Aerojet Rocketdyne propels missiles, rockets and space vehicles

Long-time Huntsville manufacturer makes the systems that are key to the U.S. space and missile programs

Tyler Evans (right), senior vice president of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Defense Business Unit, meets with team members at the company’s defense headquarters located in Huntsville’s Cummings Research Park.

Aerojet Rocketdyne is a leading developer and manufacturer of advanced propulsion and energetics systems for the aerospace and defense industry, including the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and NASA. It provides a full range of propulsion and power systems for launch vehicles, satellites and other space vehicles and hypersonics, as well as strategic missiles, missile defense and tactical systems and armaments.

While Aerojet Rocketdyne’s liquid- and solid-fueled propulsion systems have been at the heart of nearly every major U.S. space and missile program since the dawn of the Space Age, the company actually dates all the way back to 1915, when it was the General Tire & Rubber Co. based in Akron, Ohio. In addition to manufacturing tires, its early history also included owning radio and television stations, a movie production company, an airline and soft drink bottling franchises.

In 1944 General Tire bought controlling interest in Aerojet Engineering Corp., a rocket design and production company that it would fully acquire one year later. By the 1980s, the company fully shifted its focus to the defense and space industries, evolving into the GenCorp Inc. holding company in 1984 and completely exiting the tire business three years later.

In 2015 it changed its name again to Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings Inc. to better reflect the company’s 70-plus years of contributions to national defense and space exploration.

Today, Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings Inc. consists of two major subsidiaries of which Aerojet Rocketdyne is its primary focus. Aerojet Rocketdyne employs more than 5,000 people at 14 sites in 10 states and the District of Columbia.

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Aerojet Rocketdyne’s defense headquarters in Huntsville.

Aerojet Rocketdyne and its heritage companies have had a continuous presence in Huntsville for more than 50 years. Due to the amount of engineering expertise in the area and its close proximity to the company’s prime customers, as well as the collaborative support from local and state leaders, Huntsville became the company’s Defense Business Unit headquarters in 2016. Since then, Aerojet Rocketdyne’s employee footprint in the area has grown by more than 700%, and more than 800 team members currently operate out of the Huntsville headquarters.

In addition to being the company’s defense headquarters, the Huntsville facility also plays a major role in developing and providing critical engineering support for the software that controls the RS-25 engines that will power NASA’s Artemis Moon missions. A team of hardware engineers, software engineers, quality engineers, laboratory technicians and configuration management staff collaborate with Marshall Space Flight Center’s Hardware in the Loop Laboratory, located on Redstone Arsenal, to simulate the environment for flight hardware and provide verification for engine control unit software.

“Our mission to enable national defense and space exploration is only possible because of our talented and hardworking team, many of whom reside here in Alabama,” says Tyler Evans, senior vice president of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Defense Business Unit. “Our defense headquarters in Huntsville has better positioned us to support our customers, and we continue to see the benefits of our expanded presence in the state.”

Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Advanced Manufacturing Facility in Huntsville.

In 2019, Aerojet Rocketdyne celebrated the opening of a state-of-the-art rocket propulsion Advanced Manufacturing Facility (AMF) in Huntsville. The 136,000-square-foot AMF produces solid rocket motor cases and other hardware for the Standard Missile-3, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and other critical U.S. defense and space programs. The AMF was also designed to provide propulsion solutions for new developments, including advanced motors capable of achieving hypersonic speeds and Sentinel, the U.S. Air Force’s next-generation Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program.

Last fall, Aerojet Rocketdyne announced plans to lease a massive 379,000-square-foot facility located in the Jetplex Industrial Park near the Huntsville International Airport that will specialize in producing and assembling inert solid rocket motor components. It will be the company’s third Huntsville campus and is expected to be operational later this year.

The acquisition is part of a strategic decision to support the growth of inert capabilities and to transition some inert components from the company’s site in Camden, Arkansas, to Huntsville. The company says the expansion is in response to increased demand for the propulsion products it provides and that the decision to further expand its Huntsville footprint was a natural choice due to the area’s many resources, including an abundance of local talent, space to grow, business-friendly infrastructure and a vibrant community. In February, Aerojet Rocketdyne began hiring for the new campus to fill positions for quality, operations, logistics and engineering with manufacturing experience.

In March, Lockheed Martin awarded Aerojet Rocketdyne a new contract to produce additional solid rocket motors and Divert and Attitude Control Systems (DACS) for the THAAD weapon system. The THAAD weapon system is a land-based element of the Missile Defense Agency’s Missile Defense system and is one of the country’s primary defenses against short, medium and intermediate-range missiles. The THAAD solid rocket boost motor is produced at Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Huntsville AMF and at the company’s Solid Rocket Motor Center in Camden.

In April, the company announced it had entered into a $215.6 million cooperative agreement with the Defense Department to supplement ongoing modernization efforts and increase solid rocket motor manufacturing capacity to meet increased warfighter demand for tactical missile systems used by the DoD. Through the agreement, Aerojet Rocketdyne has agreed to build additional facilities, purchase advanced equipment and automate manufacturing processes to support increased production demand mainly centered on Javelin, Stinger and the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS). The company will also implement elements of digital transformation to align with DoD’s Digital Modernization Strategy to give the Joint Force a competitive advantage.

“Powering the nation’s defense is an important mission that we take seriously,” says Evans. “Our team is committed to providing the highest quality propulsion to help protect what we value most — our nation, our military service members and our allies.”

As its presence in Huntsville continues to grow, Aerojet Rocketdyne remains committed to supporting the surrounding community. The company partners with more than 70 Alabama businesses and since 2015 has sourced more than $81 million to Alabama suppliers. Aerojet Rocketdyne also supports local school systems by sponsoring STEM events, activities and scholarships. This year, the company was recognized as a Best Place for Working Parents in the Huntsville area based on workplace flexibility, paid parental leave and other benefits.

Katherine MacGilvray is a Huntsville-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.

This article appears in the June 2023 issue of Business Alabama.

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