines to power its Vulcan first stage instead of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR1 engine. The United States also still relies on Russian launch vehicles or Russian engines (or American versions of Russian engines) in the RD-180 engine family. Tensions over Ukraine prompted Russia to not allow the US to use RD-180s for military space launches. Conveniently the subsequent US embargo of Russia excluded rocket engines and the country still has access to them for now. This was a rather embarrassing thing for the US and has prompted a mad scramble for an Aerojet Rocketdyne or other replacement for the RD-180 by 2019. The company has simultaneously been engaged in expanding its presence in the engine segment for all types of military interceptor missiles for missile defense and satellite propulsion.
Competition, the Final Frontier
Making rocket engines is a technological challenge and there are only a few companies that are producing them. Traditional stalwarts such as Orbital ATK, Airbus, Safran, NPO Energomash and Boeing are being now joined by upstarts such as Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and SpaceX. The space industry seems set to expand greatly but also become much more competitive in the commercial space era. Besides increased competition in space and the RD-180 replacement, there is one last hurrah that could have a huge impact on the future of space and which companies are poised to win there.
Only Goliaths, No Davids
The Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) may sound a bit vague, but it is a $65 to $85 billion project with $1.4 billion in annual costs that is meant to replace the United States’ ground-based ICBM fleet. To put that number in perspective, $85 billion would be three and a half times the revenue of McDonald’s. The missile system, a four stage rocket called without any trace of irony the Goliath, is being bid on by Lockheed, Boeing and Northrop. The award of this contract is a very significant one. Not only will the revenue be substantial but the Goliath missile will also let the winning bidder gain a lot of advanced manufacturing and research expertise on the government’s dime. Furthermore a derivative of the Goliath vehicle would be rather suited for commercial space cargo launches and satellite launches. The vehicle and technologies gained through the Goliath program could also be used for manned missions and would give the winning company a lead in space launch vehicles. The winner of the Goliath program would be ideally placed to be a competitor or supplier to SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. Additionally it could also have an advantage in the US spy satellite launching business and compete with commercial satellite launches. The commercial launch space is made up of ULA, International Launch Services, a Russian alternative using the Proton rocket, and Arianespace, the European alternative. They are joined by Antrix the commercial arm of India’s space organization, the ISRO, and the new American space companies. Essentially, winning the Goliath program could assure the future in space for either Lockheed, Northrop or Boeing.
Rocket Clown Car
The winning bid for the Goliath contract is expected this summer and will make or break the future plans in space of some of the largest defense contractors. Lockheed seems a likely winner because it has gathered an alliance of, essentially, everybody. Lockheed’s alliance consists of General Dynamics, Draper Laboratory, Moog, Bechtel, Orbital ATK and Aerojet Rocketdyne. Aside from being a who’s who of some of the largest defense contractors or the partial answer to the question “who donates the most to US politicians?” this list is also notable in that it includes two engine manufacturers. Orbital ATK and Aerojet Rocketdyne compete across all lines of the engine business. By not settling on an engine supplier but locking down both of the US’ main engine suppliers in its alliance, Lockheed obtained a political masterstroke. Not only will the political support for their bid be enhanced through more lobbyists and influence, but they left the other vendors with a bid that spread around less pork and looked to lean on the shoulders of one firm disproportionately. Also, it is unclear which companies would build their engines. Both Boeing and Northrop did not disclose their partners publicly and seem to be behind the Lockheed rocket clown car. Meanwhile Lockheed has said that it would use competition between Orbital ATK and Aerojet Rocketdyne to lower the cost of the stages and “select the right vendors for the right stages…it could be a mix of suppliers, it could be one supplier, it’s just too early to tell.” Yeah, that wouldn’t exactly engender my sleep if I were a Rocketdyne or Orbital executive. Lockheed seems to hold all the cards and has the power to make and break Aerojet Rocketdyne’s and Orbital’s futures as well.
Surviving or Thriving in Space with 3D Printing
Will Aerojet Rocketdyne thrive or just survive in this new era? The company is turning to 3D printing to find out, as is Lockheed. NASA, Aerojet Rocketdyne and others have been using 3D printing in rocket engine parts for a number of years now. There are a number of key advantages to using 3D printing in rocket engines. 3D printing has demonstrated that it can make rocket engine parts faster, with less assembly and at lower cost than traditional manufacturing methods. Development times are reduced and new geometries can be explored that reduce the weight of components – weight, of course, being a critical component of aerospace parts. Integrated parts can be built which have more functionality in them and part count can be reduced, saving on weight and assembly cost. NASA and others have demonstrated that 3D printing is a versatile technology that significantly reduces costs in space. In producing lightweight parts on demand, 3D printing is a key technology for space vehicles, satellites and rocket stages.
Bargain of the Century
With so much at stake in the commercial space race, our $10 billion a year 3D printing market looks a bit small when compared to the big stakes games of ICBMs and satellites. If we look at technologies such as Directed Energy Deposition that can 3D print large structural components for rockets and other craft, then this technology is firmly in US hands through Sciaky, Optomec and others. Powder Bed Fusion on the other hand was until recently in the hands of a few German and a Swedish company with the powder production, metal 3D printing production and patents in the hands of only very few companies. GE’s recent acquisition of Concept Laser and Arcam means that two key technologies for 3D printing metal for aerospace parts are now in US hands. Indeed many of the rocket engine and fighter aircraft 3D printing projects that NASA and other vendors did used Arcam and Concept machines. GE’s acquisition of those two companies not only means that it can safely industrialize metal 3D printing by itself, relying only on itself, but also that it is a key vendor to the very same aerospace companies that buy its jet engines. At the same time it is well positioned to supply the burgeoning orthopedics business and has done the US government a huge favor by securing powder bed fusion patents and technology for the US. If we look at it in this way then it is clear that GE’s acquisition of both Arcam and Concept is the bargain of the century.
Metal 3D Printing Vendors: And then there were none?
Apart from Arcam and Concept only SLM Solutions, EOS, Additive Industries, Realizer and Renishaw have both the capability and patent cover to produce fine mechanical 3D printed parts in metal for aerospace. To narrow down the list a little more, EOS has not let its machines be used for military applications. The company, the leader in plastics and metal powder bed fusion systems, has taken a principled approach to not selling systems for any military applications. This has cost it millions in potential revenue but has kept its systems from being used to make fighter aircraft, ICBMs, cruise missiles and other military hardware. In the multi-billion-dollar ICBM and rocket engine game, a purchase price of $700M for SLM Solutions sounds like a bit of a bargain. One would expect a bit of a flurry of confused excitement, however, if German politicians became aware of the huge strategic interest the US has in metal 3D printing and that they’re buying the essential German parts of it up for a song. A GE acquisition of a German metal 3D printing company would be one thing, but one would suppose that they would indeed wake up if all of the sudden Lockheed would purchase one of the remaining firms. Does it then make sense for Raytheon, Honeywell, Rocketdyne, Orbital, GKN, Rolls-Royce or another large defense contractor to buy one of the remaining firms? Of course it does, but they may not be allowed to do so. A national tie up (e.g., Airbus buys SLM or Rolls Royce/GKN buys Renishaw) would be more likely. It certainly also would make sense for GE to acquire Aerojet Rocketdyne to enter the space race but it would be unclear if this would damage relations between GE and Lockheed or if GE would want to get into the arms business once again.
Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Space Projects
Against this backdrop it is significant that Aerojet Rocketdyne has undertaken a number of space 3D printing projects.
Initially the Baby Bantam test design was a public testbed to showcase and verify 3D printing in rocket engines. The Bantam engine was entirely 3D printed and the team said that they were able to reduce total design and manufacturing time to a couple of months, rather than a year, as well as bringing the cost down by about 65 percent.
The Baby Bantam only consisted of 3 distinct parts, showcasing 3D printing’s ability to significantly reduce part count and reap efficiencies.
The AR1 is being developed for the Vulcan launch vehicle used by ULA in competition with the BE-4 by Blue Origin. The AR1 is meant to replace the RD-180 Russian rocket engine. Aerojet Rocketdyne has used 3D printing extensively in the new AR1. The company states:
“The single-element main injector hot-fire tests were conducted to evaluate various main injector element designs and fabrication methods. Several injectors were fabricated using Selective Laser Melting (SLM), a form of additive manufacturing. Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, enables the rapid production of complex engine components at a fraction of the cost of those produced using traditional manufacturing techniques. Aerojet Rocketdyne has invested heavily in developing SLM capabilities for application to its rocket engines. Tested in excess of 2,000 psi, Aerojet Rocketdyne believes the AR1 single-element hot-fire tests represent the highest pressure hot-fire test of an additively-manufactured part in a rocket engine application. In the main injector alone, additive manufacturing offers the potential for a nine month reduction in part lead times, and a 70 percent reduction in cost.”
It is good to note that Selective Laser Melting is the name that Concept Laser uses for its technology. And Concept Laser was one of the companies acquired by GE.
The MPS-120 is a primary propulsion system for CubeSats. These small inexpensive satellites can often be made with many off-the-shelf components and are being developed by several universities. The MPS-120’s propellant tank, piston and pressurant tank were 3D printed in titanium.
Ethan Lorimor, MPS-120 project engineer at Aerojet Rocketdyne, said, “The demonstration proved that the system could be manufactured quickly, with the 3D printing taking only one week and system assembly taking only two days.”
Space Launch System
NASA’s Space Launch System is meant to replace the Space Shuttle with a heavy launch system coupled with the Orion Crew Vehicle. This system is meant to go to Mars by 2033. Aerojet Rocketdyne’s RL10 engines will be used on this system. The Thrust Chamber Assembly and other parts of this engine are being made using 3D printing.
In 2014 Aerojet Rocketdyne tested a 3D printed thrust chamber assembly by using Selective Laser Melting with its own copper alloy.
“The hot-fire tests used Aerojet Rocketdyne’s proprietary Selective Laser Melting copper alloy enhanced heat transfer design chamber, which demonstrated a significant increase in performance over traditional combustion chamber designs and material systems,” the company stated.
Aerojet also said that,
“The new chamber design is made up of only two primary copper parts and takes just under a month to print using SLM technology; reducing overall lead time by several months.
The part count reduction of greater than 90 percent is significant as it reduces complexity and cost when compared with RL10 thrust chambers that are built today using traditional manufacturing techniques.
Another key benefit provided by 3-D printing is the ability to design and build advanced features that allow for improved heat transfer. For many rocket engine applications, this enhanced heat transfer capability enables a more compact and lighter engine, which is highly desirable in space launch applications.”
Apart from the reduction in part count, the ability to integrate heat sinks into the design also leads to these parts outperforming their peers. In addition to those programs, the company also has used 3D printing on the XS-1 (an experimental reusable space plane used for military satellite deployment), the RS25 (the Space Shuttle main engine, which would be a very early application for the technology and was probably done using a directed energy deposition/laser welding-type technology specifically developed for militarized space applications), the RS68 (developed for the Delta IV and Ares V), the Orion crew module and Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap, a NASA crew vehicle meant to supply the ISS and other space stations). Aerojet Rocketdyne is sure to have had significantly more experience in 3D printing parts on ICBMs and other missiles as well as on other space-based systems.
Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Future
Making lighter engines more quickly at lower cost seems to be the way that Aerojet Rocketdyne is headed. 3D printing would appear to be a key technology for its future. The company seems very keen to tout its 3D printing expertise and to develop it further. But it seems a minnow in a pod of whales. If the company loses out or gets squeezed on the Goliath, or if NASA delays more spending, it will be forced to rely on its interceptor and satellite propulsion revenues and compete directly with a wider array of players. Meanwhile the company could be an acquisition target for the likes of GE, Honeywell, Space Systems Loral or Boeing if they want to get in the space propulsion game. The company is currently engaged in rationalizing its offices and relocating staff to centralized locations. It looks to be on a path to more efficiency to be able to compete better in the commercial space race. With several commercial launch vehicles under development, it seems like a very exciting time in space propulsion.