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Aerojet SRB test firing
A test firing in late 2002 of a solid-propellant strap-on booster Aerojet developed for the Atlas 5. (credit: Aerojet)

Main engine cutoff

<< page 2: an aging workforce

Is there a way out?

When put into those terms, the future of the rocket propulsion industry in the US looks bleak. That future may also be just a few years away. Phillips said that with work on modernizing the Minuteman 3 ICBMs winding down, he sees no major programs on the horizon for solid propulsion. Rocketdyne’s Wood noted that by 2006, estimates of the total number of employees working on rocket propulsion in the US will drop below the levels Rocketdyne employed when it developed the RS-68 engine for the Delta 4. “This industry might end in 2006,” he warned.

Rocket propulsion is only a small part of the businesses of all four companies on the panel: Rocketdyne is part of Boeing and Aerojet is part of GenCorp, while Pratt & Whitney and ATK do larger volumes of sales on products ranging from jet engines to ammunition. While this provides a useful cushion during these hard times, it also makes it harder for corporate executives to see the benefits of continuing in the propulsion field. Propulsion “is not looked at as the best of investments” when compared to fields like missile defense, said Van Kleek.

“This is a call to arms for an industry in crisis,” said Sietzen. “It has been very frustrating to get people’s attention about this problem because it requires long-term planning.”

“This is a call to arms for an industry in crisis,” said the STA’s Sietzen.

One solution is what Phillips called “continued rationalization and consolidation”: in other words, merging the existing companies into a few larger entities better able to weather the storm. In the long term, though, industry believes the solution lies with government, despite recent bad experience. Increased investment in research and development, including additional rocket development programs, would be a huge benefit to the industry. “We need to get back to experimental flight programs in this country,” said Phillips.

Unlike the peak of the Space Race with the Soviets, when the US poured billions into research and development of new launch vehicles and engines, both government and business are far more cost-conscious. Wood noted that the F-1 and J-2 engines developed for the Saturn 5 each cost $3 billion in current dollars to develop. “Today,” he said, “people choke on anything more than $1 billion.”

Sietzen believes that the government can, and will eventually have to, pay the tens of billions required to eventually develop a reusable launch vehicle to replace the shuttle, noting that this cost is only about 10 percent of the annual budget of the Defense Department. “The idea that our country cannot afford to sustain this industry is nonsense,” he said.

There’s a slim chance that external affairs could also prompt new investment in rocket propulsion. “What I root for every day is for the Chinese to put people in space,” said Wood. While Chinese human spaceflight could create a “national imperative”, Phillips is skeptical. “It would be nice to have a national imperative, but I don’t expect one.”

“What I root for every day is for the Chinese to put people in space,” said Rocketdyne’s Wood.

Left out of the panel discussion was the work being done by a number of entrepreneurial ventures. XCOR Aerospace has already built and demonstrated in flight a number of small engines, while working on larger ones for its proposed suborbital vehicle. Space Exploration Technologies plans to develop its own engines for its Falcon expendable vehicle. A number of X Prize entrants are also hard at work on their own engine technologies.

However, with the exception of some work done a few years ago by now-defunct Beal Aerospace, all of this entrepreneurial work involves smaller engines. The larger engines required for heavy-lift vehicles, for both commercial and military applications, are still the domain of a few large companies that are growing increasingly dependent on the government for their survival. While it seems unlikely from a national security standpoint that the government would allow these companies to fail, should they go extinct, like the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, there is some reassurance that there are companies out there to take their place. However, like the mammals that survived the demise of the dinosaurs, it could take years before these companies can fill the footprints left by those dinosaurs.