Spaceflight Insider

Aerojet Rocketdyne pushing forward with 3-D printed rocket engines

Hot-fire test of an advanced 3-D printed rocket engine thrust chamber

Aerojet Rocketdyne hot-fire test of an advanced 3-D printed copper-alloy rocket engine thrust chamber. (Click to enlarge.) Photo Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne

Aerojet Rocketdyne was awarded a $6 million contract on Tuesday, Jan. 5, to establish the standards that will be used to gauge components fabricated using 3-D printing for application in liquid-fueled rocket engines. The announcement comes at a time when 3-D printing is proving its worth in space exploration efforts.

RD-180 engine.

RD-180 engine. (Click to enlarge.) Photo Credit: Energomash

The award is part of the U.S. Air Force Booster Propulsion Technology Maturation Broad Agency Announcement, which is part of a comprehensive Air Force plan to shift away from reliance on the Russian-made RD-180 engines currently utilized in the Atlas V launch vehicle fielded by Colorado-based United Launch Alliance.

Aerojet Rocketdyne has extensive experience with 3-D printing (also known as additive manufacturing); the company will draw on that expertise to establish the standards to qualify 3-D printed rocket engine components for flight.

In 2014, the company successfully hot-fire tested an engine made entirely with additive manufacturing that had a thrust of 5,000 pounds-force (22.24 kN).

An Atlas V 401 launch of the USA-242 (GPS IIF-4) satellite.

Atlas V 401 launch of the USA-242 (GPS IIF-4) satellite. Photo Credit: Michael Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

In September 2015, the company used additive manufacturing to replicate the injector of the gas generator used on an Apollo-era F-1 rocket engine to demonstrate that a proven design can be built at a competitive cost without sacrificing performance.

“New liquid rocket engine designs – like the AR1 engine we are building to replace the Russian-made RD-180 – are increasingly taking advantage of 3-D printing technology because it reduces the amount of time and money required to build these complex components,” said Julie Van Kleeck, vice president of Advanced Space & Launch Programs at Aerojet Rocketdyne. “It is imperative that engine manufacturers understand the qualification methodology for this revolutionary technology because of the criticality of the assets they help launch into space.”

The AR1 rocket engine is being developed as a backup for Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine that has been selected for use on ULA’s Vulcan booster, which is hoped will carry out its first flight in 2019.

The use of 3-D printing technology could not only reduce the cost of producing components but also shortens build times and provides flexibility to engineers to design components that were once impossible to build using traditional manufacturing techniques.

The USAF contract calls for Aerojet Rocketdyne to define the engineering and inspection processes to be followed when producing and testing 3-D printed components to ensure that they meet the stringent requirements of aerospace systems.

“We are taking our seven decades of experience in building rocket engines, which represents more than 2,100 successful launches, and combining that with our in-depth knowledge of additive manufacturing to assist the Air Force in defining qualification requirements for this technology,” said Dr. Jay Littles, director of Advanced Launch Vehicle Propulsion at Aerojet Rocketdyne. “In fact, Fast Company magazine named Aerojet Rocketdyne No. 1 in its ranking of ‘The World’s Top 10 Most Innovative Companies of 2015 in Space’, because of the company’s advances in additive manufacturing.”

Should the AR1 be used on Vulcan, it will have been produced, at least in part, with 3D printing – a fact noted by one of the company’s representatives.

“Incorporating additive manufacturing and the new qualification processes into our AR1 design will be essential to having an American engine for the Atlas V and proposed Vulcan launch vehicles ready by 2019,” Van Kleeck added.

The Air Force plans to award additional, larger contracts for U.S.-developed propulsion systems later this year.

The Vulcan Next Generation Launch System incorporates elements of both ULA’s Atlas V and Delta IV launch vehicles and will see the company’s offerings go from two core products to one.



College student and long time space enthusiast, Jose has been a constant visitor to Cape Canaveral since he moved to central Florida. He joined the SFI team in the hopes of becoming more involved in the coverage of spaceflight and space exploration.

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