Saturday, October 8, 2011

Week in review (10/2 to 10/8)

It was mentioned during the recent Aerospace Alliance summit in Sandestin, Fla., and now the Defense Department's newest annual report on industrial capabilities has underscored the growing problem.

The retirement of the science, technology, engineering and math workforce "could significantly impact the aerospace sector in the coming decade." The DoD's Annual Industrial Capabilities Report to Congress (September 2011) said replacing them "could be challenging due to declining interest in STEM as a career field, fewer STEM college graduates, and poor math and science proficiency in secondary education."

DoD points out that specialized skill sets, such as protected military satellite communications and intelligence payloads, "make the issue of a declining STEM workforce even more of a concern for the military space industrial base."

An estimate from 2006 said 70 percent of DoD STEM workers will be eligible to retire.

"The combined factors of low demand, reduced military spending, workforce retirements, and reduced labor pool entrants could threaten specialized skills. If lost, it could take significant cost and time to rebuild these skills for the military space industrial base," the report said.

This is hardly the first time the alarm has been raised. As far back as 2005, the National Academies' report "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" warned that if this country doesn't do something to improve investments in science and technology, the United States would continue to slip against global competition. Five years later, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5," found, sadly, that we had slipped further.

If you want to give yourself a jolt, just take a look at the bullet points at the beginning of "Gathering Storm." Just focusing on some related to education, we find the United States is 48 in quality of mathematics and science education, 27 among developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving undergraduate degrees in science or engineering, 20 in high school completion rate and 16th in college completion rate among industrialized nations.

Considering the budget crunch, the quote at the start of "Gathering Storm" from Nobel Laureate physicist Ernest Rutherford couldn't be more appropriate: "Gentlemen, we have run out of money. It is time to start thinking."

For the Gulf Coast region this may actually be an incredible opportunity if we heed the warning and single ourselves out in something that would give us competitive advantage. The Southeast, including the four-state region along the Interstate 10 corridor, is already a major aerospace player. But we've got to look to the future and understand that one of the most important things this region can do is to start thinking about those fifth-grade and sixth-grade students, and establish a foundation for their future.

We are, unfortunately, a people who want immediate results, and sometimes it simply takes time before an investment pays off. Economic development officials face this all the time. They are grilled by political leaders and the public about the jobs they've helped create, not about what they've done to invest in the future for their children and grandchildren.

A Northrop Grumman executive told me a few years ago that in California, the aerospace industry competes against all the other sectors looking for engineers. He said back then that there's no reason why those engineers and other STEM workers couldn't be cultivated in this region.

What would be a real gift to our future generations is turning this region into a hot-spot for STEM education. And it can be done. The I-10 region is moving ahead on projects designed to pique the interest of young people in science fields. The Infinity Science Center near Stennis Space Center, Miss., GulfQuest in Mobile, Ala., and Pensacola's National Flight Academy will go a long way towards doing that. Wouldn't it be amazing to have this region known for its strong STEM emphasis?

Indeed. We've run out of money, ladies and gentlemen, and it's time to start thinking.

Now for the week in review.

Speaking of running out of money, the commander of the Air Armaments Center at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., warned participants at the 37th Air Armament Conference during the week that there's a "big target" painted on weapons development.

According to National Defense magazine, Major Gen. Kenneth D. Merchant told the military officers, government employees and contractors attending the Fort Walton Beach conference that while the projected cuts for fiscal year 2012 are relatively small, weapons programs can expect to take a disproportionate share of hits compared to personnel and operations accounts.

"It's not looking good," Merchant said. "The next few years are going to be very lean."

The Air Armaments Center oversees the development, procurement and testing of all Air Force air-delivered weapons.

OK, all you folks who ever thought about being an astronaut. Here's your chance.

Early next month NASA will seek applicants for its next class of astronaut candidates who will support long-duration missions to the International Space Station and future deep space exploration activities.

"For scientists, engineers and other professionals who have always dreamed of experiencing spaceflight, this is an exciting time to join the astronaut corps," said Janet Kavandi, director of flight crew operations at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "This next class will support missions to the station and will arrive via transportation systems now in development. They also will have the opportunity to participate in NASA's continuing exploration programs that will include missions beyond low Earth orbit."

A bachelor's degree in engineering, science or math and three years of relevant professional experience are required. Typically, successful applicants have significant qualifications in engineering or science, or extensive experience flying high-performance jet-aircraft. Additional information about the Astronaut Candidate Program is available by calling the Astronaut Selection Office at 281-483-5907.

Getting excited about the opening of Infinity Science Center near Stennis Space Center, Miss., and wondering when it's going to finally launch? Well the building will be finished in October, but it will be a while before all the money is raised to pay for the exhibits. But you can take it in early next year.

A restaurant and initial exhibit showcasing earth and space science will open at Infinity in early 2012, according to the Sun Herald.

Infinity Science Center, expected to cost $42 million, is at Exit 2 of Interstate 10, south of the entrance to NASA's John C. Stennis Space Center. It will be both a state-of-the-art science center and a major visitor attraction.

A Marine F-35B marked a first when it made a safe vertical landing on the deck of the USS Wasp (LHD 1), according to the Navy. The first vertical landing is part of the initial ship trials for the F-35B, which started early in the week and is expected to last two weeks.

The tests will collect data on the aircraft's ability to perform short take-offs and vertical landings on a ship at sea, as well as determine how the aircraft integrates with the ship's landing systems, and deck and hangar operations. This test period will also collect environmental data on the deck through added instrumentation to measure the F-35B's impact to flight deck operations.

The F-35B is the variant of the Joint Strike Fighter capable of short take-offs and vertical landings for use on amphibious ships or expeditionary airfields. Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is home of the Joint Strike Fighter training center.

Two T-38 Talon jets from Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., arrived at Tyndall late in the week, according to the Panama City News Herald. They are the first of 20 of the twin-engine jets slated to arrive and used to aid in the training of F-22 pilots. An estimated 100 jobs will be brought to Tyndall because of the T-38s arrival.

The T-38 is a high-altitude supersonic jet trainer used by the Texas-based Air Education and Training Command. At Tyndall, instead of using F-22s, F-15s or F-16s to simulate an enemy fighter, the Air Force will use the T-38 at a fraction of the cost.

The Air Force will eventually replace the T-38 and companies are jockeying for position to compete. See my column from last week and go down to the item under "Economic development" to learn more about the trainer competition.

- The FBI held a week-long post-blast school at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., late last month, according the Eglin officials. The Large Vehicle Bomb Post Blast School was attended by more than 50 state and local law enforcement officers as well as Navy and Air Force explosive ordnance disposal technicians. Crime scene investigators from 18 U.S. agencies participated.

There were four explosions, creating distinct "crime scenes" that included a roadside bomb. It was the 128th post-blast school class held by the FBI and only the second at Eglin. The class was dedicated to Tech. Sgt. Daniel Douville, an Eglin EOD technician who fell in the line of duty in June.