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Aerojet Rocketdyne systems to help send people back to deep space

Published: Monday, Jun. 30, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jul. 1, 2014 - 6:26 pm

NASA chief Charles Bolden is scheduled to tour the Aerojet facility in Rancho Cordova today – a visit that reflects the company’s significant role in the agency’s quest to send man back into deep space, and eventually to Mars.

During his visit, Bolden will deliver an update on NASA’s Orion mission, which is poised to end a 42-year drought in manned exploration of deep space. The Orion spacecraft is scheduled for an unmanned test launch on Dec. 4 – the first step toward landing astronauts on Mars by the late 2020s.

“The test flight is NASA’s next giant leap,” Bolden said in a phone interview.

Orion’s first launch will be watched with intense scrutiny at Aerojet (renamed Aerojet Rocketdyne after a recent merger), which made and tested some of the spacecraft’s most crucial components.

Aerojet has partnered with NASA since the 1960s-era Mercury missions that first lifted humans into space. The company designed the propulsion systems that powered all of NASA’s space shuttle missions. It also supplied the batteries for the Mars Curiosity Rover, which recently marked its first Martian year exploring the Red Planet.

For Orion, Aerojet Rocketdyne supplied the rocket’s abort system – meant to save astronauts in case of a catastrophe during launch. It also produced the small thruster engines that will allow the Orion crew module vehicle – which will eventually house four astronauts – to orient itself during flight and re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere.

Final testing of those systems occurred last summer in a bunker-like building at Aerojet called the hot-fire test assembly building. The equipment was then sent out for assembly at other Aerojet locations and eventual shipping to NASA’s Cape Canaveral launch site in Florida.

That equipment is now stacked on the assembled rocket at the cape’s Pad 37B, where 25 NASA missions have launched.

“The test flight will provide important information we can use to improve Orion’s design,” Bolden said. “It will stress systems critical to safety, including the heat shield, parachutes, avionics and attitude control.”

The heat shield will be of paramount importance. Orion’s crew module craft will reach speeds of 20,000 mph and temperatures of 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit when it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere.

The Aerojet thrusters on the crew module are also crucial. They are designed to allow the craft to enter Earth’s atmosphere at the right angle. A spacecraft entering at the wrong angle can end in disaster.

The first crewed flight of Orion is slated for 2021.

Another Orion effort to originate at Aerojet is a jettison motor that will allow one stage of the craft to separate from another. It was tested last June.

“The testing went very well,” said Cheryl Rehm, the company’s deputy program manager for human space.

Rehm oversees a team of 40 on the jettison-motor team. She said the jettison motors made at Aerojet have worked every time they’ve been employed on missions.

Rehm said Aerojet is continuing to build motors and other equipment for testing and eventual approval for manned flight on Orion. These are expected to be delivered to NASA by 2018.

Although the December flight test will be unmanned and take only four hours, it is no small matter for Aerojet’s Julie Van Kleeck, who heads the company’s human space program.

“That’s 40 times farther than a human-rated spacecraft has been since the Apollo missions of the 1960s,” Van Kleeck said. “As a species, we’re confined to low Earth orbit. Just about 200 miles up.”

During the flight, the Orion vehicle will travel 15 times farther than the International Space Station.

For its December test flight, Orion is being powered by a Delta rocket. However, the agency has a new rocket system in the works for Orion called the Space Launch System. That system, built in partnership between Boeing and Aerojet, is reconceiving the use of four engines employed in the space shuttle program.

“Orion and the Space Launch System, the most capable launch vehicle ever built, are enabling us to redefine our place in the universe by giving us a new perspective of ourselves and our planet,” Van Kleeck said.

The engines will provide upper-stage propulsion that will push the Orion spacecraft beyond lower earth orbit. That launch system will get its first test flight in 2017.

Call The Bee’s Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz.

Read more articles by Edward Ortiz

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