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Aerojet rocket engines may be discontinued for International Space Station flights

The Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket, with the Cygnus spacecraft aboard, explodes moments after launch in Virginia. The company that operates the launch vehicle announced Wednesday it probably will no longer use rocket engines provided by Rancho Cordova-based Aerojet Rocketdyne.
The Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket, with the Cygnus spacecraft aboard, explodes moments after launch in Virginia. The company that operates the launch vehicle announced Wednesday it probably will no longer use rocket engines provided by Rancho Cordova-based Aerojet Rocketdyne. The Associated Press

Just one week after the fiery explosion of a cargo ship headed for the International Space Station, the Virginia aerospace company that launched the ship in a contract with NASA said Wednesday that it will likely discontinue using rocket engines provided by Rancho Cordova-based Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp. said it will accelerate a planned upgrade of a new propulsion system for its Antares cargo ships – a system that was previously scheduled to debut in early 2016.

In the meantime, the company said it will buy rockets from elsewhere to continue launching its fleet of cargo ships, part of a $1.9 billion contract with NASA. Orbital said discussions have commenced with three rocket-engine providers. It did not name them, citing a competitive process.

Just what that means to Aerojet’s rocket program is unclear, and repeated calls and emails to the company seeking comment on Wednesday were not returned. Aerojet is owned by GenCorp Inc., which has sought to reinvigorate its rocket program in recent years.

“In the short term, this will hurt Aerojet,” said C.P. van Dam, chairman of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at UC Davis, in response to an email. “However, if Orbital Sciences is planning to support the development of a new engine for its Antares system, it could provide a unique opportunity for Aerojet to design and manufacture this new engine.”

As NASA and Orbital continue their investigations into the rocket’s failure, the definitive cause likely will not be known for some time, said Stephen Robinson, a former NASA astronaut and a colleague of van Dam’s in the UCD aerospace department.

“These rockets have pretty rich telemetry ... and it can be kind of a puzzle,” he said. “It’s not always what happened first. ... Accident investigation boards always ask the question: ‘What happened before that?’ Often, it’s a very complex cascade. Usually, the answers are really complicated. Since it has only been a week, I think a lot more data analysis will be done before they can write the book on this one.”

Robinson also noted that “the history of rocket-boosted space flight has had a lot of ruined rockets in its wake,” along with its historic successes.

Speculation on the cause of the Oct. 28 post-launch failure quickly centered on the Russian-made, 1960s-era rocket engines that were tested, modified and supplied by Aerojet. Orbital said Aerojet “refurbished and Americanized” the Russian rocket engines to meet engineering requirements for its Antares rockets.

In an announcement posted on its website Wednesday, Orbital said that an investigation board continues to look into the cause, but added that “preliminary evidence and analysis conducted to date points to a probable turbopump-related failure in one of the two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 stage one main engines. As a result, the use of these engines for the Antares vehicle likely will be discontinued.”

In a statement, Orbital Chairman and CEO David Thompson said: “While last week’s Antares failure was very disappointing to all of us, the company is already implementing a contingency plan to overcome this setback. We intend to move forward safely but also expeditiously to put our CRS cargo program back on track and to accelerate the introduction of our upgraded Antares rocket.”

Orbital’s NASA contract calls for eight cargo-shipment missions to the space station. In its Wednesday release, the company said that “all remaining cargo will be delivered to the International Space Station by the end of 2016. There will be no cost increase to NASA and only minor adjustments will be needed to the cargo manifest in the near term.”

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. SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract for a dozen missions. Both Orbital and SpaceX have had a series of successful rocket launches under their NASA contracts.

In 2012, Aerojet announced that it had successfully test-fired its AJ26 engine at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Aerojet said it purchased about 40 Russian-made engines in the mid-1990s, then modified them specifically for the Antares rocket as part of its contract with Orbital.

Orbital Sciences said the 140-foot-long Antares cargo ship that was destroyed last week was carrying a capsule loaded with 5,000 pounds of experiments and NASA equipment. Pre-packaged meals for the space station 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.

On Wednesday, Orbital’s shares closed at $24.18 a share, down 94 cents, or nearly 4 percent, on the New York Stock Exchange. Also on the NYSE, shares of Aerojet parent GenCorp Inc. fell 9 cents to close at $16.85 a share.

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

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