Saturday, May 7, 2011

Week in review (5/1 to 5/7)

For anyone who has an outdated idea of the Gulf Coast region, they might do well to keep an eye on efforts to increase interest in science, technology, engineering and math. It's happening in Pensacola, Fla., Mobile, Ala., and Bay St. Louis, Miss., through three developing science learning centers.

This cluster of science learning centers along the Interstate 10 corridor is being established at a time when the nation is struggling to get young people interested in STEM careers. And those careers are crucial to keep the United States a world leader in innovation.

In Pensacola, the National Flight Academy at Naval Air Station Pensacola was "christened" Friday as "Ambition." The flight academy isn't finished yet, but the building near the Naval Aviation Museum is moving towards completion.

The flight academy will offer aerospace-related, week-long sessions to students in seventh through 12th grades. The key is to make learning science, technology, engineering and math fun, in this case through designing an academy that looks and feels like an aircraft carrier, complete with ready rooms and more.

The first class will attend the academy in May 2012.

To the west in Mobile, the GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf Coast plans to open in 2012. And the reason behind it is the same, making science, technology, engineering and math a fun experience. The Mobile attraction will focus on the Gulf of Mexico, the ninth largest body of water in the world, and the museum will be a replica of a container ship “docked” inside the building.

Topics that will be highlighted at the museum include marine archaeology, Gulf animal and plant life, coastal environments and more. Visitors will also learn a lot about maritime commerce and shipbuilding, including navigation.

Go even further west near the Mississippi and Louisiana state line and you'll find the Infinity Science Center, south of NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center and west of the current Interstate 10 Welcome Center in Mississippi.

This 72,000 square-foot attraction that's still being built will allow visitors to explore the farthest reaches of outer space, the depths of the oceans and the varied layers of the Earth. In the Welcome Center they’ll encounter "Science Express," fast-paced activities aimed at drop-in visitors and designed to whet their appetites to explore the main galleries that focus on Earth, oceans and space.

The Infinity Web site says the mission is to create an attraction "that will inspire, amaze and engage those who visit." It's set up in a way that invites visitors to explore through deepening levels of involvement, and being so close to the interstate it's likely to attract a lot of people driving through the region.

What strikes me is that we have a lot of sci-tech activities in this region, but much of the publicity about the Gulf Coast in recent years has focused on disasters, from hurricanes to the oil spill. A lot is occurring that gets little attention from the outside world. My guess is that if these centers at some point get together for some type of joint promotion, it could have a huge impact on the image of this region.

If you're interested in reading more about these science centers, the Mississippi Gulf Coast Alliance for Economic Development's quarterly newsletter, Alliance Insight, has a story about the "Gulf Coast's Sci-Techland," beginning on page 6. (Story, newsletter)

In aerospace news of interest to the Gulf Coast during the week:

Unmanned systems
A Predator squadron may be coming to Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., but the 140 personnel associated with the squadron won't be bringing a UAV with them.

The Air Force said during the week that Eglin is a candidate for an Air Force Reserve Command MQ-1 Remote Split-Operation squadron. The primary mission of an MQ-1 RSO squadron is to support the MQ-1 Predator aircraft operations that conduct close air support, air interdiction, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Remote split-operations consist of launching a drone via line-of-sight operations from one location, and controlling the aircraft remotely from a mission control element that is operated at another location beyond line-of-site.

Officials will begin conducting evaluations of Eglin, covering a range of operational and facility issues. Based on the results of these efforts, officials expect to announce the preferred alternative before the summer's end.

NASA paid tribute to Roy S. Estess, the late director of John C. Stennis Space Center in Miss., by naming a building in his memory and establishing an annual public service leadership award in his name.

Estess, a Mississippi native and graduate of Mississippi State University, served as director of Stennis Space Center from 1989 to 2002. He earned a reputation as an agency pioneer, as well as a mentor and coach to many who later led or still lead throughout NASA.

"His legacy will not be forgotten," Stennis Director Patrick Scheuermann said during a May 2 ceremony at the south Mississippi facility.

- NASA has awarded five sole source contracts to Aerospace Corp. of El Segundo, Calif., for specialized engineering, evaluation and test services. These five contracts will support eight NASA centers, including John C. Stennis Space Center, Miss., and have a total maximum value of $658.25 million.

Northwest Florida Regional Airport at Eglin Air Force Base/Valparaiso will spend more than a half-million dollars to market Vision Airlines in its five newest destinations. The $550,000 will pay for billboard, newspaper and television advertising for the new flights to and from Las Vegas, St. Louis, Fort Lauderdale, Memphis, Tenn., and Lafayette, La. The flights are scheduled to start the week of June 1.

Blue Angels
The Navy's Blue Angels flight demonstration team performed over Florida's Pensacola Bay during the week in commemoration of the centennial of naval aviation. The performances were Tuesday and Wednesday. There were also vintage aircraft fly-bys and various other flight demonstrations during the two-day event.

Tidbits from other fields
Shipbuilding: The Army has transferred to the Navy all five of its Joint High Speel Vessels. Initially the program was envisioned to have five of the first 10 JHSVs assigned to the Army, with the Navy getting the rest. Both services agreed in December 2010 to assign them all to the Navy. The ships are built by Austal USA in Mobile, Ala.

Marine science: The Army Corps of Engineers plans to open the Bonnet Carre Spillway Monday, sending fresh water through Lake Pontchartrain then into the Gulf of Mexico because of the rising Mississippi River. One concern, in addition to the impact on marine life, is it could impact the oil spill research.