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COBRA engine
An illustration of the Co-Optimized Booster for Reusable Applications (COBRA), jointly developed by Aerojet and Pratt & Whitney for the Space Launch Initiative. NASA cancelled COBRA in the fall of 2002. (credit: Pratt & Whitney)

Main engine cutoff

<< page 1: diminished market

Government: a fickle customer

With the commercial market weak, companies have turned to the government, particularly NASA, to fill the gap. Unfortunately, the space agency has not been the best customer. Aerojet discovered that last year, when NASA cancelled both the X-38—for which Aerojet was building a propulsion module—as well as the Co-Optimized Booster for Reusable Applications (COBRA), an engine that Aerojet and Pratt & Whitney were jointly working on for the Space Launch Initiative.

Van Kleek said the loss of the X-38 contract was especially painful. The company was willing to take a “pretty aggressive” approach to the development contract, she said, because the payoff appeared to be large: building propulsion units for two prototypes as well as options for up to five operational units. Changing requirements for the unit caused Aerojet to take a loss on the development contract, but the company was still satisfied because it would more than make up the loss with the production contracts. However, Aerojet never got that chance when NASA cancelled the X-38 in the spring of 2002.

“There is a significant loss of capability possible in the next few years,” Aerojet’s Van Kleek warned.

The Columbia accident has also cast a shadow on the solid propulsion industry. While few believe the shuttle will be mothballed, the accident reminded people that, sooner or later, the shuttle will be replaced. ATK Thiokol’s Oren Phillips said that the shuttle’s solid rocket booster (SRB) program accounts for over half the capacity of the entire US solid propulsion industry, allowing the industry to support core competencies that would be impossible without it. “The SRB is unique to the solid propellant industry,” Phillips said. With limited prospects for other solid propellant programs in the future, either on the commercial or military side, the shuttle’s share of the industry may grow even more.

An aging workforce

Like the rest of the aerospace industry, the propulsion industry has its share of workforce problems. Biggest among those is a workforce that is growing older by the year. Phillips noted that the average age of the ATK Thiokol workforce is well into the 40s, with fewer than eight percent under the age of 35. At Aerojet, Van Kleek said that the average employee age is approaching 50. These employees, who will be retiring starting in the next decade regardless of the health of the industry, threaten the field with a major brain drain. “There is a significant loss of capability possible in the next few years,” Van Kleek warned.

One problem for attracting young talent into the field, the panelists noted, is the lack of new development programs. Young engineers are far more likely to be interested in new programs they can adopt as their own rather than work in the production aspects of projects that have been around for years, if not decades, Phillips said. Worse, those young engineers in industry today are unlikely to have experienced true developmental programs, said Van Kleek, and as a result don’t have the experience to make credible estimates of the cost of such programs when they do arise.

page 3: is there a way out? >>