Redmond Rocket Scientists Propel Innovation as Space Cluster Grows

8/13/13Follow @bromano

Rocket engines designed, built, and tested by a company tucked away at the edge of the Seattle suburbs have travelled to the edge of the solar system, visiting every planet including Mars, where the Curiosity Rover made a successful landing a year ago last week, using rockets from Redmond, WA, for the long interplanetary journey and harrowing descent to the surface.

The solar-system-spanning achievement is unique in the space business to Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Redmond site, says Roger Myers, executive director of advanced in-space programs, and one of those making an argument for Washington state as a center of innovation in the emerging commercial space industry. The state has deep aerospace expertise, facilities, supply chains, and infrastructure built up over nearly a century around Boeing; and a broader technology talent pool and concentration of wealthy individuals looking for challenging and meaningful investments.

Aerojet Rocketdyne, headquartered in California, has a 450-person staff in Redmond working in a cluster of office buildings, machine and assembly shops, and testing labs overlooking a golf course and farmland just a couple of miles from the heart of Microsoft’s main campus. The firm is the most established commercial space enterprise in the state. (Boeing has had space exploration operations in the Puget Sound since the early 1960s and while that division is today based in Houston, a spokeswoman says it still has local employees supporting efforts including Sea Launch and the CST-100 commercial crew capsule, which has interior elements similar to those on Boeing’s latest commercial jets.)

Lately, Aerojet Rocketdyne finds itself with more company in the region. It was one of 18 businesses invited to attend the first Washington space meeting, coordinated by the state Office of Aerospace earlier this year, to discuss ways to nurture the “space” part of the aerospace sector. Gov. Jay Inslee’s aerospace industry strategy, laid out in May (PDF), calls for diversification and a culture of innovation, including strategies to position Washington as “a national center for both private and academic efforts to develop private space exploration and propulsion initiatives.”

Alex Pietsch, who heads the state’s aerospace office, says he is exploring any “unique needs” of the commercial space companies, apart from the many state efforts in support of the broader aerospace industry.

Myers, who helped convene the space meeting, is eager to share what’s happening at his company today, as well as the legacy of space exploration here, which dates back to the late 1950s when Boeing engineers interested in satellites began an independent company in South Seattle called Rocket Research. The company moved out to the country when Willows Road was still dirt, and then went through several name changes, acquisitions, and spinoffs before GenCorp (NYSE: GY) subsidiary Aerojet Rocketdyne bought it from General Dynamics in 2002 for about $90 million. Earlier this summer, GenCorp acquired Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne from United Technologies (NYSE: UTX) and combined it with Aerojet.

All the while, he says, the Redmond one-stop rocket shop was at the leading edge of space propulsion, and remains there today.

“We’ve been here for a long time, but not many people know about what we do,” Myers tells Xconomy during a recent tour of the facility.

The Redmond site makes 200 to 500 rocket engines a year, generating annual sales of about $100 million, for a wide array of space applications. These range from tiny rockets that deliver fractions of a pound of thrust to keep satellites precisely positioned, to larger ones for maneuvering vehicles docking at the International Space Station, to the Viking Lander engines that put out 600 pounds of thrust. (Derivatives of these engines, used in the 1976 Mars landings, powered the dramatic “sky crane” maneuver during the final stages of the Curiosity Rover landing last year.)

Aerojet Rocketdyne is also building electric propulsion systems and rockets that use less toxic propellants—innovations that could address a key barrier to a broader commercial space industry.

Myers

Myers

“Right now, the biggest problem for the space business is it’s expensive,” Myers said at a Washington aerospace innovation forum earlier this summer.

It costs roughly $20,000 per kilogram to reach low-Earth orbit (LEO), the zone where the International Space Station orbits, about 340 kilometers up. Going beyond that requires lots more fuel, and fuel doesn’t make money or do science. “A geosynchronous satellite”—orbiting nearly 36,000 kilometers above Earth—”is half fuel,” Myers explains back at Aerojet Rocketdyne, where glass cases display dozens of rocket engines, some used to raise satellites from LEO to geosynchronous orbit. “It’s not transponders that make revenue or help you communicate on the Internet or anything like that. It’s mostly fuel.”

Therein lies one of the grand challenges to “expanding the human economic sphere,” as Myers puts it. To do more business, science, and exploration in space requires either launching more fuel—a costly proposition that can scuttle the economics of a profit-driven rather than government-driven enterprise—or improving fuel efficiency.

“Those are your only two options,” Myers says. “Physics is physics.”

It’s Electric

Electric propulsion systems offer significant fuel efficiency improvements. So-called resistojets made at Aerojet Rocketdyne have been flying … Next Page »

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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