REDMOND, Wash. – How do you steer in space? Answer: You use small rockets, jets that provide anywhere from a few to hundreds of pounds of force to position spacecraft to dock, or even head to other planets.
Aerojet’s facility along Redmond’s high tech corridor specializes in those small rockets. It’s part of a larger Aerojet based in Sacramento, California, with other factories that make even bigger rocket motors, propulsion systems that have been on every manned space flight since the Gemini days back in the 1960s.
“You can’t get there. You can’t get back without them,” said Sam Wiley, Aerojet’s program director for human space.
Aerojet is building those engines for Lockheed Martin, the national space and defense giant that’s building the new Orion space craft for NASA. Next year, the first unmanned Orion test will go into space aboard a Delta IV rocket to test the higher speeds Orion will face on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, simulating a return from the moon, or even a return from Mars.
Visits to those places, even asteroids, are part of NASA’s plan that could see the first human missions after 2020.
“Let NASA focus on what’s hard,” said agency engineer Charlie Lundquist, the crew and service module lead for the Orion program.
The job of so-called low Earth orbit space travel is moving to private space companies, like SpaceX, that NASA believes can handle routine work more cheaply and efficiently.