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Investigation into NASA rocket explosion looks at Aerojet Rocketdyne engines

This image provided by NASA shows the Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket, with the Cygnus spacecraft onboard, as it suffers a catastrophic anomaly moments after launch from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad 0A, Tuesday, at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The Cygnus spacecraft was filled with about 5,000 pounds of supplies destined for the International Space Station, including science experiments, experiment hardware, spare parts, and crew provisions.
This image provided by NASA shows the Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket, with the Cygnus spacecraft onboard, as it suffers a catastrophic anomaly moments after launch from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad 0A, Tuesday, at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The Cygnus spacecraft was filled with about 5,000 pounds of supplies destined for the International Space Station, including science experiments, experiment hardware, spare parts, and crew provisions. NASA

Russian-made, 1960s-era rocket engines – tested, modified and supplied by Rancho Cordova-based Aerojet Rocketdyne – became an early focus of speculation following Tuesday’s explosion of an unmanned Antares rocket, which blew up just seconds after its nighttime launch on the Virginia coast.

Officials of NASA and Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp., operator of the Antares rocket, said they will conduct a wide-ranging investigation and stressed Wednesday that no assumptions or conclusions have yet been made.

Orbital noted that Aerojet “refurbished and Americanized” the Russian AJ-26 engines to meet engineering requirements for its Antares rockets, which are used to send supplies to the orbiting International Space Station.

During a brief telephone interview on Wednesday, Aerojet spokesman Glenn Mahone said: “Orbital has formed an anomaly investigation board, and that board will work closely with all the appropriate government agencies and their suppliers to determine the cause of yesterday’s mishap. Obviously, we will be part of the investigation as we go forward. It’s too early to know the details of what happened, but we are confident that, as a result of the investigation, Orbital and the investigation board will get to the bottom of what caused the anomaly.”

In recent years, with America’s space shuttle program scrapped, NASA has turned to private companies to carry cargo and crews into space. Among the U.S. companies that NASA tapped are Orbital and Hawthorne-based SpaceX, founded in 2002 by Tesla Motors chief Elon Musk.

Orbital has a $1.9 billion NASA contract for eight cargo-shipment missions to the space station; SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract for a dozen missions.

Both companies have had a series of successful rocket launches under their NASA contracts.

Despite officials’ insistence that it’s too early to single out any component for causing Tuesday’s spectacular explosion, the AJ-26 was the focus of much attention on Wednesday.

In a conference call, Orbital CEO Dave Thompson on Wednesday told Wall Street analysts that the “AJ-26s have presented us with some serious technical and supply challenges in the past” and were destined to be replaced in about two years, according to reports by BloombergBusinessweek.

Investment analysts with RBC Capital Markets also weighed in Wednesday, characterizing the AJ-26 engine as “a likely suspect” in the explosion, noting that an AJ-26 engine exploded during a test in May, according to published reports.

The investigation comes as Aerojet and its parent company, Rancho Cordova-based GenCorp Inc., are in the midst of reinvigorating the company’s aerospace business. In 2013, GenCorp completed its merger with Rocketdyne, a rocket manufacturer formerly based in Canoga Park. This year, GenCorp has reported several quarters of growth in sales revenues related to its missile and rocket propulsion systems.

In 2012, Aerojet announced that it had successfully test-fired its AJ-26 engine at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Aerojet said it purchased about 40 of Russian-made engines in the mid-1990s, then modified them specifically for the Antares rocket as part of its contract with Orbital.

Orbital has defended the AJ-26 engine as reliable and rugged, but Musk ridiculed it an interview two years ago with Wired magazine.

In that interview, Musk was quoted as saying: “One of our competitors, Orbital Sciences, has a contract to resupply the International Space Station, and their rocket honestly sounds like the punch line to a joke. It uses Russian rocket engines that were made in the ’60s. I don’t mean their design is from the ’60s. I mean they start with engines that were literally made in the ’60s and, like, packed away in Siberia somewhere.”

In separate interviews, other aerospace experts said it’s still too early to pin the explosion’s cause on the rocket engine.

Lou Montgomery, an aerospace industry analyst in Houston, called speculation about the AJ-26 engine’s role “entirely premature. You can’t add up numbers at this point and get definitive answers ... We need to let the investigators do their work before pointing fingers.”

C.P. van Dam, chairman of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at UC Davis, likewise agreed it was too early to speculate: “I’ve learned to be very careful. There needs to be some detailed analysis.”

Van Dam said that a definitive cause for the explosion will come from analysis of technical data. “I don’t think, from a physical evidence point of view, that there’s much there. But if you look at the (launch site’s) base station, you work with that information. There may be anomalies in the data that were sent back shortly before the explosion.”

In addition to Aerojet’s involvement in the Orbital rocket program, Stockton-based Applied Aerospace Structures Corp. provided components for the Antares rocket. In a July news release on its involvement with the Antares launch vehicle, AASC said it supplied fabricated components that included “payload fairing, fairing adapter, motor adapter, payload adapter, interstage and avionics cylinder.”

AASC employees answering the company’s phone on Wednesday said top executives were in meetings and not available for comment.

Orbital Sciences said the 140-foot-long Antares launch vehicle was carrying a capsule loaded with 5,000 pounds of experiments and NASA equipment. Prepackaged meals also were part of the cargo.

No one was injured in the explosion, although the launch site, NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s eastern shore, was heavily damaged. Crews were searching through the debris Wednesday. Several on-site sources in Virginia put the loss at $200 million.

Also Wednesday, the Russian Space Agency announced that it had safely launched its own cargo vessel from Kazakhstan, and the spacecraft arrived at the International Space Station with 3 tons of food and other supplies.

Orbital’s stock took a big hit Wednesday on the New York Stock Exchange, closing at $25.27 a share, down $5.10, or nearly 17 percent. Also on the NYSE, shares of Aerojet parent GenCorp Inc. tumbled 92 cents, or 5.36 percent, to close at $16.26 a share.

Call The Bee’s Mark Glover, (916) 321-1184.

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