WASHINGTON — In an increasingly competitive market, rocket engine manufacturer Aerojet Rocketdyne is looking to cutting-edge technology to dramatically reduce the cost of space launch.
Aerojet has been 3-D printing metal parts for rocket boosters for years, primarily through internal funding, Julie Van Kleeck, company vice president of advanced space and launch programs, told Defense News in an interview Monday. But the Pentagon’s recent effort to transition off dependency on the Russian RD-180 rocket engine for military space launch is lending new urgency to the quest for an affordable domestic alternative.
In the latest step toward developing a homegrown rocket engine, the Air Force recently awarded Aerojet a $6 million contract to establish standards that will be used to qualify 3-D printed rocket engine components. The award is part of the first phase in the Air Force’s multiphased approach to the project, Van Kleeck said.
The program will define the engineering and inspection processes to ensure the 3-D-printed components meet the stringent requirements of the Pentagon’s aerospace systems, she explained.
“What are the material properties? How do we qualify and accept these parts for flight?” Van Kleeck said. “With 3-D printing you are putting the material together in a way that’s never been done before. ... Our effort will be focused on establishing those standards so that you know you have a part of integrity and that you can accept it for flying on a critical mission.”
Using additive manufacturing to 3-D printing of certain subcomponents shortens build times, provides flexibility to engineers to design ever more complex parts and can reduce costs by as much as 50 to 80 percent, Van Kleeck said. Engineers build a computer model of the part and send the blueprint to the 3-D printer. The machine, fed by powdered metal, then prints the part layer by layer according to the model.
In addition to curbing the cost of traditional components, 3-D printing will also allow Aerojet to develop specialized parts that have never been built before, Van Kleeck said.
“In the end, the government pays less for the launch because the rocket engine costs less,” she said. “There is a lot of worldwide competitive pressures on the aerospace industry, so this is a great affordability lever that we have.”
Additive manufacturing is Aerojet’s answer to SpaceX’s successful landing last month of a reusable rocket, a feat that potentially marks the end of the disposable launcher. If SpaceX proves the Falcon 9 booster can be used again and again to launch vehicles and satellites into space, the price of the rocket could drop by half, analysts contend.
SpaceX has developed its own engine, the Merlin, to power the Falcon 9. By contrast, the Atlas V rocket used by competitor United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, still relies on the RD-180. ULA has teamed with Blue Origin, a space company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, on Bezos’ homegrown BE-4 engine to power a new family of rockets, the Vulcan. But it could be years before the new engine is ready.
Aerojet is also developing a domestic solution, the AR-1. The engine is higher in thrust than the RD-180 and can power the Atlas V as well as the Vulcan, Van Kleeck emphasized. Aerojet is on track to certify the AR-1 by 2019. The AR-1 successfully cleared its latest design review on schedule in December.
“We feel very confident about 2019,” Van Kleeck said.