Decatur remains in the running for a plant that will build the engines to power a new line of rockets, United Launch Alliance’s chief executive officer said.
Some modifications will be made to ULA’s plant on Alabama 20 when the aerospace company begins production of its next rocket, referred to as the Next Generation Launch System.
ULA has partnered with Washington state-based aerospace company Blue Origin to build the rocket’s engine, the BE-4. A production factory must be built and operational within three years, ULA CEO Tory Bruno said.
“Blue Origin has started and will continue its factory location search through the summer, and Decatur is on the list of sites being considered,” Bruno said.
Blue Origin representatives did not respond to phone calls from The Decatur Daily. The company is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
The Next Generation Launch System rocket will be in the developmental phase for a few years, Bruno said. When production begins, some modifications will be made to the 1.6 million-square-foot facility, such as moving walls or rearranging production lines inside the plant.
Morgan County Economic Development Association President Jeremy Nails said there have been no discussions about tax incentives regarding modifications to ULA’s plant.
The number of employees that will be hired during the production phase has not been determined. ULA employs about 800 at the plant.
Bruno did not disclose how much it will cost to build the rocket, but said it usually costs more than a billion dollars just to build a rocket engine.
The Next Generation Launch System will be responsible for national security space missions such as placing GPS space satellites, planet explorations, transporting American astronauts to space stations and commercial telecommunications space launches.
“We will be responsible for all missions that you could possibly think of in terms of American Air Force,” Bruno said.
ULA provides space launch services for the U.S. government and commercial companies. In 2014, ULA completed nine national security space launch missions, three space exploration missions and two commercial missions. All the rockets were assembled at the Decatur plant.
Nails said the site search for a Blue Origin engine plant is in its early stages, and he is still waiting to see what the requirements will be for Blue Origin’s factory.
Nails said Blue Origin knows Morgan County is interested in being chosen as the factory site. He said the county will be as competitive as it can be to make it happen.
“Everybody is on board, from the state all the way down to the local level,” he said.
Nails said he has no doubt Morgan County can provide the type of workforce needed for these jobs.
“We have a lot of good programs and initiatives in our two-year and four-year colleges and in our local school systems,” Nails said.
Decatur Mayor Don Kyle said ULA’s decision to build the Next Generation Launch System in Decatur ensures Morgan County will be part of U.S. space missions for years to come.
With the rocket production comes the possibility of suppliers moving into the area, which would generate even more jobs, Kyle said.
“This promises a long-term future for Morgan County’s workforce,” Kyle said. “As children grow up with these kinds of specialized jobs around them, they’ll view those jobs as being more attainable.”
The rocket is slated to be ready for its first launch in 2019, but Bruno said it will be 2022 or 2023 before the rocket becomes certified by the Air Force for national security space missions.
The rocket will have more capabilities and be more flexible and agile than any other ULA rocket, Bruno said. The Next Generation Launch System will cost less and take less time to build.
“It will be able to lift larger payloads into space, but it will also be able to handle smaller satellite payloads,” Bruno said.
Production of the BE-4 will begin at a Blue Origin factory in Seattle but will be moved to the permanent factory site.
“This will be the first engine in the world, anywhere near this size, to burn methane gas,” Bruno said.
Conventional aerospace engines burn kerosene fuel, he said. Methane gas costs less than kerosene and eliminates the need for the expensive pressurization systems used in existing engines.
The engine also will feature oxygen-rich staged combustion technology that will enable the rocket to perform at higher levels.
“This oxygen-rich staged combustion technology will give the rocket a higher performance level than any rocket engine in the U.S.,” Bruno said. “Russia’s RD-180 is the only other engine with that technology in America.”
ULA’s backup engine is from California-based Aerojet Rocketdyne. Its AR-1 engine is about one to two years behind the BE-4 developmentally, Bruno said. The AR-1 will burn kerosene fuel, but it will possess the same oxygen-rich staged combustion technology as the BE-4.
The rocket will be built in America and a significant portion of it will have American-made parts, but some of its parts will come from Switzerland and U.S. allies, Bruno said.
The Decatur Daily: By - Briana Harris