Saturday, January 14, 2012

Week in review (1/8 to 1/14)

If you follow aerospace activities in this region, you might do well to keep an eye on NASA's John C. Stennis Space Center in South Mississippi. It was just last month that Blue Origin of Kent, Wash., said it would test its rocket engines at SSC. Now Rolls-Royce North America has decided to build a second stand to test its large airliner engines.

Rolls-Royce, which also operates a ship propeller foundry in Pascagoula, Miss., as part of its marine activities, plans to invest some $50 million on a second stand at SSC. That will add another 35 jobs to the 45 employees already working at the Outdoor Jet Engine Testing Facility that opened in 2007. That stand was the first outside the UK for Rolls-Royce. (Post)

In addition to the increased activity at SSC, the new Rolls-Royce stand will also mean more activity at Stennis International Airport, to the east of SSC. Rolls-Royces uses huge transport plans to ship those engines to and from Stennis Space Center.

So what's going on that’s caused all this new activity? Truth is, there's always been a lot going on at the 14,000-acre federal city, which is surrounded by a 125,000 acre acoustical buffer zone. But in recent years some steps have been taken that appear to put it on a growth track.

In November 2009, NASA identified some 3,900 acres at land that's ready for development. There's more land available, but this is the acreage near roads and utilities. Then the Army last year turned over a 1.6 million square-foot former munitions plant and surrounding acreage to NASA, increasing the space agency's building space by a third.

Not long after that, NASA sent out feelers to companies interested in taking over the under-utilized E-4 test facility, and made it a point to stress that the test stand can be modified for larger engines. Stennis Space Center Director Patrick Scheuermann said word is getting out about the test stands, the land available for development and the expertise at SSC, and commercial companies are showing interest.

"We had been hearing on sort of an infrequent basis," Scheuermann said in the January issue of the Alliance Insight, about companies interested in working with SSC, "but in the last couple of years the frequency has picked up quite a bit." (Post)

SSC is home not only to NASA and its propulsion testing capabilities, but 30 other federal and state agencies with science and technology operations. It's the home of the Navy's oceanographic operations, the National Data Buoy Center, the National Center for Critical Information Processing and Storage, a Naval Research Lab detachment and more.

Hundreds of scientists and technicians are working in fields as varied as rocket propulsion, geospatial technologies, underwater research and more. Universities from two states have activities there, and SSC has one of the world's largest supercomputers there. It also has tight security and room to grow.

SSC hasn't developed like the area around Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and there are a lot of reasons behind that. But it does appear the time might have arrived for SSC. And having NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in nearby New Orleans certainly adds to the appeal.

So, as they say, stay tuned.

There were other SSC-related stories during the week. The relocation of the RS-25D space shuttle main engine inventory from Kennedy Space Center's Engine Shop in Cape Canaveral, Fla., to SSC is under way. Those engines will be used in NASA's Space Launch System, the new heavy-lift launch vehicle. SLS will carry the Orion spacecraft, its crew, cargo, equipment and experiments to destinations in deep space.

The 15 RS-25D engines are being transported on the 700-mile journey using existing transportation and processing procedures that were used to move engines between Kennedy and Stennis during the Space Shuttle Program. Each engine, built by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, is 14 feet long and more than 7 feet in diameter at the end of the nozzle. (Post)

- Work is ramping up at the Orion spacecraft facility at Kennedy Space Center, expanding the spaceport's role beyond launch operations to include final assembly. About 260 people already work on Orion at KSC, and that will increase to about 400 by June in preparations for the first flight test of Orion. Meanwhile, technicians at Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, are putting the finishing touches on the second Orion capsule, and will also be doing work on portions of the Space Launch System. "Orion will use MAF for construction of the crew module and other portions. KSC will be used for final assembly of the entire spacecraft," said Jennifer Morcone Stanfield, public affairs officer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. (Post)

- Applications close at the end of the month for a new group of astronauts to fly NASA's Orion capsule to points still to be decided. So far more than 1,300 people have applied, comparable to the response NASA received from its calls for space shuttle crews, according to Aviation Week. The first Orion flight on an Space Launch System is tentatively set for 2017. Orion and portions of the SLS are being built at Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans; the propulsion systems for SLS are being tested at Stennis Space Center, Miss. (Post)

- Science Applications International Corp. was awarded a contract to build out the Facilities Management Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Work will be done at MSFC and NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, La. (Post)

Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., now has eight F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, even though they still haven't been given the go-ahead to begin flight training. Two Marine Corps versions of the Lockheed Martin F-35 short takeoff/vertical landing aircraft were delivered during the week. They landed after a 90-minute flight from Texas. Both fighters will be used for pilot and maintainer training at the new F-35 Integrated Training Center. (Post)

- Last September at an aerospace conference in Sandestin, Fla., speakers said the commercial aircraft sector is growing. During the week Reuters reported that Boeing and Airbus both had a record year for aircraft deliveries in 2011. The two rivals, both with operations in the Gulf Coast region, increased deliveries to airlines by around 3 percent versus 2010, and have set out plans for record production of short-haul passenger jets to meet demand from emerging markets. (Post)

Speaking of EADS, the Army awarded EADS North America a $212.7 million contract for 39 UH-72A Lakota Light Utility Helicopters. Thirty-two of them will be produced in the Army's Security and Support Battalion configuration and will be used by the National Guard nationwide. The Lakotas are built at EADS North America's American Eurocopter facility in Columbus, Miss. EADS also has its Airbus Engineering Center and a maintenance operation in Mobile, Ala. (Post)

And at some point, Mobile could wind up with more EADS operations. Mobile is still considered the prime location should EADS eventually opt to put a wide-body aircraft manufacturing facility in the United States. If that should happen - and I'm betting it will - Mobile and the surrounding area will be as big a hotbed of active as Stennis Space Center.

Unmanned systems
Two speakers at the Okaloosa County Economic Development Council's symposium said the field of unmanned aerial systems is a target area for the state and Northwest Florida. Gray Swoope, president and CEO of Enterprise Florida said the development and operation of unmanned vehicles is one of the fastest growing fields in the country.

Mark Bontrager, vice president of Space Florida, said the federal government soon will designate six areas around the country for unmanned air flights, and he hopes one or more will be in Florida. The EDC already has made unmanned vehicles a priority and created a group last year focused on bringing more development to the area. (Post)

South Mississippi already has two areas approved for unmanned aerial system flights. One is at Stennis Space Center, the other in Jackson County, Miss., where Northrop Grumman builds portions of the Global Hawk and Fire Scout systems.

Military cuts
The Florida Defense Support Task Force, formed to protect Florida's military bases, in particular its role in research, development, test and evaluation, met for the first time during the week in Tallahassee, according to the Northwest Florida Daily News.

The group decided it needs to move quickly in light of streamlining of the Air Force Material Command announced in November. The group is concerned the changes could pave the way towards moving Eglin's RDT&E mission to California. (Post) That R&D activity is significant. The base spends between $600 million and $700 million every year on weapons-related RDT&E.

- Job cuts were announced for several Gulf Coast bases back in November, but some additional cuts are coming to Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. Officials say 38 additional civilian positions will be eliminated along with the 68 previously announced, according to the Sun Herald and WLOX-TV. Keesler is a major technical training center for the Air Force. (Post)

The Austal USA-built Littoral Combat Ship Coronado was slated to be christened Saturday in Mobile, Ala. Designated LCS 4, Coronado is designed to operate in littoral seas and shallow water to counter mines, submarines and fast surface craft threats in coastal regions. Coronado is the second of the Independence-variant in the LCS class. (Post)

- The Navy is working with Huntington Ingalls to drive down costs on the CVN 78 aircraft carrier and Pascagoula, Miss.-built LPD amphibious ships under construction. Navy acquisition chief Sean Stackley discussed the topic at the Surface Navy Association's annual conference during the week, and said there has been some improvements. (Post)

- For NASA and the Navy, ensuring there's a pool of talent versed in science, technology, engineering and math is crucial, and both agencies have programs in place to pique the interest of students. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, with a center at Stennis Space Center, Miss., and the Navy, a tenant at SSC, are reaching Mississippi students through several programs. (Post)

- Two oceanographers from NASA's Stennis Space Center, Miss., will chair a conference on ocean sensing and monitoring April 23-27 in Baltimore, Md. The International Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers (SPIE) Defense Security and Sensing's fourth Ocean Sensing and Monitoring conference will be chaired by Weilin "Will" Hou and Bob Arnone, both oceanographers in the Oceanography Division at Naval Research Lab at SSC. The conference will focus on R&D efforts in the open and coastal ocean with respect to defense and security interests. (Post)

Science Applications International Corp.
, Mclean, Va., was awarded a $10.6 million modification to a previously awarded, cost-plus-fixed-fee contract for the Deep Sea Operations Program to introduce surveillance that operates at extreme ocean depths to detect quiet submarines. Twenty-seven percent of the work will be done in Long Beach, Miss. Other work will be done in Virginia, California, Texas, Maryland and Florida. … Lockheed Martin Corp., Baltimore, Md., was awarded a $20.6 million modification to previously awarded contract for MK 41 Vertical Launching System production support material, interim support parts, and equipment in support of DDG 51 class construction. Fort Walton Beach, Fla., will perform 18.8 percent of the work. Other locations of performance are in Maryland, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Michigan and Clearwater, Fla.