NASA's Mars mission boosts Aerojet into new era

Aerojet is decades removed from the glory days of the space race of the 1960s, when more than 20,000 employees were aiming for the moon.

But the defense and aerospace subsidiary of Rancho Cordova-based GenCorp Inc. is staying busy these days with various projects.

Going to Mars, for example.

Aerojet provided the solid rocket boosters that lifted NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, or MSL for short, at Saturday's start of a 354 million-mile journey to the Red Planet. Four Aerojet AJ60 boosters provided more than 1.5 million pounds of thrust – the equivalent of six Boeing 747 jets – to help propel United Launch Alliance's Atlas V into space from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Yet that was just the beginning.

Aerojet retro rockets also assisted with the Atlas Centaur separation from the launch vehicle about 4.5 minutes into flight. Twelve Aerojet monopropellant hydrazine thrusters on the Atlas V Centaur upper stage provided roll, pitch and yaw control as well as post-liftoff thrust for the upper stage main engine.

More Aerojet thrusters will be used for trajectory adjustments on the eight-month journey to Mars and to maneuver the "Sky Crane" that will lower a six-wheeled rover onto the Martian surface.

Scientists hope the rover will provide more detailed information about whether the Red Planet is, or ever has been, hospitable to life.

Aerojet engineering is involved in every step of the process except the rover.

Aerojet, which currently employs about 3,300, including about 1,500 in the Sacramento area, is excited about the Mars mission. But this is not Aerojet's first rodeo when it comes to Mars.

The company's involvement in Mars exploration dates back to NASA's Viking probes launched in 1975. Since then, Aerojet propulsion has taken multiple vehicles to the Red Planet.

Aerojet propulsion systems are currently powering vehicles throughout our solar system, including separate spacecraft heading to Jupiter and Pluto.

While Aerojet does not have the sprawling mini-city presence it once had in Rancho Cordova – and NASA has seen its funding slashed – company officials said myriad defense/space projects are sustaining business.

Parent GenCorp does not split off Aerojet-specific financials, but GenCorp reported net sales of $226.2 million for its third quarter ended Aug. 31, up from $210.7 million in the year-ago period.

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