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In the early 1940s, four colleagues from the California Institute of Technology -- Dr. Frank J. Malina, Dr. Martin Summerfield, John W. Parsons, and E. S. Forman --gathered with renowned aerodynamicist Dr. Theodore von Kármán to discuss their shared passion - sending rockets into space. That meeting ultimately led to their development of critical new technology known as Jet Assisted Take Off (JATO), which for the first time in history, allowed heavily laden aircraft to take off from short runways and carrier decks. This technology made a significant impact on the safety of allied pilots in World War II and launched an aerospace company known today as Aerojet – a company that celebrated its 70th anniversary in March 2012.
As conveyed by co-founder and second Aerojet President, Andrew Haley in later writings, “At this meeting the incident occurred which has always loomed most importantly in our minds over the years -- the spontaneous declaration by all of us that our real and abiding purpose in embarking on this harrowing and even dangerous business was actually to satisfy our interior inspiration that whatever we did would be in furtherance of man's exploration of the universe. Each of us voluntarily gave voice to the inspiration we felt, and I shall never forget the ever-present humor of Dr. von Kármán as he turned to me and said, "Now, Andy, we will make the rockets — you must make the corporation and obtain the money. Later on you will have to see that we all behave well in outer space." With a twinkle in his eye, he added, "After all, we are the scientists but you are the lawyer, and you must tell us how to behave ourselves according to law and to safeguard our innocence."
In March 1942, with the ominous clouds of WWII darkening the skies, von Kármán and his team decided to leverage their recent innovation and together they launched the Aerojet Engineering Corporation in Pasadena, California. Led by then-first president Dr. von Kármán, Aerojet ultimately supplied the U.S. Armed Forces with thousands of JATO units during WWII, making a significant impact on the safety of allied pilots.
The 1950s marked a new era for Aerojet. The rapidly growing company moved from southern California to Sacramento and began manufacturing propulsion systems for intercontinental ballistic missiles, guided surface-to-air missiles and submarine-launched missiles.
The ‘space race’ of the 1960s was a time of extraordinary worldwide passion, and Aerojet began work on several trailblazing projects, including what ultimately became its 50-year support of the TITAN program. At the same time, the company increased its workforce to a staggering 34,000 employees.
Aerojet’s contributions to defending freedom advanced with the first test flight of the Minuteman guided nuclear ICBM in 1961.
1962 was a momentous year for the company. Aerojet launched its relationship with Japan that year and 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of this historic partnership. It was also the year that President John F. Kennedy announced that America had set its sights on the moon and, just a year later, Dr. Theodore von Kármán’s stellar career was recognized and honored by the president with the first National Medal of Science.
As spaceflight evolved from launching hardware to carrying human beings, Aerojet’s liquid rocket boosters propelled the TITAN vehicle to deliver the first manned Gemini flight into orbit in 1965.
Peacekeeper and the Space Shuttle Era
After America’s decisive victory in the space race during Apollo, the company continued to support the evolution of defense and exploration technologies with the development of an advanced second-stage solid rocket motor for the Peacekeeper missile, and with a major contract to support Orbital Maneuvering Engines for NASA’s next vehicle – the Space Shuttle.
Aerojet’s Orbital Maneuvering System engines helped make space program history in 1981 when Space Shuttle Columbia roared off the launch pad on its maiden voyage. The company’s technology was integral to every Space Shuttle launch from the inception of the program until STS-135 made its historic, final flight in July 2011.
Defending the Warfighter
Throughout the next two decades, ballistics developments advanced as Peacekeeper ICBM and long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles utilizing Aerojet propulsion entered service and the Javelin missile relied on Aerojet propulsion during its first test flight. The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense ballistic missile shoot-down system completed its first flight test in the mid 1990s and began using Aerojet boosters in 2004. The company’s boosters are in use today.
Diversifying the Portfolio
Shortly after the dawn of the 21st century, Aerojet acquired the Redmond-based Space Propulsion and Fire Suppression business from General Dynamic Ordnance and Tactical Systems. This acquisition brought with it a wealth of spacecraft and spacelift propulsion capabilities and allowed the company to venture beyond space launch into in-space propulsion.
In 2003, Aerojet further expanded its capabilities with the acquisition of Atlantic Research Corporation. ARC was a leading developer and manufacturer of advanced solid rocket propulsion systems, gas generators and auxiliary rocket motors for both space and defense applications.
With these two key acquisitions, Aerojet broadened and diversified its portfolio which now included in-space thrusters for satellite propulsion and provided capabilities for numerous major tactical missile systems.
Powering Space Exploration
The decade also saw close to 20 Atlas V launches powered by Aerojet’s solid rocket boosters. Of special note, in 2006, the Atlas V launched the New Horizons robotic spacecraft, which is currently en route to study Pluto and its moons.
2008 was a busy year at Aerojet.
The company is also helping to power NASA’s next-generation planetary missions with propulsion that was critical to the success of the Mars Phoenix Lander in May 2008 when the landers successfully touch down on the surface of the Red planet.
Aerojet’s thrusters helped guide NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) to a successful landing on the red planet at 10:32 p.m. PT on Aug. 5, 2012.
At the same time, work advanced on Orion, NASA’s next generation crew exploration vehicle. Aerojet’s jettison motor is an integral part of the flight-proven Orion Launch Abort System and its thrusters are integrated into both the crew and service modules of the program.
Aerojet supports a multitude of new-era exploration efforts in the emerging commercial space market sector. In particular, its AJ26 liquid-fuel engines provide lightweight power that will ultimately boost Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares launch vehicle.
In 2013, Aerojet's parent company, GenCorp. Inc., acquired Pratt & Whitney's Rocketdyne division to form Aerojet Rocketdyne as the company exists today. Rocketdyne also began in the 1940s providing missile technology to our armed forces after World War II and continuing with the Korean War. Rocketdyne was also instrumental for NASA helping to provide engines to the Mercury, Atlas and Saturn rocket familes. In 1996, Rocketdyne became part of the Boeing Defense Division, and in 2005, Boeing reached an agreement with Pratt & Whitney to transition Rocketdyne to their "Propulsion & Power" entity.
Defending American freedom remains at the forefront of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s priorities. The DoD’s new EKV - an interceptor vehicle capable of destroying high-speed missile warheads - relies on Aerojet Rocketdyne propulsion.
The company also recently received a critically important contract for continued work on the SM-3 Block II A program which will allow the Navy to engage enemy ICBMs in flight.
Today, Aerojet Rocketdyne is a billion dollar company committed to serving the Armed Forces, NASA and commercial aerospace companies.
As new challenges and exciting discoveries emerge, Aerojet Rocketdyne is poised to leverage its unique heritage, demonstrated performance, and dedication to mission success in order to strengthen the nation’s ability to defend its shores and explore the solar system.
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