Alabama Rocket Roundup

Alabama has been in the thick of the nation’s space program for decades. Here’s a look at some of the most prominent players and programs in progress now.

NASA performs structural tests on the Space Launch System. Photo courtesy of Boeing

Space Launch System Update 

In Huntsville, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center has spent much of the past year developing technologies that will pave the way for the Artemis mission that will send the first woman and next man to the moon in 2024, ahead of human missions to Mars and beyond. That includes testing core stages of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, which Marshall manages.

The Boeing-built SLS is the most powerful rocket in the world and the only rocket capable of sending the Orion spacecraft, its cargo and astronauts to the moon in a combined mission. Along with Orion, Gateway and the human landing system, the SLS rocket makes up the backbone of NASA’s deep-space exploration program.

The massive 212-foot-long core stage, designed and structurally tested in Huntsville,
is currently installed in the B-2 Test Stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, where it is undergoing a critical milestone, the eight-part Green Run. The Green Run series will conclude with a hot-fire test, a simulation of the rocket’s launch sequence, which includes everything but liftoff. Boeing is the prime contractor for the design, development, testing and production of the SLS core stage, as well as development of the flight avionics suite.

In June, engineers at Marshall completed the largest test campaign at the center since those conducted more than 30 years ago for the Space Shuttle Program. Testing the liquid oxygen tank was the final stage of the SLS rocket’s structural qualification testing
for the Artemis lunar missions. The three-year campaign included almost 200 tests to ensure the rocket’s structure can endure the rigors of spaceflight.

In July, teams at Marshall loaded the Artemis I launch vehicle stage adapter (LVSA) for the SLS rocket onto the Pegasus barge bound for the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for launch preparations. The LVSA is the final piece of Artemis I rocket hardware built exclusively at Marshall. It will connect the SLS core stage to the interim cryogenic propulsion stage (ICPS) and upper stage.

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Teledyne Brown Engineering, in Huntsville, served as the lead contractor on the LVSA project and collaborated with several small business partners to design and build the roughly 30-by-30-foot cone-shaped adapter, which provides the structural strength necessary to endure launch loads and maximum dynamic pressure. The LVSA also provides the critical separation system used to detach the SLS core stage from the second stage, which includes the astronauts in the Orion spacecraft. It is the largest hardware to be completed for the SLS in Huntsville. Teledyne is currently building an LVSA for the second Artemis lunar mission and starting work on the LVSA for Artemis III.

Boeing and United Launch Alliance, in Decatur, built the ICPS, which accelerates Orion fast enough to overcome Earth’s gravity and set it on a precise trajectory to the moon.

Marshall supports more than 28,000 Alabama jobs, yielding $4.5 billion in economic impact. More than half of Marshall’s contracts are sourced in Alabama. The SLS program supports approximately 15,000 jobs across Alabama and generates $2.1 billion in economic output.

Other Aerospace Updates

United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket takes off, bound for Mars, in July 2020. Photo courtesy of United Launch Alliance

United Launch Alliance

United Launch Alliance (ULA), which manufactures the Atlas V, Delta IV and Vulcan Centaur rockets in Decatur, recently won a multi-year competitive contract award to launch critical national security missions for the U.S. Space Force with its next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket. The award represents 60% of the missions of the five-year Space Force’s National Security Space Launch Phase 2 procurement.

Looking ahead, ULA is on track to launch the debut flight of the Vulcan Centaur rocket in 2021. The company’s Atlas V rocket will launch Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft to the International Space Station next year as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

ULA employs more than 700 Alabamians and utilizes 288 supplier companies within the state.


Boeing is NASA’s lead industry partner for the International Space Station and will continue supporting the project through 2024 under a $916 million contract extension. Boeing is Alabama’s largest aerospace company with more than 3,000 employees supporting several space and defense programs.

Blue Origin

Blue Origin has opened its rocket engine facility in Huntsville where it manufactures BE-4 and BE-3U engines. The company plans to add more than 300 jobs and invest more than $200 million in the Huntsville facility. Blue Origin also delivered the first BE-4 engine to the United Launch Alliance rocket factory in Decatur. At 75,000 horsepower, the BE-4 is the most powerful liquefied natural gas-fueled rocket engine developed yet and the first oxygen-rich staged combustion engine made in the U.S. ULA will use two BE-4 engines to power its Vulcan Centaur launch vehicle.

Aerojet Rocketdyne

In the past year, Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Advanced Manufacturing Facility (AMF) in Huntsville has increased its workforce by 300 percent to 120 employees and expects to fill 150 more positions by year’s end. The 136,000-square-foot AMF makes solid rocket motor cases and specializes in advanced rocket propulsion research and development.

The company successfully completed a static-fire test of an advanced large solid rocket motor, the Missile Components Advanced Technologies Demonstration Motor (MCAT Demo), this spring. The MCAT Demo is under contract for the Air Force Research Laboratory.

Earlier this year, Aerojet Rocketdyne was awarded $19.6 million by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop technology for an advanced hypersonic defense interceptor for its Glide Breaker program.


Dynetics recently completed successful testing of two tactical space support payloads for the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command’s Lonestar program.

A Dynetics/RUAG team in Decatur has completed a composite panel Manufacturing Test Demonstrator, which represents one of four panels that will comprise the Universal Stage Adapter for NASA’s Space Launch System. Dynetics is the prime contractor building the
Universal Stage Adapter, which will
integrate the Exploration Upper Stage to the Orion spacecraft and provide structural, electrical and communication paths.


RUAG’s manufacturing plant in Decatur supplied the interstage adapter for the United Launch Alliance 400 series Atlas V launch vehicle. It is the plant’s first space-flight hardware. In February, the Atlas V rocket with solar orbiter took off from Cape Canaveral.

Katherine MacGilvray is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. She lives in Huntsville.

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