Saturday, December 4, 2010

Week in review (11/28 to 12/4)

Another delay in the launch of Discovery, the F-35 cost controversy, a new Boeing operation in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., praise for the Fire Scout unmanned helicopter and a super secret Air Force unmanned space vehicle were all a part of the aerospace news of interest to the Gulf Coast region during the week.

First, an item of interest to Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., which is scheduled to become the home of an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Training Center. The Pentagon is drawing a line on the cost of the Lockheed Martin plane. The cost has almost doubled to $92 million a jet since 2002, Ashton Carter, the defense acquisition chief said during the week.

The Pentagon has maintained an option to buy more Boeing F- 18s if development of the F-35 falters. Boeing has said it can supply more F-18 Super Hornets or F-15 Strike Eagles if needed. The Super Hornet costs less than $50 million per unit. (Story)

Lockheed Martin said it shares Pentagon concerns about cost increases and testing delays, but said changes are being made to ensure the fighter remained affordable. But the eventual fate of the short takeoff version of the F-35 could impact the cost.

Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright said during the week that officials were considering whether it would still be economical to build the Marine Corps version now that Britain has opted for a different variant. That could affect Lockheed's ability to produce the plane economically since the sole remaining customers would be the Marines and Italy. (Story)

Meanwhile, engine-supplier Pratt & Whitney hopes to sign for a fourth batch of F-35 engines within weeks. It accepted a government request to negotiate a fixed-price incentive contract instead of the originally planned cost-plus deal. This covers 31 F-35s powered by Pratt F135 engines. The company wants to get the F135 down to the same cost as the F-22s F119 engine by the 250th delivery. (Story)

Boeing jobs
Boeing's Defense, Space and Security division plans to open a technical publication organization in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., according to a story in the Wichita Eagle during the week.

It's not yet known how the change will impact the 700 employees who work in technical publications for Boeing's defense business, said Boeing Wichita spokesman Jarrod Bartlett. According to the newspaper, the site is scheduled to open in 2012, he said.

Boeing already has a Fort Walton Beach facility whose primary focus is engineering work for the Air Force Special Operations Command.

When the Air Force mistakenly sent data to Boeing that was intended for EADS and vice versa, Boeing didn't open the computer files but EADS did. To rectify that situation, the Air Force took the unusual step of deliberately re-sending the data to ensure neither could claims of bias.

The odd step was taken to ensure a level playing field, according to an Air Force spokesman. EADS North America hopes to assemble the planes in Mobile, Ala., if it wins the $40 billion competition.

More and more it looks like a split contract may be the only way out of this mess.

Fire Scout
During the course of one day last month, the Navy's Fire Scout unmanned helicopter operated in four different locations across the United States and took off for the first time from a Littoral Combat Ship, USS Freedom.

The Navy and industry partner Northrop Grumman tested the aircraft at Webster Field, Md., Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., aboard the USS Halyburton off the coast of Jacksonville, Fla., and USS Freedom at the sea range in Point Mugu, Calif.

Rear Adm. Bill Shannon, Program Executive Officer for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons, said it "sets the stage for the introduction of a game-changing capability to our warfighters."

Fire Scout has surpassed more than 1,000 flight hours since the test program began in December 2006. Fire Scouts are built in part in Moss Point, Miss.

National Institute of Standards and Technology researchers recently released a new and improved system designed to more efficiently find software glitches during the development process, according to an article in Signal Online. It's called the Advanced Combinatorial Testing System.

Rick Kuhn, a NIST computer scientist who helped develop ACTS, says the 46th Test Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., has used ACTS in test and evaluation work and is now rolling out the methods to other Air Force organizations.

NIST reported in 2002 that software bugs cost the economy nearly $60 billion even though 50 percent of software development budgets are devoted to testing. Testing every possible variable is not practical. NIST first released the ACTS in 2008 and distributed it freely to 465 organizations and individuals in government, industry and academia.

- An Eglin Air Force Base team emerged victorious in the 2010 Air Force Research Laboratory Commander's Challenge, a competition where each team designs, develops and demonstrates a solution to an urgent warfighter need.

The challenge for this year's competition involved developing a perimeter surveillance and detection system for a forward operating base and combat outposts, primarily in the Afghanistan theatre of operations.

The Shuttle Discovery won't launch on its space station resupply mission until at least Feb. 3. That will give engineers more time to carry out tests to help figure out what caused cracks in the ship's external tank and what might need to be done before Discovery can be cleared for flight.

The external tanks were constructed at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. All shuttle engine testing was done at Stennis Space Center, Miss.

- An unmanned spacecraft, the X-37B, landed early Friday after more than 7 months in orbit. The winged autonomous vehicle, built by Boeing originally for NASA before it became an Air Force project, landed at California's Vandenberg Air Force Base.

It launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on April 22. While it looks like the Space Shuttle, it's much smaller and can be launched from atop a Delta V rocket. The Gulf Coast region has interests in unmanned systems and space-related activities.

Northrop Grumman Systems Corp., Melbourne, Fla., was awarded a $9.5 million modification to a previously awarded contract for continued post-delivery technical support for Rapid Airborne Mine Clearance System units, a helicopter-mounted anti-mine system, deployed from surface ships and aircraft carriers in a carrier strike group or amphibious strike group. The Naval Surface Warfare Center, Panama City, Fla., is the contracting activity.