Lockheed Martin has signed a deal to purchase rocket and missile propulsion manufacturer Aerojet Rocketdyne. The deal buys Lockheed Martin into NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) which is set to use four Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 engines to power the rocket’s core stage.
The $4.4 billion purchase was announced on December 20 and is expected to close in the second half of 2021, pending approval from regulators and stockholders.
Aerojet Rocketdyne produces propulsion systems, solid rocket motors, and tactical and strategic missiles for the US Department of Defense. The company’s most notable accomplishments include the Rocketdyne F-1 and J-2 engines that powered the Saturn V, and the RS-25 that powered the Space Shuttle and is set to power NASA’s SLS rocket.
In 2016, Lockheed Martin was awarded the contract for NASA’s Orion spacecraft that will be launched atop the agency’s SLS rocket. However, the US defense contractor had not been a beneficiary of the now bloated $18.6 billion (as of 2020) SLS budget until now.
With the conclusion of the Aerojet Rocketdyne purchase in 2021, Lockheed Martin will take over a significant share of the SLS budget. A $1.7 billion dollar contract amendment earlier this year brought the total Aerojet Rocketdyne award to $3.5 billion. The contract includes funding for 24 RS-25 engines that will power NASA’s Artemis program, the agency’s push to return to the Moon.
In addition to receiving a cut of the SLS pie, the Lockheed Martin purchase of Aerojet Rocketdyne likely binds the Orion spacecraft firmly to the fate of NASA’s next-generation heavy-lift launch vehicle.
Orion was originally designed under NASA’s Constellation Programme to be launched aboard an Ares I rocket. However, after the cancellation of the program during the Obama era, the spacecraft was redesigned and reassigned to what would become SLS.
With a bloated budget and a maiden SLS flight that continues to slip, Orion could sit idle for potentially years waiting for its ride into space. Already behind schedule and on track to be approximately $1.4 billion over budget itself, a reliance on the SLS launch vehicle is unlikely to bode well for the future of the Orion spacecraft.