There were several messages that came through loud and clear at the two-day Aerospace Alliance Summit held at the end of the week in Northwest Florida’s Sandestin.
One is that the region should place a big emphasis on interesting a new generation of Gulf Coast residents in the science, technology, engineering and math training that’s essential to the high-paying and healthy aerospace industry.
Another: The Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi region has an incredibly diverse level of activity in aerospace, and should continue to pursue a wide variety of aerospace-related enterprises, from unmanned systems to weapons development and more.
Oh yes, one more thing: Gene Goldman, director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., pointed out that the Space Launch System that NASA is pursuing - see the more detailed item below - will benefit Marshall, Stennis Space Center, Miss., and Kennedy Space Center, Fla.
Organizers were pleased with the turnout for the inaugural summit, which will be an annual event. About 140 people, ranging from company representatives to economic development officials, turned out for the summit organized by the Aerospace Alliance, formed more than two years ago to represent the aerospace interests of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi.
The four states have aerospace activities throughout the region, including Huntsville, the Golden Triangle in east central Mississippi and the Space Coast of Florida. One cluster is along the Gulf Coast Interstate 10 corridor between South Louisiana and Northwest Florida, the only one that involves portions of all four states.
The I-10 region's aerospace footprint includes space activities, aerial weapons development, military aviator training and testing ranges. It’s where the first F-35 training center is being established, and is also where portions of unmanned aerial vehicles are built. The region includes major domestic and foreign aerospace companies.
The Sunshine State is actually a late entry to the group. Up to now it's interests have been represented by Florida's Great Northwest, a regional economic group that represents well over a dozen counties in Northwest Florida.
"Florida is proud to be a partner, a full partner," Florida lieutenant governor, Jennifer Carroll, told the gathering. She pointed out that aerospace is near and dear to her heart. She was involved in the field when she was in the military.
Gray Swoope, Florida's secretary of commerce, thanked Florida's Great Northwest for representing the state's interests "before we got the message."
"Nobody can touch us, the resources that we have in these four states combined in aviation, in space, in the aerospace industry anywhere in the world. And we have a unique opportunity together in the four states to tell our story," said Swoope, who is former head of the Mississippi Development Authority.
Industry officials raised the alarm about education, indicating it would be the best way to help ensure the region's future role in aerospace.
J.R. McDonald, vice president of Lockheed Martin's Northwest Florida operations, pointed to a sobering number. He said that when he gave a similar talk in 2009, the number of Lockheed Martin employees was 146,000. The company has shed 20,000 employees in two years.
But he also said the company has a current and future need for engineers and people with science and technology degrees. Lockheed Martin hires 5 percent of every engineering and technical student that graduates from the United States - about 4,000 to 5,000 per year.
Lockheed Martin has put a lot of money and effort into supporting science, technology, engineering and math programs, even down the middle school level to encourage students to enter the field. Lockheed Martin expects growth in the company's information technology and electronics systems group.
David Trent, site director of the Airbus Engineering Center in Mobile, Ala., said workers at the center, which opened a little more than four years ago, come from Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. He praised the work of the Aerospace Alliance and suggested it should next set its sights on helping educate the future generations to work in the aerospace industry.
"We suspect over the next 20 years that there will be a demand for procurement of almost 26,000 new commercial aircraft in the world," he said, and the region needs to prepare for that.
"We were attracted to Mobile and this region because of the infrastructure that was in place," he said. But added that the company did have to bring in many engineers. Trent suggested an effort be made to begin interesting children in the field as early as the fifth grade level.
"The question is always, where's the workforce coming from, and I can't stress enough this idea of you've got to have world-class public education in this region and a real strong concentration on STEM," he said.
Jeanne Edwards, plant leader at GE Aviation in Batesville, Miss., said that of the 344 workers at the Batesville plant, which opened in 2008, 20 percent have degrees. The company recently announced another plant near Hattiesburg, and will break ground soon on a plant in Auburn, Ala. It also has a presence in Jacksonville and Clearwater, Fla.
She said that while much of the company's revenue is generated from outside the United States, GE Aviation is putting a huge amount of money into manufacturing jobs in the United States.
"If GE didn't see the future that we do with our backlog in aviation, we wouldn't be making the investment in manufacturing facilities," said Edwards. She said that by 2012 the Batesville operation will have 475 employees and will have invested of $100 million in infrastructure and equipment.
"That kind of investment hasn't happened in GE for a long time, at least in the aviation sector. So I think the growth that we’re anticipating is echoed by our commitment to adding jobs and building facilities in America."
Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis with the Teal Group, was particularly struck by how the Gulf Coast region has changed in the 27 or 28 years since he biked from New Orleans to Jacksonville. He said it's certainly become more high-tech.
"I never thought back then that I'd be here with you today talking about improving the aerospace cluster that's obviously developed very nicely in this area, so it's a real treat to be back," he said.
He pointed out that even in the downturn, the aerospace sector did well. He said that just considering Boeing and Airbus, the commercial jetliner market is a $110 billion enterprise, with a like amount through after-market and support that more than doubles that amount – a $300 billion a year enterprise on the world stage.
"That, in a nutshell, is why as a cluster you want to be part of this," he said. "A regional approach is absolutely essential," he said, adding that the Gulf Coast has a great combination of capabilities. "This would appear to be a natural place to put work."
And what are the opportunities for this region?
"What you're good at now is what you should accentuate. This is one of the most varied aerospace cluster regions that I've ever seen," with everything from unmanned aerial systems to aerostructures and composite materials. "More of the same in my way of thinking."
In other regional aerospace news during the past week:
NASA unveiled plans for the Space Launch System rocket, designed to take astronauts into deep space. Administrator Charles Bolden said during a news conference that the heavy-lift SLS, more powerful than the Saturn V that launched astronauts to the Moon, will fly in 2017. It will allow astronauts to reach asteroids and Mars.
SLS will be designed to carry the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, as well as cargo, equipment and science experiments. It will serve as a backup for commercial and international partner transportation services to the International Space Station.
It will use technologies from the Space Shuttle and Constellation programs to leverage proven hardware and tooling and manufacturing technology. It will use a liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propulsion system, which will include the RS-25D/E from the Space Shuttle for the core stage and the J-2X engine for the upper stage.
Stennis Space Center, Miss., does rocket engine testing and assembly of the J-2X. Michoud Assembly Facilities has been working on Orion.
Construction in fact, has begun on Orion, the first new NASA spacecraft built to take humans to orbit since space shuttle Endeavour left the factory in 1991. Engineers at Michoud started welding together the first space-bound Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.
The first welds were completed using an innovative new friction stir welding process, developed especially for Orion construction. The process creates a seamless, leak-proof bond that has proven stronger and higher in quality than can be achieved with conventional welding.
After welding is completed at Michoud, the Orion spacecraft orbital test article will be shipped to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the heat shield will be installed. At Kennedy, it will undergo final assembly and checkout operations for flight.
Rehabilitation Services Mississippi, Madison, Miss., was awarded an $8.1 million contract modification to provide full food services at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. The 81st Contracting Squadron, Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., is the contracting activity.