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.

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