Saturday, October 16, 2010

Week in review (10/10 to 10/16)

It was in 2005 that a warning was issued that if we don't do something to improve our investments in science and technology, the United States would continue to slip against global competitors. Five years later, the National Academies revisited the issue and found we're still slipping.

The study, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm Revisited," lists several pages of disturbing “factoids” about the United States in the world stage. One really struck me: The U.S. graduates more visual arts and performing arts majors than engineers.

Should that really be a surprise? We’re fed a steady stream of information on the lavish lifestyles of those in the entertainment industry. It's the age of celebrity, where "reality" shows can rocket even the most untalented into fame and fortune. I'd guess my grandchildren and yours know who Snooki is, but not Nobel Prize winner Robert Edwards.

But there are some encouraging efforts in the Gulf Coast region to highlight science, technology, engineering and math as exciting fields to enter. These efforts recognize the value of making it as entertaining and engaging as possible.

In Mississippi, the Infinity Science Center, an interactive facility begin built near Stennis Space Center along Interstate 10, is beginning to take shape. Work began May 3 near the Welcome Center in South Mississippi not far from the state line with Louisiana.

About 90 percent of the steelwork is up and 80 percent of the concrete is done. A "topping off" will be celebrated in the next few weeks. The building is scheduled to be finished in August.

Backers are still raising some $2 million for the $12 million interactive exhibits. Infinity will highlight ocean, space and earth science through fun exhibits at the center. It's expected to open in the spring of 2012.

Infinity will add another piece to what's already available in this region to try to get young people interested in science and technology. We already have two museums that focus on aerospace: Pensacola's National Naval Aviation Museum and Eglin's Air Armament Museum. And in Mobile, there's the Gulf Coast Exploreum.

Pensacola is also creating a national flight academy. During the summer St. Joe, a Florida real estate development company, provided a $1.25 million donation. The academy, which will provide week-long sessions to students in 7th through 12th grades, is set to open in 2012. Its purpose is to motivate students to learn more about science, technology, engineering and math in what's called a "learning adventure."

What makes sense is for the various museums, learning centers and academies to work together at some point in the future to provide a package of learning experience for the nation's youth. It will be our part in helping to turn around the slide.

Helicopter repair firm Vector Aerospace will add 100 jobs to its Andalusia, Ala., operation. Mayor Earl Johnson said local governments will spend around $3 million to build a 42,000-square-foot building for Vector at the South Alabama Regional Airport.

Vector, of Canada, opened in Andalusia in 2008. The location is not far from two major bases that are heavy users of helicopters: Fort Rucker near Dothan, Ala., and Naval Air Station Whiting Field, near Milton, Fla.

But in another Vector development, the company plans to shed 30 jobs at its Almondbank facility in Scotland in a restructuring.

Unmanned Systems
Navy researchers want Sierra Nevada Corp. in Sparks, Nev., to develop an aircraft collision-avoidance system to enable unmanned aerial vehicles to operate in civil airspace without the risk of crashing into other aircraft. Military and Aerospace Electronics reports that the Office of Naval Research awarded the company a $6.2 million contract for the work.

The idea is to have the UAVs be able to sense and avoid other manned or unmanned aircraft while operating in the national air space, whether or not the other aircraft has its own collision-avoidance system. Sierra Nevada's initial work will focus on the MQ-8B Fire Scout, built in part in Moss Point, Miss., and Army Tier 2 RQ-7A/B Shadow 200.

Air Force researchers are pursuing a similar initiative called the Multi-Vehicle Unmanned Aircraft Systems Sense and Avoid program. The Air Force Research Laboratory awarded a contract in September to Barron Associates Inc. in Charlottesville, Va., and AeroMech Engineering Inc. in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Mississippi's Harrison County Development Commission has released its second annual report on the military in South Mississippi, and much of it aviation related.

The report highlights military activities at Harrison County's Keesler Air Force Base, Naval Construction Battalion Center Gulfport, the National Guard at Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport and the Coast Guard.

The publication also has stories about the Navy's activities at Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, Miss., and Hattiesburg's Camp Shelby.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I was involved in compiling the study. If you're interested in a copy of the report, visit the Harrison County Development Commission Web site and you can download a PDF of the 20-page report.

Raytheon Co., Tucson, Ariz., was awarded a $20.1 million contract which will provide for the next generation guidance section to design and build a new guidance section test position. At this time, the entire amount has been obligated. AAC/EBAC, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is the contracting activity.

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