Business & Real Estate

Aerojet in its heyday: A ‘happy place’ that drew a president and a jazz great

Aerojet Rocketdyne Inc.’s April 10 announcement that it would pull manufacturing operations out of Rancho Cordova and relocate or eliminate about 1,100 of its 1,400 local jobs by 2019 set in motion a process that will see the company fade nearly completely from the scene in less than three years.

The company that arrived here in 1951 and once dedicated more than 20,000 workers to the 1960s space race and the gigantic history of putting men on the moon will soon be a shell of what it once was.

One man who was not necessarily surprised at the company’s action is Paul Ledwith, an 81-year-old Carmichael resident who worked for Aerojet from 1962 to 1973, first as a writer/editor of the employee newsletter – the “Aerojet Booster” – and his last five years as director of public relations.

“I heard that song before … I’d heard it in my time,” Ledwith said. “There were times (when) rumors had flown around that they were going to close down the Sacramento plant.”

By 2019, local Aerojet operations will be reduced to about 300 employees working in finance, legal, personnel and other departments. That will be a far cry from the halcyon days of America’s space race with the Soviet Union, when thousands poured through the gates of Aerojet daily.

“The closing of Aerojet in Sacramento is part of a broader narrative of the past 35 years in California, of closings and consolidations of major aerospace companies, especially manufacturing facilities,” said Michael Bernick, a labor lawyer in San Francisco and a former director of California’s Employment Development Department. “Still it is more painful than most, given the glorious history of Aerojet in Sacramento, dating back to the 1960s.”

Ledwith recalled that going to work in those days was like walking onto a major college campus with freshly cut grass, expertly pruned trees, clean streets and plenty of Ph.D.s working in scores of buildings on-site.

“Everybody worked long hours. It was a happy place,” he said. “They were smart, smart people, I mean from top to bottom. It was a joy to work there.”

Ledwith characterized the sprawling Aerojet campus of those days as a city unto itself, with its own travel agency, company store, telephone system, medical staff, photography department, motion picture group, printing plant, gas pumps, airline, 24-hour cafeteria and recreation center, which routinely drew nationally known entertainment, jazz great Louis Armstrong among them.

When President Lyndon Johnson came to town to witness to witness a Titan engine test firing in 1964, Ledwith estimated that 13,000 to 14,000 cheering people lined the motorcade route to welcome him to Aerojet.

Other world-famous faces were common on the local campus. Ledwith remembered that astronaut Gene Cernan – the last man to walk on the surface of the moon as commander of the Apollo 17 mission of December 1972 – would often pop into his office.

Ironically, things began to taper off at Aerojet six years before astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin safely landed on the surface of the moon in the Apollo 11 mission.

“You had to have the motor, the engines, before the vehicles,” Ledwith said. “… All the Apollo engines, those engines were already built … by the time those guys were going into space. The work was done.”

As a result, Aerojet started cutting positions from a peak of more than 20,000 in 1963.

“We had some pretty big layoffs (starting in 1963-64) … bigger than the layoffs they’re seeing right now,” said Ledwith.

Ledwith believes Aerojet Rocketdyne’s decision to pull manufacturing out of Sacramento now is due in large part to local rocket-manufacturing facilities not changing with the times, especially compared with the state-of-the-art facilities that Aerojet Rocketdyne is touting in Huntsville, Ala., where some local employees could end up working in the future.

And there were other red flags.

When an unmanned Antares rocket blew up just seconds after launch on the Virginia coast in October 2014, observers outside the industry were shocked to learn that Russian-made, 1960s-era rocket engines tested, modified and supplied by Aerojet Rocketdyne were a focus of investigators.

Another alarm rang in May last year, when Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings Inc. announced that it was moving its Rancho Cordova headquarters to El Segundo. At that time, the company stressed that only a handful of officials would be involved in the move, with local operations remaining intact in the Sacramento area.

“This was something that I saw coming,” said Ledwith, of the company’s April announcement. “I knew I would see that headline sometime in my lifetime if I lived long enough.”

Mark Glover: 916-321-1184, @markhglover

Aerojet milestones

1942: Aerojet Engineering Corp. launched in March in Pasadena.

1945: General Tire & Rubber Co. acquires Aerojet.

1951: Ground is broken on the future home of Aerojet’s extensive operations in Rancho Cordova.

1963: Local operations swell to nearly 21,000 employees. Aerojet’s growth was driven by contracts to produce propulsion systems for Titan and Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Polaris submarine missile and the Aerobee rocket. Most significant, the nation’s space race with the Soviet Union and President John F. Kennedy’s call to put an American man on the moon drive the aerospace industry’s growth in the 1960s. For Aerojet, that included building key engines for the all-important Apollo space missions.

1964: President Lyndon B. Johnson stops off at the Rancho Cordova plant to witness a Titan engine test firing, also telling Aerojet workers that they are playing a significant role in the nation’s defense and space programs.

1968: In December, Apollo 8 brings the moon within reach as astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders became the first humans to orbit the moon. The Service Propulsion System sending the crew into lunar orbit was built by Aerojet.

1969: With representatives of Aerojet on-site at the Johnson Space Center in Houston on July 20, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin safely land on the moon’s surface, with Aerojet-made rockets and engineering again playing key roles in the historic mission.

1978: Aerojet is awarded a contract to develop Stage II of the Peacekeeper missile.

1984: GenCorp Inc. becomes parent holding company of Aerojet.

1988: Aerojet sales top $1 billion.

2002: Aerojet conducts successful qualification tests of a full-scale, 67-foot Atlas V solid rocket motor.

2005: The Titan rocket makes its final flight with Aerojet first- and second-stage liquid rocket engines, closing out a 50-year chapter.

2009: Aerojet, Solar Power Inc. and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District dedicate a 3.6-megawatt solar system and announce a 2.4-megawatt expansion at Aerojet’s local site.

2013: GenCorp acquires Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne in a $550 million deal, leading to consolidation and formation of Aerojet Rocketdyne Inc.

2015: GenCorp changes its name to Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings Inc.

2016: Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings moves its corporate headquarters to El Segundo.

2017: On April 10, Aerojet Rocketdyne Inc. announces that it will relocate or eliminate about 1,100 of its 1,400 local jobs over the next 2 1/2 years and shut down manufacturing operations in the Sacramento area.

Sources: Aerojet Rocketdyne, Bee research