Aerojet President: NK-33 Engines Can Be Put Back into Production

AJ26 test firing. (Credit: Aerojet)
AJ26 test firing. (Credit: Aerojet)

Space News is quoting Aerojet Rocketdyne President Warren Boley as saying the engine that powers Orbital Sciences Corporation’s new Antares rocket can be put back into production at a reasonable cost, adding an interesting wrinkle to an on-going anti-trust investigation of rival United Launch Alliance.

Antares uses two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ-26 engines to power its first stage. The AJ-26s are refurbished Soviet-era NK-33 engines built for that nation’s long abandoned manned lunar program. The NK-33 engines are in limited supply because they haven’t been in production for 40 years.

Aerojet Rocketdyne has 43 remaining, enough for 21 Antares flights. Orbital says it belated realized that the supply of engines is even smaller than the company thought due to the engines sitting around corroding for four decades and Russian restrictions.

So, Orbital wants the Federal Trade Commission to void ULA’s exclusive rights to the highly reliable RD-180 engines so they can be used in Antares. ULA’s says its contracts are legal and proper.

However, Boley says that his company has struck a deal with NK-33 manufacturer Kuznetsov Design Bureau to put the engine back into production if Orbital signs a contract to do so.

Meanwhile, Aerojet’s recent acquisition of Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne gives Boley’s company a financial interest in both engines. Aerojet Rocketdyne is a partner with Russia’s Energomash in RD AMROSS, which supplies ULA with the RD-180 engines.

Although unmentioned in the story, the Russians are preparing to launch the maiden flight of its new Soyuz 2.1v light launch vehicle, which also uses leftover NK-33 engines. If the Russians want to maintain that program, they will have to put the engine back into production at some point.

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