Aerojet launches giant leaps for mankind

Aerojet business development manager Olwen Morgan

Exactly 40 years after Apollo 11 touched down on the moon’s surface, Jon Schierberl runs his fingers over a small metal engine encircled with Saturn-like rings.

This is the engine that was located on the side of the Apollo and steered it to the moon, he explains.

“So that history going back, you look at it and it says early on with the space program that Aerojet was there,” said Schierberl, a program manager at Aerojet in Redmond, which provides a wealth of spacecraft and space lift propulsion capabilities.

“Every planet in our solar system, we’ve built hardware to visit them. I have worked on every one of those formulas.”

But the 36-year veteran doesn’t see his work as merely moving mechanical parts — it’s a historical contribution to space exploration, he says.

Pointing to other spacecraft modules in a display case inside the Redmond facility on a recent afternoon, Schierberl spoke about when Aerojet was founded in 1962, which was an exciting time for space programs. President Kennedy had just challenged the nation to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade.

The company, which is headquartered in Sacramento, Calif., started in Seattle, then later moved to its current 80-acre site in Redmond, where it now employs about 400 people.

Since the Apollo mission, Aerojet has provided NASA with engines and other hardware — from inner-planet and Mars missions, such as the Viking Lander, Phoenix and the most recent Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) that launched only weeks ago and is now circling the moon — to outer-planet missions: the Voyager 1 and 2 to Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and beyond.

The LRO, which is equipped with eight, five-pound engines built by Aerojet engineers, will search for water, amongst other lunar elements.

“Water is key because any kind of life as we know it needs water,” Schierberl noted.

He and project engineer, Kirkland resident Olwen Morgan, have been involved in working on formulas for much of the hardware that is made on-site, including the Viking Lander engine that soft landed on Mars in 1976. With 18 small nozzles the size of shot glasses, the engine can go up to 600 pounds of force – equivalent to 4,000 horse power, Schierberl said.

He explained how the mono-propellant engines are fueled by a liquid source called hydrazine, which is pumped through a small tube and mixes with a sand-like material, then goes through a nozzle that is “half the size of the ends of your fingers,” he said. “You’re taking space crafts that are sometimes the size of a school bus and you’re moving it with something like that.”

Schierberl described why spacecraft engines have to be made with precision.

“If you’re in Seattle and hitting a golf ball off of a flatbed truck going down I-5, 70 miles per hour and making a hole-in-one in Houston, Texas – it’s that kind of precision,” he said, noting that spacecraft travels at about 12,000 miles per hour and astronauts only get one shot at landing where they’re supposed to.

“I’m amazed they get a shuttle off the ground at all.”

Olwen said Aerojet’s contributions to space exploration has been “absolutely critical. From launch to spacecraft, if you don’t have propulsion, you can’t get there.”

Schierberl says he envisions future generations 100 years from now “where going to Mars is going to be commonplace and maybe even the general public will go.”

He hopes that students reading history books will see the company’s efforts with planetary missions as “the Christopher Columbus exploring the New World. That’s how I get excited every single day.”

When he came in to rocket research during the last of the Apollo days, he watched as that chapter moved into the days of the shuttle.

With only seven more shuttle launches until the shuttle expires in 2012, Schierberl said he is now witnessing another transition.

“It’s fun for me to watch the young engineers that get the enthusiasm that I had as we go into Orion,” he said of NASA’s next crew exploration vehicle that is expected to make its first flights to the International Space Station in 2014. “What’s going to be the next chapter in man’s involvement in space?”

Orion, which will use the same Aerojet engine that Apollo used, will send human explorers back to the moon, and then onward to Mars and other destinations in the solar system.

Schierberl hopes to get youth in the community interested about the space program.

“The glamor that was there in the ‘60s and ‘70s isn’t quite the same,” he said. “I’d like to get that enthusiasm going again.”

Aerojet currently partners with the University of Washington and hosts summer internships for students in their advanced degrees from universities, including the UW, MIT and Stanford. The company has also opened its campus to local elementary, junior, and high school students as an opportunity to learn about space programs.

“All we have to do is hook one or two of them and get them excited about space exploration,” Schierberl said of the students. “If we do that with ever graduating class, we’ll have a good core of engineers here.”

Aerojet is located at 11411 139th Pl. N.E., Redmond. For information, call 425-885-5000

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