WASHINGTON — Even as reports of a $2 billion bid for United Launch Alliance circulate through the media, Aerojet Rocketdyne remains focused on developing a domestic alternative to the Russian-built RD-180 rocket engine used for space launches.
During a media panel Tuesday at the Air Force Association’s Air and Space Conference, Aerojet Vice President Julie Van Kleeck declined to comment on reports about a proposed acquisition of ULA, which would give the rocket engine manufacturer ownership of a launch platform. Together with a team that includes Alabama-based Dynetics, Aerojet hopes to get US Air Force approval for funding for its kerosene-fueled AR-1 as the propulsion for the Vulcan rocket under development.
Congress has mandated use of an American-made engine by 2019 for US space launches to supplant the Russian RD-180, and appropriated $220 million in fiscal 2015 for the project. Aerojet is testing hardware for the engine this year, with full scale testing slated for 2017 with a goal of certification in 2019, Van Kleeck said.
“We believe that the AR-1, which is our solution, is the lowest schedule risk, the lowest-risk, the lowest-cost way to actually solve that problem,” she said.
The AR-1 provides 500,000 pounds of thrust, so two combined could produce the heavy lift needed for military payloads, Van Kleeck said. Used solo, the engine can also propel smaller payloads, providing potential commercial applications, she said.
Seattle-based Blue Origin, owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is developing a liquid natural gas-driven BE-4 engine for the Vulcan rocket, giving ULA a choice of which engine to use.
Strategically, some analysts see the acquisition of ULA as Aerojet’s best chance at securing a role for its AR-1 engine.
The proposed acquisition would also position Aerojet Rocketdyne as a fully integrated space launch company, capable of providing both the launch platform and the vehicle. As such, it could potentially provide a cost-competitive alternative to SpaceX, which was certified for military launches earlier this year.
Steve Cook, a former NASA official who is vice president of corporate development for Dynetics, said that merger-and-acquisition activity in the space sector, including the 2014 merger of Orbital and ATK and the proposed Aerojet-ULA deal, suggests a shift in business strategy.
“To be more competitive, people have to offer a wider end of the value chain, not just be looking at the value chain through a soda straw but through a wider offering,” he said. “I think there’s a definite move in that direction in the [space] industry, and sometimes it’s going to take place through consolidation and sometimes it’s not.”