RocketStars: Teamwork across companies makes the dream work

November 29, 2023

Engineers from United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Aerojet Rocketdyne, an L3Harris Technologies company, work hand in hand in the partnership behind the Centaur upper stage and its RL10 engine, now marking 60 years of success.
Meet Michael DeArce, ULA’s Centaur III lead on the Launch Ops team, and Ralph Bustamante, Aerojet Rocketdyne’s RL10 field service engineering representative for ULA. They are among dozens of people who work every day to ensure mission success when one of ULA’s upper stages takes flight powered by high-performance engines from the RL10 family.
“Ralph and I are always communicating with each other about RL10 mission processing. He is always there to support us during major RL10 operations, and we work together to coordinate any changes that need to be implemented for each mission. Ralph also does an excellent job looking out for us when it comes to Aerojet design changes that may impact how we operate in the field,” DeArce said.
“My focus is to help the Launch Ops team understand the engine operation and the nuances to facilitate check-out,” Bustamante added. “I help with the approval process for changing requirements relative to engine conditioning and preparations and promote streamlining of the engine processing for launch. Focusing on personnel and hardware safety along with mission success are paramount. Michael takes care of me by keeping me apprised of technical concerns and processing schedule/changes.”
RL10s power ULA’s Centaur III stages used on Atlas V, the Delta Cryogenic Second Stage (DCSS) for Delta IV Heavy, the new Centaur V for the next generation Vulcan rocket and the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) supplied to NASA’s Space Launch System for Artemis.
The first Centaur and RL10 pairing successfully launched 60 years ago, on Nov. 27, 1963. In the decades since, the duo has sent spacecraft to every planet in our solar system and launched countless national security, civil and commercial satellites as the most efficient upper stage in the world.
“I helped launch weather satellites that I see referenced on the news all the time, I also helped put two different payloads on the surface of Mars, including NASA’s Perseverance rover, and I get to give back to our military community by supporting some of the payloads that they need to protect us,” DeArce said.
DeArce, born in Boca Raton and a graduate of the University of Central Florida, started at ULA in 2016 as a manufacturing engineer and later joined the Centaur team. “I oversee and manage the day-to-day operations for the Centaur III team, ensuring we meet launch processing milestones and coordinating with design and other launch operation teams to help ensure mission success.”
Bustamante was born in Cienfuegos, Cuba, immigrated to the U.S. in 1962 and became a naturalized American citizen. A mechanical engineering graduate from the University of Florida in 1982, he has spent his entire 41-year career with the same company, albeit with different names over the years. He has worked on an advanced jet fighter gas turbine engine and was project engineer on an advanced helicopter engine program before moving into the RL10 engine program as a project/test engineer and the quality management lead.
“In 1992, the launch business began to grow, and an engineering field representative position opened up at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in support of the Atlas and Titan Centaur programs. To this day, I remain the Aerojet Rocketdyne/L3Harris RL10 field rep at the Cape,” said Bustamante.
“I have many duties and responsibilities as the sole RL10 field rep. My main emphasis is to support our customers and ensure the RL10 engine is properly configured and prepped for launch on the Atlas V, Delta IV, Vulcan and Artemis vehicles. This entails providing technical oversight and recommendations regarding the RL10 engine preservation and conditioning for launch. I oversee and direct all engine servicing required by Aerojet Rocketdyne by way of field service bulletins, which essentially is a must-conform engine configurational change, either in hardware or processing. I also provide on-console support of pre-launch conditioning and flight data review. Other duties include Aerojet Rocketdyne employee tours and customer training sessions. The field representative role is like an ambassador, so I strive to keep Aerojet Rocketdyne in a positive light at the launch sites and serve our customers to the best of my abilities.”
DeArce is a first-time dad and “sometimes it feels harder than manufacturing and launching rockets.” He enjoys spending time with friends and family on the water boating and fishing. 
Bustamante built his own house on Merritt Island and enjoys spending time with his grandchildren and physical fitness. “Work demands have kept me from doing any serious fishing, but I recently purchased a boat and plan to do more fishing in the near future. I also enjoy working-out four days of the week at a local fitness organization.”