Aerojet Rocketdyne — a leading American rocket engine manufacturer — has offered about $2 billion in cash to purchase the United Launch Alliance, a joint spaceflight venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, The Wall Street Journal reports. ULA, the biggest supplier of rockets for the USmilitary, manufactures and operates the Atlas V, one of the premier rockets for launching satellites and other hardware into space for the US Air Force. The acquisition could happen as soon as next week. Representatives for Lockheed and Aerojet declined to comment on the deal to Reuters.
The offer comes as the Atlas V program is in a state of transition.The rocket has a near-perfect track record for delivering satellites into lower Earth orbit; only one flight out of more than four dozen has ever suffered a malfunction. It’s ULA’s most-important rocket — but now the main engine in the Atlas V rocket must be replaced, thanks to mounting pressure from Congress. Aerojet is among the contenders to replace that engine.
The offer comes as the Atlas V program is in a state of transition
The problem is ULA's reliance on Russian technology. Tensions have been high between the US and Russia since the Ukraine crisis; Congress passed legislation last year banning the Pentagon from using Russian rocket engines to help launch military satellites. But the current main engine in the Atlas V is the RD-180 — an engine designed and built by Russian spaceflight manufacturer NPO Energomash. ULA must replace its engine or lose the government’s business.
Aerojet’s AR-1 is the back-up choice for the new Atlas V engine, and the company already makes the main engines for ULA’s Delta IV rocket; it also manufactured the main engines for the Space Shuttle. Aerojet’s offer hasn’t yet been finalized, The Wall Street Journal reports. And since both companies supply the US military, the Department of Defense will likely be watching.
The front-running candidate to replace the Atlas V rocket engine — until, perhaps, today — was Blue Origin’s BE-4. Blue Origin, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ moonshot, is also set to build the engine for ULA’s next-generation rocket, called Vulcan.
ULA, formed in 2006 to launch spacecraft for the US government, has proved costlier than expected, the Journal reported. And since then, cheaper competitors like SpaceX have entered the marketplace; SpaceX has a contract with NASA to send humans into space by 2017. SpaceX is completely American-run, and thus politically attractive — ULA will have to bring down launch costs to compete. Aerojet may be betting they can help ULA do just that.