Boldly going where no one has gone before.
Every time a spacecraft bound for other planets or other solar systems speeds away from earth, part of Washington State goes with it.
The seeds for Washington’s space cluster were sown in 1968. A couple engineers from Boeing struck out on their own, starting a company called Rocket Research. It didn’t take long to outgrow their initial space in South Park, a stone’s throw from Boeing’s headquarters. Looking for bigger digs, they headed for Redmond, Washington, which today is a hotbed of tech and home to Microsoft and SpaceX as well as Aerojet Rocketdyne. In 1968, it was mostly horse pastures and barns.
Over the last 50 years, Aerojet Rocketdyne has produced rockets and thrusters for every planetary and interplanetary space mission, from tiny thrusters that gently nudge a craft into the correct trajectory to large rockets that can slow a lander hurtling through space at thousands of miles an hour to so it can gingerly touch down on another planet in one piece. Some may lie dormant for months, being called into action after long periods of inactivity in the harsh conditions of space. Still others must be so finely crafted that they can accurately guide a spacecraft between the rings of Saturn as it travels 77,000 mph.
The margin of error: zero. If something were to go wrong, you can’t exactly send a service truck out to fix it.
Which makes it even more remarkable that the company has never had a failure. None of its 20,000 thrusters have failed on a mission. In at least case, a set of their thrusters actually saved a mission when another company’s rockets failed. Using a little bit of ingenuity, Aerojet Rocketdyne was able to use their smaller thrusters to send the spacecraft into the correct orbit.
How cool are these rockets and thrusters and the people that make them? While most of them go about their business with little to no fanfare, some missions are astoundingly complex.
The Curiosity mission to Mars is a prime example. Lowering a rover the size of a small sedan onto the surface of a planet isn’t exactly easy, especially in an environment as challenging as Mars. The solution required 36 different rockets and thrusters. The first 12 brought the spacecraft into orbit and pointed it in the right direction. Eight smaller rockets, each with just a pound of thrust, guided the spacecraft into its stable cruise phase. From there, eight more rockets fired to steer the lander toward its target area. Finally, eight larger rockets – with 600 pounds of thrust each – slowed the lander to the point that it could gently lower Curiosity to the surface with a sky crane as it hovered. Six months of relative boredom followed by six minutes of sheer terror. The failure of any thruster could have destroyed the $2.5 billion lander and rover.
Aerojet Rocketdyne is hardly resting on its laurels these days or its outstanding performance record. The company is exploring new propulsion technologies, including one that uses electric propulsion powered by solar arrays, allowing spacecraft to carry safer, less toxic fuels. They are also performing research on nuclear thermal propulsion, which would be twice as efficient as liquid oxygen/hydrogen fueled thrusters in use today.
Aerojet Rocketdyne is also turning its attention to the next big U.S. mission: landing Americans on Moon and eventually Mars. The company is producing thrusters and propulsion systems for the Artemis missions, which will ensure the company years of work down the road.
One can only imagine how satisfying it is for any one of the company’s 400 employees to look up in the sky on any particular night, knowing that their hard work is somewhere out there in the vast reaches of space, expanding our understanding of the solar system and what lies beyond it.
Visit the company’s website.