Saturday, November 26, 2011

Week in review (11/20 to 11/26)

NASA's interest in getting a commercial company to lease a test stand at Stennis Space Center; a successful test of a satellite made in part in Mississippi; the super committee's failure to cut the deficit; fears that Boeing may pull out of a state that supported it in the tanker competition; the delivery of bunker-buster bombs that a Florida base helped create; and the roll-out of the first international F-35 were among the aerospace stories of interest to the Gulf Coast region during the week.

One of the more significant events during the week for the Gulf Coast aerospace region occurred rather quietly through a NASA notice of availability/request for information. It was the first tentative step that could bring a new aerospace player, or expand the operation of one that's already in this region.

NASA is seeking to identify industry interest in Stennis Space Center's underutilized E-4 Test Facility, part of the E-Complex at the massive Mississippi center. Originally designed to conduct ground tests of propulsion systems in support of NASA's Rocket Based Combined Cycle Program (RBCC), the E-4 Test Facility was partially built but never completed, and no further development is planned due to program cancelation.

NASA wants to know if any commercial companies are interested in leasing the facility or partnering with NASA. This isn't a first for Stennis Space Center (SSC). NASA's H-1 Test Complex, used to test hybrid rocket motors, is now the Rolls-Royce Outdoor Test Facility, with a 150,000 lbf stand used to test the Trent series of Rolls-Royce airliner engines.

The E-4 stand consists of concrete-walled test cells and associated hard stand, a high-bay work area with a bridge crane and adjacent work area, control room space and personnel offices. The facility was designed to provide low-pressure hydrocarbon fuel (JP-7) and oxidizer (LOX) to test articles having a thrust in the horizontal plane up to 50,000 lbf maximum.

But NASA envisioned the growth of test capabilities at the stand to meet future RBCC or other propulsion testing requirements, including the possible incorporation of other fuels and oxidizer to support testing of power packs and engine systems, and the addition of a Ram Air test capability up to Mach 0.8 to support the testing of power packs and engine systems up to 500,000 lbf thrust.

Depending on interest, a site visit will be conducted on Jan. 12, 2012.

The announcement points out that the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 directs the agency to proceed with development of a new Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and Space Launch System, and that means NASA has to "re-scope" its facilities to support the missions within expected funding levels.

"SSC capabilities and assets that will become idle or underutilized for near-term NASA requirements may be re-purposed and used by the commercial space industry and others in direct support of NASA's mission and purpose," the announcement says.

Priority will be given to users that support space exploration for the U.S. government or those that are involved in commercial space launch or commercial space user missions, whether or not the U.S. government is a customer.

It's too early to tell just how significant this may wind up being. But here's something to consider. In October Boeing announced it will use Kennedy Space Center's Orbiter Processing Facility-3 to manufacture, assemble, and test the company's Crew Space Transportation spacecraft. The 15-year use permit with Space Florida is part of Kennedy's moves to transitions from a government-only launch complex to a multi-user spaceport.

On one level, it's sad to see NASA ridding itself of some facilities as the agency transitions. But on the other hand, it's a lease, not a sale. And let's face it. What's being offered is valuable stuff, and one heck of a lure for a commercial company.

The E-4 stand could be seen as yet another lure by a facility that has proven in the past its ability to leverage assets. It was back at the end of one NASA program that SSC began attracting other government operations, and there are 30 now, along with commercial companies.

It's not much of a stretch to picture a commercial company involved in propulsion taking advantage of this opportunity. It likely will be a company that is also aware that 40 miles away NASA owns one of the biggest manufacturing facilities in the world, 43 acres under one roof at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

We'll keep an eye on this one.

- The military’s Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite, launched in August 2010, has now undergone a key test. Raytheon Co. became the first to successfully test the AEHF, designed to replace the old Milstar communications system.

Raytheon's Army Secure Mobile Anti-jam Reliable Tactical Terminal is the first operationally fielded terminal to interoperate with an on-orbit AEHF satellite. Raytheon will deliver 364 AEHF SMART-T terminals to the U.S. armed services.

The AEHF is a joint service satellite communications system that provides secure communications for high-priority military ground, sea and air assets. It's based on Lockheed Martin's award-winning A2100, whose core propulsion module is build at the Lockheed Martin Space and Technology Center at SSC.

- NASA awarded Excalibur Associates Inc. of Alexandria, Va., a contract to provide protective services at Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala., and Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans. The contract begins Jan. 1, 2012, with a nine-month base period, followed by option periods. Excalibur will provide support for physical and personnel security, technology protection and emergency management and training, according to PRNewswire.

- Finally, we can't leave the topic of space without noting that NASA's Curiosity rover took off Saturday aboard an Atlas V for its nine-month trip to Mars. The nuclear-powered Mars Science Laboratory is as big as a car and has a laser beam for smashing rocks and a tool kit for analyzing their contents. It carries a robotic arm, a drill, and a set of 10 science instruments. Sensors will let it report back on the weather and radiation levels in the atmosphere, important for NASA as it devises future human exploration missions.

Prepare yourself for ongoing stories about Pentagon belt-tightening. During the week the special congressional super committee failed to cut the federal deficit by at least $1.2 trillion, triggering automatic, massive military cuts in 2013 if Congress doesn't do something.

"If Congress fails to act over the next year, the Department of Defense will face devastating, automatic, across-the-board cuts that will tear a seam in the nation's defense," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a statement.

Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said they are working on a plan to minimize the impact of the sequester on DoD "to ensure that any cuts do not leave us with a hollow military."

This whole issue, of course, is of high interest to the Gulf Coast region, which has bases along the Interstate 10 corridor from Louisiana to Florida. Newspapers and broadcasters are trying to figure out what might happen to their own piece of the military-industrial complex. Good luck with that one. There are so many variables, but at the heart of it all is money. With the Pentagon making cuts, defense companies are looking for ways to trim their costs.

One company's cost-cutting efforts has really shaken up the good folks of Kansas. Boeing said it may shut down a military-aircraft plant in Wichita because its work is winding down. About 2,100 people work for Boeing in Wichita, modifying and upgrading military aircraft.

The reaction of politicians and the unions was predictable and understandable. Kansas was one of the states that lined up behind Boeing in the competition against EADS to build Air Force tankers. Workers were told they would militarize the Boeing 767s in Kansas. Now they hear there's a chance they may never do that work.

This goes to show you have to be careful with the proverbial chicken-counting. Just ask Mobile, Ala., which started celebrating when the Air Force initially picked EADS to build the planes. That fell apart in a new competition and Boeing ended up winning the contest. Now Wichita, like Mobile before it, might find it celebrated too soon.

Another cutback story that got wide distribution was an AP piece about the Pensacola-based Blue Angels naval flight demonstration team. The story pointed out that the Blue Angels, Air Force Thunderbirds and Army Golden Knights parachute team may wind up on the chopping block. The story noted that funding for the Blue Angels is small, $37 million of the Pentagon's annual budget of $926 billion. Still, enough smaller programs and you're eventually talking serious money.

My guess, and that's all it is, is that we won't see the end of the Blue Angels. But it is instructive to note that the team, created after World War II, was disbanded for a time during the Korean War and team members joined the fight. The team was recommissioned in 1951.

The Blue Angels have been around more than six decades, and during a show season some 11 million people watch them perform. There was even a half-hour television series about the team that aired from 1960 to 1961. A clip of one of the shows, this one about the team breaking up and going into combat in Korea, can be seen online. It's from the archives of the San Diego Air and Space Museum.

The Pentagon has taken delivery of huge bunker-busting bombs designed to penetrate deep to reach underground facilities. Boeing delivered 20 of the Massive Ordnance Penetrators to the Air Force. Each GPS-guided penetrator is 20 feet long, weighs 30,000 pounds and carries a 5,300-pound payload.

The explosive power of a MOP is 10 times that of its predecessor, the BLU-109. The Air Force began taking delivery of the bombs, which can be carried in a B-2, in September, according to multiple reports.

Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., has been involved in developing and deploying the MOP. You can track the progress of this weapon by looking at these previous posts: contract; contract; contract; Bunker buster deployment nears; Pentagon eyes bunker buster speedup. If you're interested in an even older story, you can go into the archives and find the story from May 2006 headlined "Mother of All Bombs gets big relative."

The Center for Information Dominance stood up two new commands Nov. 14. The request for the new commands, the Center for Information Dominance Unit (CIDU) Corry Station in Pensacola, Fla., and CIDU Monterey, Calif., was approved by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus Oct. 31.

The new commands are in response to the "expanded size of the detachment and assigned cyber training mission." Annually, CID Unit Corry Station trains about 9,000 Navy and Joint Cryptologists, Information Systems Technicians and Information Warfare and Information Professional officers, while CID Unit Monterey, Calif., trains about 1,200 Cryptologic Technicians and Foreign Language Officers.

In remarks during the stand-up ceremony at Corry Station, CID Commanding Officer Capt. Susan K. Cerovsky compared the shore-based commands to that of a newly-commissioned ship.

With a staff of nearly 1,300 military, civilian and contracted staff members, CID Corry Station oversees the development and administration of more than 168 courses at four commands, two detachments and 16 learning sites throughout the United States and in Japan. CID Corry Station provides training for about 24,000 members of the U.S. Armed Services and allied forces each year.

Lockheed Martin passed its 2011 flight-test targets for the F-35, with aircraft now flying at a pace that will allow the company to exceed its target for a significantly higher number of flights in 2012, according to Aviation Week.

The test program completed its 875th flight for the year on Nov. 17, passing the full-year target of 872. A total of 6,809 test points were accumulated on those flights, exceeding the year-end target of 6,622. Training on the F-35A at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., has yet to begin.

- The first international Lockheed Martin F-35 has rolled out of the factory in Fort Worth, Texas. The United Kingdom will use the short takeoff/vertical landing jet, known as BK-1, for training and operational tests.

BK-1 will undergo functional fuel system checks before being transported to the flight line for ground and flight tests in the coming months. The jet is scheduled to be delivered in 2012, according to Lockheed Martin.

In Florida, Okaloosa County commissioners approved the use of a $250,000 grant from the Florida Department of Transportation to get a runway improvement project started at Destin Airport. Okaloosa County Airports Director Greg Donovan said he estimates the cost of refurbishing the 5,000-foot runway and improving the lighting and navigational signage will be about $4 million. The Federal Aviation Administration will be lobbied for money from the agency's aviation trust fund to pay for the remainder of the runway replacement, according to the Northwest Florida Daily News.

- Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport near Panama City, Fla., will launch a new website that Airport Authority board members hope will strengthen the region's brand. The new site, to be online in December, is a complete redesign and will contain a feature that allows site visitors to track on a map in real time a plane’s position, according to the Walton Sun.

- Total passenger traffic in October at the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport near Panama City, Fla., rose about 4 percent from October 2010, continuing an upward trend of since the airport moved from the Panama City field on May 23, 2010. Traffic totaled 77,389 for October this year, compared to 74,372 in October 2010, according to the Panama City News Herald.

Lockheed Martin Corp., Baltimore, Md., was awarded an $11.7 million modification to previously awarded contract for MK 41 Vertical Launching System ordnance alteration kits, production support material, interim support parts, and equipment in support of DDG 51 class new construction, Aegis modernization programs, and Aegis ashore programs. The MK 41 VLS provides a missile launching system for CG 47 and DDG 51 class surface combatants of the Navy, surface combatants of allied navies, and Aegis ashore requirements for Missile Defense Agency's Ground Ballistic Missile Defense Program. Fort Walton Beach, Fla., will do 18.8 percent of the work for this contract. The Naval Sea Systems Command, Washington, D.C., is the contracting activity.

- Huntington Ingalls Inc., Pascagoula, Miss., was awarded a $51.3 million modification to previously awarded contract for life cycle engineering and support services for Landing Platform Dock 17 class integrated shipboard electronic systems. Work will be performed in Pascagoula, Miss., and is expected to be completed by December 2012. The Naval Sea Systems Command, Washington, D.C., is the contracting activity.

- The Navy is working with the U.S. Maritime Administration to permit the transfer of two high-speed superferries into naval service. The Maritime Administration took over the two Hawaiian superferries, Alakai and Huakai, both built by Austal USA in Mobile, Ala., in July 2009 after a bankruptcy judge ruled that the owner could abandon them to lenders. The administration, which guaranteed the loans, moved them to Norfolk, Va., and eventually bought them. Built to move cars and people, the ferries can cruise at 35 knots and carry 836 passengers and 282 cars, according to the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot.

- The Office of Naval Research has released the latest update to the Naval Science and Technology Strategic Plan. It reflects future naval requirements, including a new emphasis on autonomous systems.

"Our superiority at sea demands that we maintain superiority in science, engineering and technology," said Sean J. Stackley, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition. Key areas of difference between the 2011 biannual plan and the 2009 version include a new emphasis on accelerating insertion of mature technologies to the fleet and consolidating 13 science and technology focus areas into nine, including the new category of Autonomy and Unmanned Systems.

It also places an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics initiatives aimed at increasing the talent pool of future naval scientists and engineers. ONR provides the science and technology necessary to maintain the Navy and Marine Corps' technological advantage, according to NNS. The region is involved in unmanned systems and is also home to a Naval Research Lab detachment at Stennis Space Center, Miss.