As NASA prepares for its first Artemis mission to the moon, Aerojet is working ahead

An artist's rendering shows the Orion spacecraft's main engine firing during a lunar flight, surrounded by eight Redmond-built Aerojet Rocketdyne auxiliary engines.  (NASA Image)

An artist’s rendering shows the Orion spacecraft’s main engine firing during a lunar flight, surrounded by eight Redmond-built Aerojet Rocketdyne auxiliary engines. (NASA Image)

REDMOND, Wash. — When NASA’s Space Launch System rocket sends an unmanned Orion spacecraft past the moon and back for the Artemis 1 mission, the journey will put rocket components built in Redmond to their most rigorous test.

But at Aerojet Rocketdyne’s facility in Redmond, where the hardware for Artemis 1 was built years ago, engineers are already working years ahead.

“We’ve delivered Artemis 1 and 2 and we’re just finishing up Artemis 3 right now so that acceptance testing can be completed this summer,” said Erica Raine, the Aerojet program manager overseeing work on the Orion capsule in Redmond.

Erica Raine / Aerojet

Erica Raine is a senior engineer at Aerojet Rocketdyne in Redmond, Wash. (Photo via LinkedIn)

And he’s just talking about the reaction control thrusters for Artemis 3’s Orion crew module — the vehicle intended to carry astronauts to the Moon as early as 2025. Some of the components currently being assembled in Redmond are destined to become part of the Artemis 5 mission to the moon, scheduled for 2028.

Aerojet’s production schedule shows how long it will take to assemble the millions of parts for the SLS rocket and Orion capsule set to launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Monday.

Even though it’s been years since the Artemis 1 hardware left Redmond, the Aerojet team has been refreshed to get started. “It’s been a long road, but it’s so rewarding and the mission is very exciting — probably 42 days in lunar orbit,” Raine said.

Artemis 1 will mark the first launch of SLS, the most powerful rocket ever built for NASA (8.8 million pounds of launch thrust versus the Saturn V’s 7.5 million pounds). The rocket will send Orion into a long-haul orbit that will range 40,000 miles past the moon. At the end of a journey lasting up to 42 days, Orion will plunge back into the atmosphere for a dive in the Pacific Ocean.

The mission is designed to test all the components that will come into play during future manned Artemis missions — from Orion’s heat shield to the engines and propulsion systems built by Aerojet.

Aerojet’s Redmond operation, which has more than 400 employees, focuses on smaller thrusters: for example, the 12 reaction control thrusters for the Orion crew module and the eight auxiliary engines for the European service module. The Redmond team is also working on the reaction control thrusters on the SLS upper stage, also known as the Cryogenic Propulsion Intermediate Stage.

“The majority of the engines we work on here in Redmond are really bench-sized,” Raine said. “The crew unit’s engines are about the size of a toaster. The auxiliary motor is like a small traffic cone. … Our machine shop is not built for such a larger scale.”

Other Aerojet facilities work on larger propulsion system components, such as Orion’s main engine. But sometimes Redmond plays a role in these components as well – for example, managing the work on the launch stop system’s withdrawal engine or refurbishing the valves for the main engine.

An auxiliary engine for the Artemis 3 Orion service module is being tested.  (Photo by Aerojet Rocketdyne)

An auxiliary engine for the Artemis 3 Orion service module is being tested. (Photo by Aerojet Rocketdyne)

Raine acknowledged that some of the work being done at Redmond is “not as sexy” as launching rockets on, say, the SLS’s RS-25 core stage engines. These behemoths were taken from NASA’s space shuttles and refurbished by Aerojet at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. (Orion’s main engine is also a hand-me-down shuttle.) Still, she and her team are proud of their contribution to Aerojet’s Artemis effort.

“We’re all one big family, but we have different specialties,” Raine said.

And the Redmond team could soon add to its specialties: Last fall, Aerojet Rocketdyne won NASA’s nod to develop the next-generation Orion main engine.

“That design and development phase is ongoing right now,” Raine said. “We go through a series of PDR components [preliminary design reviews], and some of these elements will likely work in Redmond. That’s not official yet, but we’re looking to the future.”

The next-generation engine isn’t scheduled to go live until sometime around Artemis 7, which is currently scheduled for 2029. That may sound like a long way off — but at Aerojet, the time to think ahead is now.

Previously: Aerojet Engineer Wins NASA Silver Snoopy Award

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