Saturday, December 11, 2010

Week in review (12/5 to 12/11)

You might think from a couple of stories during the week that Mobile, Ala., is on its way to becoming the home of an EADS North America aircraft assembly plant. First there was word from an analyst that Boeing officials think they're losing, and then there was news that EADS North America is soliciting bids to build the Mobile center.

But you would be better off taking a wait-and-see approach. If you've followed the tanker saga, you already know to expect the unexpected. The fat lady has yet to sing.

The Mobile Press-Register reported on Monday that Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., said EADS will beat Boeing in the competition to build tankers for the Air Force. Thompson said Boeing executives concluded EADS is ahead after getting a look at the Air Force's internal analysis of the two competing bids.

The Seattle Times, Seattle PI and The Herald did stories as well. And Thompson, who has been an advocate for Boeing, wrote a piece later explaining in great detail why he thinks it all looks so grim for Boeing.

Then on Wednesday EADS North America issued a press release saying it's soliciting bids for design and construction of the Mobile Conversion Center, where KC-45 aerial refueling tanker aircraft will be militarized for the Air Force.

The conversion center is part of an aircraft production facility that EADS North America will build in Mobile at the downtown Brookley Industrial Complex if it wins the tanker contest. EADS has also committed to build commercial A330 freighter aircraft at the same site. Earlier this year, the company began its transfer of the KC-45 program management team, nearly 200 employees, to new offices in Mobile.

The Air Force expects to announce a winner for the $40 billion competition early next year. I’m still thinking the only way out of this mess is to split the contract. We'll have to wait and see.

During the week there was also a fascinating first for commercial space travel. A commercial company, SpaceX, launched a space capsule into orbit and brought it back safely. It was praised as a milestone in the future of space travel.

The unmanned Dragon spacecraft left Cape Canaveral, Fla., Wednesday atop a Falcon 9 rocket and entered orbit 10 minutes later. It circled Earth twice before splash-down in the Pacific. NASA heaped praise on the effort.

The next step is a fly-by of the International Space Station, then a cargo and crew mission to the ISS, both in 2011. NASA signed a contract with SpaceX in December 2008 under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program to provide 12 spacecraft to resupply the ISS through 2016. It also signed a contract with Orbital Space Corp. for eight launches of its Taurus II rocket starting in 2011.

Wednesday's flight was important for the Obama administration's hopes to expand commercial space efforts as a way to free up NASA funds for missions to send astronauts much deeper into space and ultimately to Mars.

This is all pretty important to Stennis Space Center, Miss., which is testing the AJ26 propulsion systems for the Orbital Space Corp. program and expects to be heavily involved in testing engines for commercial ventures.

In another space-related story of interest to Stennis Space Center, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne successfully completed assembly of the oxidizer turbopump on NASA's J-2X rocket engine, moving the next-generation, human-rated rocket engine a step closer to testing at Stennis Space Center in 2011.

The J-2X engine was developed with heavy-lift capabilities in mind, and could play an important role as a powerful upper-stage engine for future missions to low-Earth orbit, Mars or an asteroid.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wants to give the Marines two additional years to develop its version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to correct technical and manufacturing glitches. That's good news for those who want the Marines to have their own version of the fighter. The president's debt commission has proposed terminating the Marine Corps version to save money.

Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is scheduled to become home of the JSF training center - with or without a Marine version of the aircraft.

In another F-35 news story during the week, Pratt & Whitney reported it's delivered the first production F135 Short Take Off/Vertical Landing (STOVL) engine. That’s the one used in the Marine Corps version.

The F135 engine has completed more than 20,000 hours of testing, 3,600 test hours during the concept demonstration phase, 15,800 test hours during development and more than 700 hours powering the F-35 flight test program.

The conventional takeoff and landing and carrier variant engine received Initial Service Release in February 2010, and the STOVL version is on track to receive ISR certification before the end of the year, according to Pratt & Whitney.

Textron Systems Corp., Wilmington, Mass., was awarded a $258 million contract which will provide for 512 sensor-fuzed weapons CBU-105 production units and 44 training units. This contract supports foreign military sales to India. AAC/EBJK, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is the contracting activity. … Lockheed Martin Corp., Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co., Fort Worth, Texas, was awarded a $76 million modification to a previously awarded advance acquisition contract activity providing additional funding for long lead efforts and materials associated with the production and delivery of 42 low rate initial production Lot V F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft for the Air Force, Marine Corps, and the Navy. Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is home of the F-35 training center.