NASA's Lunar Exploration Plan Finds Aerojet Rocketdyne in the Driver's Seat

August 17, 2018 - Getting to within striking distance of the moon is challenging enough, but if the ultimate objective is to achieve meaningful lunar exploration, getting there is only half the battle.

As the main- and upper-stage engine supplier for NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS), Aerojet Rocketdyne plays a prominent role in the first half of the equation. But the company also is integral to the second half: logistics in cislunar space and landing hardware on the lunar surface.

Two key initiatives in progress to achieve this objective are NASA’s Lunar Gateway, and Commercial Lunar Payload Services lander programs. Aerojet Rocketdyne is vying to play a role in both of these efforts by developing the solar electric propulsion (SEP) system for the Gateway, a manned space platform that will support a variety of activities from lunar orbit, and has already developed and tested an engine to ease commercial landers down to the lunar surface.

NASA’s 2019 budget request puts the Gateway at the forefront of its plan to return astronauts to the moon in the late 2020s. The Gateway will feature habitation and vehicle docking capabilities, and also will serve as a communications relay for lunar surface operations.

As part of a contractor team led by Sierra Nevada Space Systems Corp., Aerojet Rocketdyne would supply major components of the Gateway’s power and propulsion element (PPE), including solar arrays, power distribution system, and of course the SEP system. The PPE will be the initial piece of the Gateway, with a launch targeted for 2022.

“By staying on the cutting edge of propulsion technology, we have positioned ourselves for a major role not only in getting back to the moon but also in any future initiative to send people to Mars,” said Eileen Drake, Aerojet Rocketdyne CEO and president. “We’ve already demonstrated the scalability of the Gateway’s SEP system to a larger craft that would efficiently transport cargo to the red planet.”

Under NASA’s plan, the next human visitors to the moon will be preceded by commercially developed robotic landers whose missions include scouting out suitable habitat locations and prospecting for resources. Aerojet Rocketdyne recently tested an engine that if chosen could enable these landers to maneuver and make a soft touchdown on the lunar surface.

Aerojet Rocketdyne’s low-cost, lightweight In-Space Engine (ISE-100) generates 100 pounds of thrust and has the potential to be a critical element for future lunar robotic missions.

During a recent test program, the ISE-100 accumulated more than 500 seconds of firing time under scenarios representative of an actual lunar landing. The next step is flight certification, which entails another round of testing under even more realistic conditions.

“The ISE-100 is a great example of how we’re leveraging existing designs and modern manufacturing techniques to keep costs down,” said Julie Van Kleeck, vice president of the Advanced Space and Launch business unit of Aerojet Rocketdyne. “The engine is based in part on development work and features additively manufactured components including its injector.”

NASA's Lunar Gateway. Image courtesy of Sierra Nevada Corp.