Saturday, January 23, 2010

Week in review (1/17 to 1/23)

Little doubt one of the more interesting aerospace news items for the Gulf Coast region during the week continued to be the Army's decision to end its involvement in the Fire Scout unmanned helicopter. But just as interesting was the decision to slow down the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.

The lesson from both: money's tight, and the Pentagon is looking for ways to save money.

The Army decided to disengage from Fire Scout in the belief that it can upgrade its Shadow UAVs with new sensors to get the job done. Fire Scout had been part of the now defunct Future Combat Systems family of unmanned vehicles, an ambitious, expensive project. But the realities of fighting two wars has forced the Pentagon to look at more immediate needs.

The Army's decision was not welcome news for the Northrop Grumman Unmanned Systems Center in Moss Point, Miss. It does the finishing work on Fire Scouts, and the cancelation of the Army Fire Scouts means the center will build 600 fewer Fire Scouts than originally planned.

That certainly puts the brakes on the growth of the Moss Point center, but it still has plenty of work. But the center is still building Fire Scouts for the Navy, and it also does fuselage work on Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk. And Northrop is continuing to pitch the Fire Scout to other potential customers.

Concerning the F-35, the Pentagon has decided to slow down the testing and acquisition of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter - but it remains firmly behind the program. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said during a briefing that the path had been too aggressive, and there’s an effort underway to lengthen the test period, increase test assets and make the production rate less ambitious.

The F-35 will be ready for initial operational capability with the Air Force in 2013, Schwartz said. For Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., which is scheduled to be home to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter training center, that will likely mean a delay in when the first fighters will arrive.

First stage engine testing for the Taurus 2 rocket at Stennis Space Center, Miss., is expected in April or May. Orbital Sciences is still hoping for a March 2011 debut of the company’s medium-lift Taurus 2 rocket. Orbital is building the Taurus 2 to launch the company's Cygnus cargo freighter to the International Space Station. The Taurus 2 rocket first stage will use a pair of kerosene-fueled AJ26 main engines provided by Aerojet Corp. The first batch of AJ26 engines is slated to arrive at Stennis no earlier than March.

- NASA’s Shared Services Center at Stennis Space Center will manage a contract extension awarded to Lockheed Martin to continue the Outsourcing Desktop Initiative. The contract extension has a value of about $230 million and will continue through Oct. 31, 2011. Agency-wide services under the ODIN master contract and center delivery orders include desktop hardware and software, personal digital assistants, telephone operations, network services, information technology security and other services.

- The NASA Global Hawk unmanned aircraft completed 10.4 hours for pilot training and flight characterization in preparation for the Global Hawk Pacific Campaign set to start this spring. Five flights have been completed since the first flight of AV-6 on Oct. 23. Prior to this, the aircraft had not flown in more than 6 years. AV-6 is being modified to carry eleven earth science sensors in preparation for GloPac. Plans are still on track to use Global Hawks in August and September 2010 to track hurricanes for the Genesis and Rapid Intensification Process Experiment.

- NASA astronauts were at Stennis Space Center during the week to thank employees for their work. Five of the six members of the Space Shuttle Crew Atlantis flew to Stennis, where space shuttle engines are tested. The Atlantis returned to earth in late November. The crew's 13 day mission included a trip to the International Space Station to deliver supplies and bring one of the astronauts back home.

Mobile, Ala., Mayor Sam Jones wants President Barack Obama to reverse the Pentagon's plan and buy aerial tankers both Boeing and the Northrop Grumman/EADS team as a major job creation program. Jones, in a letter to Obama, said that would create nearly 100,000 jobs nationwide and help retire the existing fleet seven years earlier. He delivered the letter Thursday during a meeting at the White House with other city mayors. The Northrop/EADS team wants to assemble the planes in Mobile, Ala.

- The Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Norton Schwartz, says changes to the request for proposals for the aerial tanker will “lessen the financial risk” for bidders. But he characterizes the changes as “modest.” Schwartz says the final RFP will be issued within a month of the fiscal 2011 budget release scheduled for Feb. 1. Boeing and the Northrop Grumman/EADS team are expected to bid for the work, though Northrop has threatened not to bid if the RFP is not changed.

- Boeing's representative in France during the week accused the European nation of shielding its defense market behind a wall of "extreme protectionism." Yves Galland said Paris had few lessons to give America on opening up to foreign suppliers. Boeing is in a battle with Europe’s EADS/Airbus to supply tankers to the U.S. Air Force. Airbus and U.S. partner Northrop Grumman have called the draft request for proposal tilted in Boeing’s favor.

Oceanographers from the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command at Stennis Space Center, Miss., are conducting hydrographic surveys of ports of interest around Haiti to determine navigational hazards for ships bringing aid to Haiti. Personnel from the command’s Naval Oceanographic Office have also conducted airborne lidar surveys of Port-au-Prince using the CHARTS system aboard a Beechcraft King Air 200 aircraft. Other NAVO personnel are aboard the naval survey ship USNS Henson.

- The Flying Jennies of the 403rd Wing at Keesler returned home from four months in Southeast Asia. The Reservists of the 403rd's 815th Airlift Squadron set a record by airdropping 801 bundles in 24 missions over a one-week period. They logged 2,500 hours in just three months. Flying the C-130J-30 model aircraft, the 815th airdropped nearly 5,000 tons of cargo, including ammunition, medical supplies, food and water – and “care packages” with comfort items. They also flew more than 20,000 passengers and 500 aeromedical evacuation passengers during the deployment.

Sikorsky Support Services Inc., Pensacola, Fla., was awarded a $7 million modification to a previously awarded indefinite-delivery requirements contract to provide aircraft maintenance and logistics support for the T-34C at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas and NAS Whiting Field, Fla.

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