Saturday, December 10, 2011

Week in review (12/4 to 12/10)

Another company's decision to test rocket engines at Stennis Space Center, Miss.; the $4 billion purchase of 30 production F-35s; the expected arrival this coming week of a Marine F-35C at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.; yet another capability for the Fire Scout unmanned helicopters; underwater robots that can make their own decisions; and a new high school flight academy were some of the aerospace stories of interest to the Gulf Coast aerospace corridor during the week.

NASA's John C. Stennis Space Center (SSC) in South Mississippi has become a real hot spot lately, partly due to NASA's decision to shift low-orbit activity to the commercial sector. A commercial space company has decided that SSC in South Mississippi would be a great place to test its engines. NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver announced during a Thursday visit to Blue Origin in Kent, Wash., that the company will best its rocket engines at SSC.

Blue Origin is developing a reuseable launch vehicle designed to take off and land vertically. The company is one of NASA's commercial partners developing systems to reach low Earth orbit as part of the Commercial Crew Development Program. The company delivered its BE-3 engine thrust chamber assembly, the engine's combustion chamber and nozzle, to SSC, where testing will begin in April 2012 at the E-1 Test Stand.

Blue Origin joins Aerojet, which is testing its AJ-26 rocket engines at SSC, and Rolls-Royce, which is testing airline jet engines at its own stand within SSC.

"We're delighted Blue Origin is taking advantage of Stennis, a center with a long record of propulsion testing from the dawn of the Space Age, to test the rocket engines of the future," said the deputy administrator. (Post)

The E-1 stand where the BE-3 will be tested is part of the E-Complex. Just last month NASA put out a request to commercial companies to gauge interest in taking over operation of the E-4 test stand at the complex. (Post)

- An upgraded J-2X powerpack has been installed on the A-1 Test Stand at Stennis Space Center and will be tested next month, NASA said. The powerpack consists of a gas generator and turbopumps, and is designed to pump liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen into the J-2X's main combustion chamber to produce thrust.

The Pratt and Whitney Rocketdyne J-2X is designed to provide 294,000 pounds of thrust, up from the 230,000-pound capability of the original J-2 used in the Apollo program. By the way, it took two years to modify the A-1 stand for the test series. (Post)

- A test version of the Orion crew capsule will take its final splash of the year Tuesday at the Hydro Impact Basin of NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. Testing began this summer to certify the Orion spacecraft for water landings.

Since July, engineers have conducted six tests from different angles, heights and pitches to simulate varying sea conditions and impacts Orion could face upon landing in the Pacific Ocean. The Hydro Impact Basin is 115 feet long and 20 feet deep. (Post) The Orion test article was fabricated at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

Two days after that test splash, NASA will host an industry day at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., to share information on an upcoming NASA Research Announcement for the Space Launch System's advanced booster. Marshall is leading the design and development of the SLS.

The 130-metric ton vehicle will require an advanced booster with a significant increase in thrust over existing U.S. liquid or solid boosters. Its first full-scale test flight is set for 2017. (Post)

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., is ready to put $200 million of
work for the heavy launch Space Launch System on the table. NASA is seeking research proposals to meet the "goal of reducing risk in the areas of affordability, performance, and reliability" in the new rocket's booster, scheduled to make its first flight in 2017, according to the Huntsville Times. (Post)

The first Marine Corps F-35 is expected to arrive at the Joint Strike Fighter Integrated Training Center in Northwest Florida next week. The F-35C will be flown from the Lockheed Martin manufacturing center in Fort Worth, Texas, by the military's first F-35 pilots, according to the base.

There are three variants of the F-35, one a conventional takeoff and landing variant for the Air Force, one a Navy version designed for carrier landings, and one a vertical takeoff and landing version for the Marine Corps. The arrival of the F-35 at Eglin will bring to seven the number of F-35s at the base. Eventually, the base will have 59 Joint Strike Fighters. (Post)

- Lockheed Martin was awarded a $4 billion fixed-price-incentive modification to a
previously awarded advance acquisition contract for the manufacture and delivery of 30 Low Rate Initial Production Lot V F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.

The Air Force will get 21 conventional take off and landing variants, the Navy is getting six carrier variants and the Marine Corps will get three short take off and vertical landing variants. The modification also provides for associated ancillary mission equipment and flight test instrumentation for the aircraft, and flight test instrumentation for the United Kingdom.

The price tag for the Air Force is $2.6 million, for the Navy $937 million, the Marine Corps $426 million and the UK $4 million.

- Speaking of money, General Electric and Rolls Royce decided to stop throwing money away on the ill-fated F136 turbofan designed for the F-35 as an alternate engine. The two companies had been paying for the development after the Defense Department terminated the project in April. Now the Pratt and Whitney F135 engine is the only one that will power to F-35. (Post) Pratt & Whitney, GE and Rolls-Royce all have operations in the Gulf Coast region.

As expected, the National Labor Relations Board dropped its legal challenge against Boeing over a nonunion 787 plant the company opened in South Carolina. The decision announced Friday comes after the Machinists union approved a four-year contract extension with Boeing. As part of that deal, the union agreed to withdraw its charge that the company violated federal labor laws. (Post)

Union officials say that 74 percent of voting members chose to approve the deal. The union represents 28,000 workers in Washington, Oregon and Kansas. Boeing promised that if workers approved the pact, the company would build the new version of the 737 in the Puget Sound region. (Post)

You can't help but wonder how Kansas feels about all of this. Boeing has said it's considering closing the plant, which was supposed to militarize the 767s that Boeing is using for Air Force tankers. Part of the agreement between the union and Boeing is that the work that would have been done in Kansas will now be done in Washington state.

Politicians in Kansas want to meet with Boeing to hear what lawmakers can do to keep 2,100 aircraft manufacturing jobs in Wichita, according to KansasReporter. Former Congressman Todd Tiahrt, a consultant for the company, said that he thinks the likelihood of Boeing staying in Wichita has improved since the possible closing was firsts reported three weeks ago. He said the company appears to be rearranging supply lines and other work among its manufacturing plants to direct more resources toward the expected tanker projects in Wichita. "I suspect they are going to stay," he said. (Story) Boeing has operations in the Gulf Coast.

A Fire Scout unmanned helicopter successfully sent sensor data to the cockpit display of a MH-60 helicopter during a demonstration in October near Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Md. That paves the way for improving the speed at which field commanders can make decisions during military operations.

Until now, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data gathered by Fire Scout was sent to its host ship for further dissemination. Notably, crew members aboard a nearby Coast Guard boat also viewed Fire Scout's sensor data in real time using a remote terminal. (Post)

This new capability is particularly important for the Navy's first composite squadron forming next year in San Diego. Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 35, nicknamed "Magicians," will be using the manned MH-60R Seahawk and unmanned MQ-8B Fire Scouts for expeditionary missions. It will deploy detachments of both aircraft to LCSs, cruisers, destroyers and frigates. (Post)

Those Northrop Grumman Fire Scouts are built in part in Moss Point, Miss., and Austal USA in Mobile, Ala., builds one version of littoral combat ship. For what it's worth, a report from analysts at two Washington, D.C., think tanks speculates that littoral combat ships and joint high speed vessels could be vulnerable to upcoming defense spending cuts.

Well, so could everything else.

What needs to be kept in mind is the ripple effect of cuts. The development of the composite squadron is not necessarily dependent on having littoral combat ships in service, but it's clearly designed to be deployed aboard those ships.

By the way, Austal USA opened an office in Washington to be closer to Navy officials, according to the Mobile Press Register. The newspaper said a former Huntington Ingalls executive was hired as director of the office. (Story)

In Florida, Escambia High School has become the third school in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties to create a flight academy. The National Flight Academy at Naval Air Station Pensacola partnered with the district to create an Aviation Classroom Experience, a game-based learning environment to teach skills in science, technology, engineering and math. The other area schools with flight academies are Warrington Middle School in Escambia County and Milton High School in Santa Rosa County, according to the Pensacola News Journal. (Post)

Naval Air Station Whiting Field in Northwest Florida near Milton marked its 20th consecutive year as a National Arbor Day Foundation "Tree City, USA." The base celebrated the platinum anniversary of its green leadership by planting a sapling river birch on the grounds of the air station's fire department Tuesday. The base in Northwest Florida trains naval helicopter and fixed-wing aviators.

The Defense Logistics Agency is buying 450,000 gallons of biofuel made from a blend of non-food waste from the Louisiana-based Dynamic Fuels LLC and algae produced by Solazyme. The fuel will be used in the Navy's demonstration of a Green Strike Group in the summer of 2012 during the Rim of the Pacific Exercise. Dynamic Fuels is building a synthetic fuels plant in Geismar, La., near Baton Rouge … Raytheon Co., Andover, Mass., was awarded a $34.6 million contract to provide development and management services for systems under the Product Management Office for Integrated Tactical Systems. Some of the work will be done in Pensacola, Fla. … Emerald Coast Aviation in Crestview, Fla., will provide aviation fuel at Northwest Florida Regional Airport, as well as gas for the rental car fleet, according to the Crestview Bulletin.

BAE Systems received a $37 million contract to design, install and test onboard radio communications and network capability for the U.S. Navy's new DDG 113 and DDG 114 destroyers, both being built by Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Miss. The systems will be installed at shipbuilder sites in Pascagoula, as well as Bath, Maine. (Post)

The Office of Naval Research says scientists have successfully transitioned fundamental research in autonomy to undersea gliders, demonstrating in sea tests in the Pacific how the new software can help robots become smarter at surveying large swaths of ocean – making decisions without human intervention. (Post)

In Mississippi, Jackson County Supervisors will make a proposal to the Mississippi Development Authority for up to $20 million for a test facility at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula. The facility would be built on the west bank of the shipyard and would be used for pre-installation assembly, integration and testing of ship components and equipment. (Post)