Saturday, February 27, 2010

Week in review (2/21 to 2/27)

For those who already figure the Constellation Program is dead, consider something reported Feb. 15 in Space News. Members of the House warned NASA administrator Charles Bolden that a provision in a 2010 omnibus spending bill bars the agency from terminating any part of the space shuttle replacement effort without formal congressional approval.

A letter to Bolden spearheaded by Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, and signed by 19 other Republicans and four Democrats says the group has become aware of the formation of at least five "tiger teams" whose job is to shut down Constellation and transition to the new program. The letter instructs Bolden to reinstate an unspecified "major contract related to Ares I" that was put on hold Jan. 23. They said any disruption to Constellation contracts will be viewed as a program termination.

- If you closely follow the aerospace activities in the Gulf Coast region, you might have been puzzled by the "news" during the week that Aerojet AJ26 rocket engines would be tested at Mississippi's John C. Stennis Space Center.

The "news" is about 14 months old.

It was back in December 2008 that Stennis first announced it would be testing the engines that will power Orbital Science's Taurus II medium-lift launch vehicle and the company's Cygnus cargo freighter. The freighter will be used to ferry supplies to the International Space Station after the retirement of the space shuttle.

The stories pointed out that the testing is somehow connected to the new direction for NASA proposed by the Obama administration. Well, yes, it does fit in nicely with that new direction, but actually the testing is part of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services Space Act Agreement, which dates back to early 2006. Work on the E-1 test stand and construction of a 27-foot-deep flame deflector trench began in April 2009.

So, did it mark a new direction for Stennis? Hardly. Since Stennis first opened in the 1960s, commercial companies have been testing engines and engine components. Some of the testing has been for NASA programs, some not. The RS-68 used in the Delta IV is one example of some non-NASA commercial work, and so, too is the testing of Rolls-Royce Trent engines.

Back in 2008, NASA expected the first delivery of the kerosene-fueled AJ26 in 2009, and the launch of Taurus II from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia was expected at the end of 2010. Under the separate Commercial Resupply Services program, eight additional missions are slated between 2011 and 2015.

But that original timetable has been pushed back. In January, Spaceflight reported that the first batch of AJ26 engines would not arrive at Stennis until March, with testing in April or May. Spaceflight also reported that Orbital Sciences now hopes for a March 2011 launch of the Taurus II.

During the week the Air Force released the final terms for the $35 billion aerial tanker competition. The changes from the draft RFP were minimal, and that made Boeing backers happy and Northrop Grumman backers irritated.

Now the big question is, will Northrop Grumman follow through with its threat to stay out of the bidding?

Boeing and the Northrop Grumman/EADS team both want to build the tankers, and it's significant for the Gulf Coast region because Northrop/EADS would assemble them in Mobile, Ala.

Northrop has said for some time now that the RFP, unlike the previous competition that Northrop won, favors the smaller Boeing plane. The Air Force has said it would like to see both teams compete, but it’s willing to move forward even with one bid.

Gov. Chris Gregoire of Washington state and the governors of eight other states that stand to gain with a Boeing win were in Washington D.C., Monday to announce formation of "U.S. Tanker 2010." About the same time, a new effort was launched to push for awarding the contract to both Boeing and Northrop. It's called, which claims 100,000 U.S. jobs would be created by building two different tankers.

Regent Aerospace of Valencia, Calif., will open a facility in Mobile, Ala., at Brookley Industrial Complex, adjacent to ST Aerospace Mobile. The company plans a two-phase entry into the Mobile market, first with 90 people at the former DHL building to perform aircraft interior refurbishing work, then later with the purchase, lease or construction of a larger facility to double the workforce.

Regent has seven facilities in the United States and one each in China and France. The company performs aircraft refurbishments for airlines and manufactures aircraft parts and survival equipment.

The city of Valparaiso, Fla., and the Air Force may be close to settling a lawsuit filed almost a year ago, according to the Northwest Florida Daily News. Nearby Eglin Air Force Base is slated to become home of the Joint Strike Fighter training center, but Valparaiso has been concerned about noise from the F-35.

The city sued the Air Force in March 2009 over use of a runway near the city without consideration of other options. But the Valparaiso city attorney, without providing details, indicated a settlement may be near and discussions would end soon.

- Delta Air Lines will add two additional flights per day with larger aircraft when the new Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport near Panama City, Fla., opens in late May. The airport executive director said the new jets will be 140-seat MD-88s. Delta currently uses Atlantic Southeast Airlines and its regional Bombardier Canadair jets in the 50- and 70-seat range.

- Passenger traffic at Alabama's Mobile Regional Airport in 2009 almost broke even compared to 2008. Nearby neighbors did not fare as well as Mobile, with Mississippi's Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport and Florida's Pensacola Gulf Coast Regional Airport both suffering declines steeper than the national average.

Northrop Grumman Systems Corp., Annapolis, Md., is being awarded a $49 million contract for services and materials for depot level repair and maintenance of airborne mine countermeasures systems. Work will be performed in Panama City, Fla., and is expected to be completed by February 2015. … NASA's Stennis Space Center awarded a contract to ASRC Research and Technology Solutions LLC, a small business in Greenbelt, Md., to provide information and technical services at the center. The two-year contract, which includes three one-year options, is valued at $54.5 million.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Week in review (2/14 to 2/20)

Add the Joint Airborne Lidar Bathymetry Technical Center of Expertise in Hancock County, Miss., to the list of organizations that have played a role in helping Haiti after the Jan. 12 earthquake.

The Compact Hydrographic Airborne Rapid Total Survey (CHARTS) system aboard a twin-engine Beechcraft King Air B200 aircraft was deployed for five days by Stennis Space Center's Naval Oceanographic Office to get imagery and collect data of ports and harbors in Haiti.

The airborne CHARTS system is designed for rapid coastal hydrographic surveys, and the images provided responders with information about underwater obstructions. When the earthquake struck, the CHARTS detachment was engaged in a hydrographic survey project in the Republic of Nicaragua. They broke off from that assignment to help in the Haiti effort.

The Beechcraft with the CHARTS system is operated by the Joint Airborne Lidar Bathymetry Technical Center of Expertise, located just outside Stennis Space Center at the Stennis International Airport. It's a joint federa operation that supports coastal mapping and charting requirements of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A Northrop Grumman team was in North Carolina during the week to enlist the state as an ally in the battle to build Air Force tankers. Boeing and Northrop both want to win a $40 billion contract to build tankers.

Northrop won the contract two years ago, but Boeing successfully had it overturned. Northrop has said it won't submit a bid if the current draft for proposal, which it says favors the smaller Boeing plane, isn't changed.

The Northrop team told state officials a Northrop/EADS win would mean 1,500 jobs in the state. Rep. Pryor Gibson said that if Northrop's numbers are true, he'll write to the Pentagon and White House in support.

The Air Force is bracing for a possible sole-source bid from Boeing. Lt. Gen. Mark Shackelford, military deputy in charge of acquisition for the Air Force, said the Pentagon is following a policy of "don't change anything that potentially favors one competitor over another." The final terms for the competition will be released between Tuesday and the end of the month.

The Northrop and EADS plans to assemble the planes in Mobile, Ala., if they win the contract.

Unmanned systems
The RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aircraft surpassed 30,000 combat flying hours and 1,500 combat sorties earlier this month during deployment in Southwest Asia. The Global Hawks are assigned to the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing from Beale Air Force Base, Calif., and provide a broad spectrum of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance collection capability to support joint combatant forces.

The 380th AEW Global Hawks reached their 1,500th combat sortie on Feb. 10. The RQ-4 arrived to this deployed location in October 2001 as a test platform and was never intended to fly as many sorties as it has. Global Hawks are built in part at the Northrop Grumman Unmanned Systems Center in Moss Point, Miss.

- Although the Army recently dropped plans to buy Fire Scout unmanned helicopters from Northrop Grumman, the company successfully demonstrated the MQ-8B Fire Scout's resupply capabilities during the Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiment at Fort Benning, Ga.

The Fire Scout had two ruggedized containers attached to external pylons. The Fire Scout also used its electro-optical/infrared optical payload during the mission to practice reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition techniques. Fire Scouts are built in part in Moss Point, Miss.

Joint Strike Fighter
The Air Force is re-evaluating when the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will be ready for service. Air Combat Command chief Gen. William Fraser said at a symposium in Orlando, Fla., that the program restructuring announced Feb. 1 will extend the plane's system design and development phase until 2015. That could impact the date the planes are ready for service.

At the same conference, a Lockheed Martin vice president said the U.S. Air Force officially becomes the first F-35 customer later this year when the first of the stealth fighters is delivered to Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., which is scheduled to become home to the JSF training center. Steve O'Bryan, Lockheed Martin vice president of F-35 Business Development and Customer Engagement, said the first two production F-35s are in final assembly at Lockheed's plant in Fort Worth, Texas.

Earlier in the week, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz told reporters that the F-35 program is likely to breach Nunn-McCurdy limits on per-unit cost growth, which would likely require a formal notice to Congress.

- A third F-35B Joint Strike Fighter arrived during the week at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., to begin testing. The short takeoff/vertical landing joins two other F-35B aircraft at the naval base.

The jet, known as BF-3, took off from Fort Worth, Texas Wednesday and arrived at NAS Patuxent River three hours and 10 minutes later. The plane will be used to evaluate vehicle systems and will also focus on weapons testing. It will carry and release most of the weapons the F-35B will use in combat.

No doubt folks from Stennis Space Center, Miss., and Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans are paying close attention to all the maneuvering going on over the Constellation Program, NASA's project to send astronauts back to the moon and beyond. The Obama budget provides no money to continue the program, but forces are gathering to save it.

A group of North Alabama leaders concerned over the proposed changes to Marshall Space Flight Center-managed rocket programs have formed a task force in an effort to restore funding cuts. The "Second to None Initiative" brings together 25 community leaders, led by former Huntsville U.S. Rep. Bud Cramer. Cramer, along with Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, promised to work with members of Congress from both political parties to restore the programs.

In Nassau Bay, Texas, Congressman Pete Olson led something of a pep rally during the week, aimed at saving the Constellation program. Olson told those gathered that scuttling Constellation will "possibly be the loss of human space flight forever."

Olson pledged to fight to put Constellation back into the budget. "The president doesn't have the final say on this, Congress does," Olson said at the gathering.

Meanwhile, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, a former NASA shuttle astronaut, said in an interview with Florida Today that Constellation as it was envisioned is unlikely to be revived, but manned space flight is not dead.

- Lockheed Martin said during the week that it's achieved a key integrated test milestone on the second Space-Based Infrared System geosynchronous orbit satellite. SBIRS is designed to provide early warning of missile launches and support other missions.

The GEO-2 satellite completed its first phase of Baseline Integrated System Test (BIST-1), which establishes a performance baseline for the remainder of the test program. The spacecraft is planned for launch aboard an Atlas V in 2012. Lockheed Martin Mississippi Space & Technology Center at Stennis Space Center, Miss., builds subsystems for the SBIRS.

Quarterly reports
Singapore Technologies Engineering said profit fell 6 percent for the year as the firm's aerospace division struggled with the worldwide recession. Profit fell to $314.5 million while revenue grew 4 percent for the year to $3.93 billion. The company is the parent of ST Aerospace Mobile, which employs 1,300 at Mobile's Brookley Field Industrial Complex in Alabama, and VT Halter Marine, which employs 1,100-plus at shipyards in Pascagoula, Moss Point and Escatawpa, Miss.

Hensel Phelps Construction, Orlando, Fla., was awarded a $37.6 million contract for Special Forces complex Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. The project is for construction of the primary facilities. U.S. Corps of Engineers, Mobile Regional Contracting Center, Mobile, Ala., is the contracting activity.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Week in review (2/7 to 2/13)

It looks like the stars are lining up against Northrop Grumman, EADS and Mobile, Ala., in the $40 billion aerial tanker project. The latest bit of bad news was the death of Rep. John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who was among the first to advocate buying planes from both Boeing and the Northrop/EADS team.

Murtha, who had been suffering from complications from gallbladder surgery, died Monday at age 77. The chairman of the powerful House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee will be replaced by Norm Dicks, D-Wash., who has been called the congressman from Boeing.

Analysts are saying Dicks will have to take a more statesman-like approach as chairman of the subcommittee, but that's probably little consolation to the Northrop/EADS team, which wanted to assemble tankers at Mobile's Brookley complex. Northrop has already said the draft request for proposals favors the smaller Boeing plane, and has threatened to stay out of the bidding if it's not changed. But the Pentagon is showing no inclination to change the final RFP expected to be released no earlier than Feb. 23. Dicks' elevation to the chairmanship is likely to give Northrop/EADS another reason to pass on bidding for the project.

In Paris earlier in the week, French Defense Minister Hervé Morin said he told U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates that he hoped EADS and Northrop Grumman would get a fair chance to compete for the refueling tanker. He said he reminded Gates "that when one is a country that stands up for the market economy, it can't be a one-way street." Oddly enough, less than a month ago Boeing's representative in France accused the French of shielding their own defense market behind a wall of "extreme protectionism." Yves Galland in January said Paris had few lessons to give America on opening up to foreign suppliers.

Meanwhile, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., doesn't appear to be giving up on drawing attention to the tanker project. The senator put a blanket hold on President Obama's nominees, then later lifted most of them. Shelby issued the holds over concerns about the tanker process as well as the loss of funding for counterterrorism center that would benefit Huntsville, Ala. Though he lifted most of the holds, he still has holds on nominees directly related to the tanker project.

- Although Boeing and Northrop Grumman are locked in battle over the tanker project, that doesn't mean they can't work together on other projects. They can and do, on a regular basis. The most recent example came during the week with the successful test of an airborne laser system. In the test over the Pacific, a Boeing 747 equipped with a huge Northrop Grumman laser gun shot down a missile. It was a major milestone in the development of the nation's missile defense system, and could wind up freeing up more money for the project.

At Stennis Space Center, Miss., Pratt and Whitney Rocketdyne completed the initial step in certifying the RS-68A rocket engine by successfully hot-fire testing the first certification engine.

The RS-68A is an upgrade of the RS-68, a liquid-hydrogen/liquid-oxygen booster engine that will provide increased thrust and improved fuel efficiency for the Delta IV family of launch vehicles.

During the hot-fire test at Stennis, the first RS-68A certification engine successfully burned for 190 seconds, with operating time split between 102 percent and 55 percent power levels. Pratt and Whitney Rocketdyne will hot-fire test the first RS-68A certification engine a minimum of 12 times through February and follow that with a similar series of hot-fire tests on its second certification engine in March and April.

- NASA presented its highest honor for quality and performance, the George M. Low Award, to two companies during NASA's seventh annual Project Management Challenge in Galveston, Texas. The winners were United Space Alliance of Houston and Applied Geo Technologies of Choctaw, Miss. Tribally owned AGT provides scientific, laboratory and geographic analysis services, maintains measurement standards and calibrates and repairs instrumentation at NASA's Stennis Space Center, Miss. AGT received the award in the small business service category.

Pilots from the Netherlands trained during the week at Stennis International Airport in Hancock County, Miss. They were training to become part of the Dutch F-16 flight demonstration team. They chose Hancock County in part because of the less-crowded air space.

- The first international airline to offer direct service to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina is reducing service to the city next month. AeroMexico has offered nonstop flights to Mexico City that continued on to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, from New Orleans since July. The flights operated six times a week. According to AeroMexico's Web site, flights will be available in March only on Mondays and Fridays.

Work is continuing at Florida's Eglin Air Force Base on the 2010 Open House and Air Show. The event, scheduled for April 10 and 11, is the first since 2007. This year's theme is "75 Years of Eglin Pride." The Air Force Thunderbirds, a precision flying team, and the Army's Black Daggers, a parachute demonstration team, are already confirmed performers for both days.

Global Hawk
A Global Hawk unmanned reconnaissance aircraft has flown six missions and provided more than 3,600 images of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and other areas damaged by the Jan. 12 earthquake and aftershocks. The day after the quake, an Air Force Block 10 Global Hawk was diverted by the 12th Reconnaissance Squadron at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., from its trip to support operations in Afghanistan. It’s been operating out of Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Md. Global Hawks are built in part in Moss Point, Miss.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Week in review (1/31 to 2/6)

Organizations that have been backing the Northrop Grumman/EADS bid to win the tanker project have apparently seen the writing on the wall and are now throwing their lot in with the idea of a dual tanker buy.

The Aerospace Alliance, the marketing partnership of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Northwest Florida, now says it supports buying aerial refueling tankers from both Boeing and Northrop Grumman/EADS. Boeing would build the planes in Washington state, and Northrop/EADS would build them in a still-unbuilt plant in Mobile, Ala.

The group's Web site during the week posted a story saying a dual purchase would mean 36 tankers a year rather than 12 and create up to 100,000 jobs nationwide. Back in October when the alliance was established, it said its priority was to support Northrop/EADS' effort to win the competition. Now it's shifted to a dual tanker buy, and it's not hard to see why.

It boils down to what's in the draft request for proposal. The Northrop/EADS team says the current version favors the smaller planes being offered by Boeing, and if it's not changed, Northrop says it won't bid. The company believes that would be a waste of money. The Pentagon, for its part, has indicated it will not be making any major changes to the RFP that will be released this month. The Pentagon expects to award the $35 billion contract for the tanker this summer and allocated $12 billion to pay for the program over the next five fiscal years.

- Politics continues to insert itself in the entire process. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., during the week placed a hold on President Obama's nominees. A spokesman said Shelby is concerned about the tanker request for proposal. But that's not the only Alabama-related project that concerns him. A statement from Shelby's office said he's concerned the president's proposed 2011 budget rescinds funds to build the FBI Terrorist Explosives Devices Analytical Center in Huntsville, Ala.

- While all this was going on, an Airbus A330 tanker transport marked a new milestone with the aerial refueling of a French Air Force E-3F AWACS radar aircraft. The plane, which is much like the KC-45 that would be built in Mobile, transferred more than 65,000 pounds of fuel during two missions. The latest refueling missions were part of the flight test and military certification program for the Royal Australian Air Force’s A330. Australia has ordered five aircraft, the first of which will be delivered later this year.

If you think the tanker project is political, just sit back and watch what happens in another field that's crucial to the Gulf Coast region. The president sent his proposed budget to Congress early in the week, and, as expected, it included no money for NASA's plan to send astronauts to the moon. The agency will get $19 billion under the Obama plan, but none of the money will go to the Constellation program.

The budget proposal does extend the commitment to the International Space Station, and provides $6 billion to invest in a plan to have commercial companies develop a space taxi to get astronauts to the ISS.

Politicians with NASA facilities in their state and companies that are involved in Constellation are raising a stink. Shelby says the budget "begins the death march for the future of U.S. human space flight."

- As if to affirm the new direction, on the same day the president's budget was given to Congress, NASA awarded $50 million in stimulus money to five teams in support of the transportation of crew to and from the International Space Station. Sierra Nevada Corp. of Louisville, Colo., was awarded $20 million and Boeing in Houston was awarded $18 million. United Launch Alliance of Centennial, Colo., Blue Origin of Kent, Wash., and Paragon Space Development Corp., Tucson, Ariz., will get $6.7 million, $3.7 million and $1.4 million, respectively.

- Despite the changes being sought by the Obama, work will continue on the A-3 rocket test stand at Stennis Space Center, Miss. Stennis Director Gene Goldman said construction could take another year and a half on the $300 million project. Goldman said $157 million has been spent already, with about $43 million more contracted. Goldman also doesn't expect the president's plan to create a loss of civil service employees, but he won't know the status on contract labor for several months. Stennis has more than 400 civil servants and more than 1,800 contractors.

There was a shakeup during the week in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he'd replace the general in charge of the program and withhold $614 million in award fees from contractor Lockheed Martin.

The Pentagon plans to buy more than 2,400 F-35s over the next 25 years for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. Gates disclosed the changes as he released the Pentagon's proposed $708.3 billion spending package for fiscal 2011. Gates said during the week that the services will receive F-35s on time but in smaller numbers.

Gates, who testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the Pentagon's fiscal 2011 budget request, said fewer F-35s will be produced during the initial years of production than originally anticipated. The first training squadron of JSFs will still arrive at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., in 2011. The Marine Corps will start receiving its version of the F-35 in 2012, the Air Force in 2013 and the Navy in 2014.

- Pratt and Whitney delivered the first F135 production engine for the F-35 JSF. The engine has accrued more than 13,000 hours in testing during the development program. Meanwhile, Wyle air crew personnel became the first aviators to aerially refuel the F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing variant of the F-35 using a probe-and-drogue refueling system during a recent mission at Lockheed Martin’s Ft. Worth, Texas, manufacturing facility.

- In another aircraft program, the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field, Fla., is putting the final touches on a new gunship program, with plans to have the first AC-130J delivered by fiscal year 2014, with the remaining 15 by fiscal year 2018. That’s according to Inside Defense.

The new gunship will replace the AC-130H. According to Inside Defense, the AC-130J will have the capability of being able to strike two targets simultaneously with precision weapons. In addition, the AC-130J will have a standoff capability to engage long-range targets. And that's a big plus for SOF troops on the ground who rely on the gunship to take out enemy targets. A stand-off weapons helps keep their position a secret.

Unmanned systems
The rate of growth has slowed somewhat, but unmanned aerial vehicles continue to be the most dynamic growth sector of the world aerospace industry. The Teal Group's 2010 market study estimates that UAV spending will more than double over the next decade from current worldwide UAV expenditures of $4.9 billion annually to $11.5 billion, totaling just over $80 billion in the next ten years. That's of interest to this region because Global Hawk and Fire Scout unmanned systems are built in part in Moss Point, Miss.

The Air Force awarded the 720th Special Tactics Group of Hurlburt Field, Fla., with the Gallant Unit Citation for heroism in combat. The award was given for the unit's work through all of 2006 and 2007 in Afghanistan. The 720th was the only Air Force unit to receive a Gallant Unit Citation during that period.

4Q reports
Northrop Grumman posted a fourth-quarter net earnings of $413 million and 2009 net earnings of $1.7 billion. Last year the company reported a fourth quarter net loss of $2.5 billion and net loss for the year of $1.3 billion. Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman has multiple operations in the Gulf Coast region.

NorthWest Florida Contractors Inc., Fort Walton Beach, Fla., was awarded an $8 million contract to provide all plant, materials, labor, equipment, and operations for construction of various reinforced concrete targets at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. 96 CONS/PKA, Eglin Air Force Base is the contracting activity.