Sunday, January 4, 2009

Week in review (12/28 to 01/03)

It's a story playing out behind the scenes, for the most part. But it will have an impact on the Gulf Coast Aerospace Corridor. If it turns out one way, it could slow down considerably the growth of the region around the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

There's an ongoing debate about the launch vehicle NASA plans to use to send astronauts back into space in the Constellation Program. The Orlando Sentinel last week published about as detailed a story about the issue as any I've seen. (Story). The New York Times also did a piece about NASA's future. (Story)

To bring you up to speed, NASA a few years back opted to develop the Ares I and Ares V to bring astronauts and payload, respectively, back into space. Ares V is the heavy lift version, designed to bring supplies. Ares I is designed to lift astronauts and the Orion vehicle. NASA chief Michael Griffin has maintained that Ares I is the safest, most reliable system. Modified military rockets, specifically Atlas V and Delta IV, can’t handle the chore, he says.

But not everyone agrees. The Sentinel says interviews and documents it obtained show military rockets can do the job for billions less and possibly sooner than Ares I. You can be sure that during this year the issue will continue to be debated.

But neither story, of course, discusses how a decision on the launch vehicle could impact the Gulf Coast region. As it stands now, the second stage of the Ares I will be built by Boeing at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, which is also where the final assembly integration and checkout of the Ares I avionics systems will be done as well. The first stage is being built by Alliant Techsystems (ATK) at its Thiokol plant in Utah.

Stennis Space Center in Mississippi is also involved in the Ares I. That’s where J-2X engines used in Ares I are being assembled and tested by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne. Stennis is building a new test stand for that very purpose, and an existing stand is also being modified.

The alternative launch systems, Atlas V and Delta IV, are built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, in Decatur, Ala, not far from Huntsville. The Delta IV uses the RS-68, and Stennis does assemble and test that engine. But Stennis doesn’t test any propulsion system for the Atlas V.

Should the Barack Obama administration opt for the Atlas V and Delta IV, the beneficiary will certainly be Decatur and the Huntsville area. The end of Ares I would not kill Constellation work at Michoud Assembly Facility - it will still have work on the Orion, the capsule that will bring the astronauts into space, as well as Ares V in the future. But the loss of Ares I would be a blow nonetheless, and put a brake on the broader vision.

NASA has made no secret of its desire to turn the Michoud Assembly Facility into a major fabrication hub for the Constellation Program. The agency wants to create a technology park on unused acreage surrounding Michoud, and is building an R&D center there. Some have envisioned a space corridor growing between Michoud and Stennis - and a group has formed in Louisiana and Mississippi to push that idea.

You can bet there are plenty of people working behind the scenes on this. It may not be as highly publicized as the battle to build Air Force tankers in Mobile, Ala., but make no mistakes, it's significant for the growth of the aerospace corridor region.

One other issue that will likely be a hot topic in 2009: the movement of the nation's defense companies towards getting a piece of the growing cybersecurity business.

Bloomberg last week wrote that aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin are throwing resources into cyberspace, a market that could reach $11 billion in four years. To capture some of this market, Boeing formed a new business unit in August, and Lockheed did the same thing in October. (Story)

Bloomberg notes that Raytheon, L-3 Communications and SAIC Inc., also have cybersecurity units. They will be competing for dollars with companies that for some time now have been involved in protecting computers systems: McAfee and Symantec.

The interest in cybersecurity goes well beyond these defense companies. The Air Force in 2008 made a big push to pull cybersecurity under its wing. There were plans to set up a separate Cyberspace Command, and a lot of economic development officials - including those on the Gulf Coast - pushed to land the command. The Air Force later dialed down its ambitious project. Still, it shows just how hot the topic has been.

We took advantage of what amounted to a slow news week to add some additional resources to our site. You can now get access to all the press releases from Airbus, Alliant Techsystems (ATK), Goodrich, Pratt & Whitney and Raytheon on our primary news page. They join BAE Systems, EADS North America, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Rolls-Royce, which we’ve offered for some time now.

Those companies all have operations in the Gulf Coast Aerospace Corridor region, and our thought is to provide you with convenient access to all their releases, though we monitor them regularly to ensure you are aware of releases that have some relevance for the Gulf Coast.

Even in a slow week, there was some activity relevant to the corridor. The Air Force awarded a firm fixed-price contract to the McDonnell Douglas Corp. of St. Louis, Mo., for $13.8 million. It allows McDonnell, now a part of Boeing, to provide various test assets in support of The Small Diameter Bomb I program. Eglin Air Force Base in Florida s the contracting activity.

Two companies with operations on the Gulf Coast, Goodrich and Rolls-Royce, inked that agreement to form a joint venture company to develop and supply engine controls for Rolls-Royce aero engines. The venture, Rolls-Royce Goodrich Engine Control Systems Limited, operates as Aero Engine Controls. Rolls-Royce tests engines at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi and has a foundry in Pascagoula, Miss. Goodrich has a service center in Foley, Ala.

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