There are other satellite network projects underway, including Loral Corp.'s Globalstar, a 48-satellite system, and Rocketdyne is picking up launch business here. In the next two years 27 Delta rocket launches are scheduled, 19 for commercial jobs, including Iridium and rival satellite networks. (Boeing's latest acquisition, of McDonnell Douglas Corp., included the Delta rockets, for which Rocketdyne builds booster engines.)
"The business of space is very, very buoyant. And that's not just building rocket engines; people are buying more satellites," said Wolfgang Demisch, aerospace analyst for Bankers Trust New York Corp. "So I think Boeing is happy with the Rockwell acquisition."
Albaugh now talks of Rocketdyne's revenues leapfrogging 30% by the middle of the next decade, with half its business coming from commercial markets.
So for the first time this decade, the mood is brightening on the factory floor.
Frank Edwards, 62, Rocketdyne's manufacturing director for the space shuttle main engine, proudly remembers his start date: Oct. 22, 1956, a year after Rocketdyne opened. He also remembers the sting of the '90s layoffs, when NASA's budget was shrinking, and so was his staff.
"We were losing all these new young men and women. When you start losing your young people [in the workplace] it's like dying." Now, Edwards said, "this is the best of worlds. Hiring new, vibrant people, and their enthusiasm makes you feel younger."
Edwards grabs the arm of one of his newest recruits, Ryan Guerriero, 23, an engineer hired three months ago out of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He had other job offers, including a chance to work at Sony on futuristic TVs. But when Guerriero was a child, "I watched the first space shuttle land," and the magic of space has stayed inside him. "What we do goes up there with the stars, sun and moon. You see a mobile go up in the sky and we build the engine that puts it there. Only one company does that. Lots of companies make cars or potato chips. There's only one space shuttle engine," he said.
The walls at Rocketdyne's Canoga Park assembly plant are covered with American flags, NASA and Boeing logos, and a banner that reads: Cheaper, better, faster. Rocketdyne is pushing hard to do all three.
Factory charts are posted to track individual team performance. Edwards shows off one of the 3,000 parts that go into the space shuttle's main engine, an elaborate copper fuel channel the size of a kitchen table, with the bottom cut to within 1/2,000th of an inch. He points to a production chart: In the '80s it took 21,000 man-hours to produce one fuel channel; now it's done in 8,000 hours.
For all the recent changes, much of Rocketdyne's fortunes will still ride with NASA.
A key project is the X-33, a prototype for the next-generation space shuttle. NASA hopes it will evolve into a reusable fleet that can launch commercial and military space payloads at a fraction of the current cost.
The X-33 is designed by Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works in Palmdale, with Rocketdyne providing the engine. The unmanned X-33 weighs 136 tons and is shaped like the end of a bread loaf, with wings protruding from the sides. It's scheduled for a suborbital test flight in 1999 from Edwards Air Force Base, with a landing in Utah or Montana.
If the X-33 works, a full-sized space shuttle replacement--which Lockheed Martin calls the Venture Star--will be tested; again with Rocketdyne providing the engine. Rocketdyne has spent $270 million so far on its engine research.
The Venture Star will launch vertically on its own power, not strapped to a massive rocket like the current shuttle, and will fly back on its own power too, which in theory will make it cheaper and more reliable.
Rocketdyne is also working on a simplified, expendable Delta 4 rocket engine called the RS-68, with 90% fewer parts. It's intended to help meet an Air Force goal to slash by half the current $12,000-a-pound cost to hoist a payload into orbit.
And Rocketdyne is plugging away on laser projects, including an airborne laser to be used by Air Force 747s to obliterate enemy missiles. It also has a Chemical Oxygen Iodine laser, designed for installation on military vehicles and ships, to blow up enemy tanks and other weaponry.
Tom Ferguson, 42, a Rocketdyne engineer since 1981, keeps seeing new faces in the hallways, and he likes it. "It was dry for years. And the mood is different. Everybody is very busy. People are happy. It's the good times again."