REDMOND, Wash. — Representatives of Aerojet Rocketdyne and Lockheed Martin put their signatures on a contract for up to $170 million worth of rocket hardware that’ll be installed on Orion spacecraft heading to the moon — with dozens of employees who’ll actually build that hardware watching the proceedings.
“These are the things you’re going to be talking to your grandchildren about,” Cheryl Rehm, Aerojet Rocketdyne’s senior director of Redmond programs, told company employees here at today’s signing ceremony.
The ceremony highlighted Redmond’s role in NASA’s Artemis moon landings.
“For the more than 400 employees sitting here in Redmond, there’s more than 10 years of work in front of us,” said Redmond general manager Ken Young. “It sets us up for follow-on ship sets well into the ’30s. So we’re happy to be a part of that.”
Aerojet’s Redmond operation has already been working on propulsion systems for NASA’s Orion spacecraft. In fact, employees on the factory floor are currently finishing up work on a set of thrusters that’ll be used for the first crewed mission, known as Artemis 2. That mission is scheduled to send astronauts around the moon and back in 2022.
Today’s contract addresses the missions that come afterward — starting with Artemis 3, which is due to land astronauts near the lunar south pole in 2024.
Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for the Orion program, and Aerojet Rocketdyne is a subcontractor. The Redmond operation is responsible for the rocket motor that pulls the Orion’s launch abort system away from the crew module after liftoff, the auxiliary engines that help steer the spacecraft during flight, and the reaction control system that orients the crew module correctly for splashdown at the end of each mission.
Aerojet will receive $120 million from Lockheed Martin to provide those systems for the Artemis 3, 4 and 5 missions, and there’s a $50 million option to buy more thrusters for Artemis 6, 7 and 8. Those six moon missions are covered by a pair of NASA contracts with Lockheed Martin amounting to $4.6 billion.
Aerojet and Lockheed Martin expect to reuse some of the hardware from earlier missions on later missions, which is why the contracts are weighted more heavily in the earlier phases.
Mike Hawes, vice president and Orion program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, said the development program is running on a tight schedule. He noted that the Orion production build process typically requires 54 months, and the spacecraft is typically turned over to NASA five to seven months before launch.
That doesn’t leave a lot of extra time to get ready a 2024 moon launch. “In relative terms, it feels like we’re right here,” said Hawes, putting his hand in front of his nose.
Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Redmond operation is only one part of a company that has its headquarters in California and additional facilities in locations ranging from Alabama to Utah. Other divisions of the company are providing engines for NASA’s Space Launch System, the rocket that’s designed to send Orion toward the moon.
There’s also chance that Aerojet Rocketdyne will win NASA’s nod to build additional main engines for Orion — once the space agency depletes its inventory of surplus engines (which Aerojet Rocketdyne built for the space shuttle program years ago).
Regardless of how those other rocket projects turn out, today’s contract guarantees that Aerojet Rocketdyne’s employees in Redmond will have a role in moon landings for years to come. And maybe the Mars landings to follow. That’s more than enough to fire up engineers like Sabrina Blacklock, who’s part of the assembly team for the crew module’s thrusters.
“I’m of a generation that is younger than the shuttle, so this is my first opportunity to be part of manned space,” she said. “And I’m ecstatic to be on the forefront of it.”
Update for 4:20 a.m. PT Dec. 5: We’ve updated this report to reflect the fact that, while the program office for the Orion launch abort system’s jettison motor is in Redmond, the actual building of the motor is done at Aerojet Rocketdyne’s facilities in Huntsville, Ala., and Orange, Va. The rest of the Orion engines are built in Redmond.
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