Saturday, January 11, 2014

Week in review (1/5 to 1/11)

Test stands at Stennis Space Center, Miss., were the topic of a couple of stories during the week. With both the A-3 test stand and the B-2 test stand, the stories said that money was spent on the stands unnecessarily.

In one story, an audit released Wednesday by NASA Inspector General Paul Martin criticized NASA for spending $352 million to refurbish the B-2 test stand for Space Launch System tests when it would have cost less to revamp stands in Alabama and California. The other stands are at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

The audit said it would have cost $251 million to refurbish the Huntsville stand and $319 million for the Edwards stand. But NASA chose B-2 because of problems associated with using the other stands. In the case of Edwards, NASA was concerned over transportation risks, and with Huntsville it was concerned over transportaiton and noise issues. NASA responded to the audit by admitting it didn't follow its own rules and agreements, but said it "is confident it made the right decision." (Post)

Anther story earlier in the week, this one by Bloomberg, was about Stennis Space Center's $350 million A-3 test stand. It said the stand will be finished early this year, then mothballed for the foreseeable future. The article said Congress ordered NASA to finish building the 300-foot tall tower despite the demise of the program for which it was built. The story said it's an example of how U.S. lawmakers "thwart efforts to cut costs and eliminate government waste." (Story)

The IG audit that initially raised the issue of the A-3 test stand is close to a year old. It was released Feb. 12, 2013. Although the audit was concerned about wasting money, it never raised the issue of whether killing Constellation in 2010 was itself a waste of money. At the time, NASA already had spent $292 million on the A-3 test stand and needed $57 million to finish the work that was 65 percent complete.

The context is also important. Congress and the space community had serious concerns about canceling Constellation, and those who pushed to finish the A-3 test stand might have recognized that NASA's direction can change from administration to administration. It is, in fact, rocket science and decisions shouldn't be based on money alone.

The Bloomberg story did point out that while there are no rockets being developed for NASA that would need the high-altitude test capability of the A-3, it’s conceivable that such a rocket may be built in the future that would need that ability. Companies like Aerojet Rocketdyne and SpaceX, may need to test engines for yet-to-be-developed rockets that would send astronauts into space, said Chris Quilty, an analyst with Raymond James and Associates in St. Petersburg, Fla. "With all the discussion of going to Mars, going to the moon, they are going to need more advanced upper-stage engines," Quilty said.

Indeed, Glenn Mahone, a spokesman for Aerojet Rocketdyne, said that while company officials know the A-3 test stand isn't "a near-term priority, it likely will be required to support exploration objectives in the future."

It's dangerous to let infrastructure fall by the wayside based on the changing winds of politics. Back in 2005 following the decision to end the Space Shuttle Program, NASA commissioned an internal study to assess the relevance of its facilities to current and future work. The study took a critical look at each of the agency's 10 centers.

Among other things, the study found that Plum Brook Station, Ohio, Santa Susana Field Laboratory, Calif., Stennis Space Center, and Wallops Flight Facility, Va., had insufficient work to justify continued operations. With the exception of Santa Susana, NASA took no action to implement the study's recommendations.

Was that a mistake not to close SSC and the others? Ask Orbital Sciences, which is using Wallops Flight Facility and Stennis Space Center, or SpaceX, which decided SSC has enough going for it that it should test its Raptor at SSC. Wicker, in fact, made reference to these changing needs in his reply to Bloomberg.

"Stennis Space Center is the nation's premier rocket engine testing facility," the senator said in an e-mailed statement to Bloomberg. "It is a magnet for public and private research investment because of infrastructure projects like the A-3 test stand. In 2010, I authored an amendment to require the completion of that particular project, ensuring the Stennis facility is prepared for ever-changing technologies and demands."

Sounds on target to me.

Now here's more of the week in review:

Orbital Sciences launched its unmanned Cygnus cargo ship on the company's first regular supply mission to the International Space Station. The liftoff of the Antares rocket carrying Cygnus was Thursday afternoon from Wallops Island, Va. Cygnus is due to dock at the ISS on Sunday, the fifth mooring of a private vessel to the station. The first was California company SpaceX's Dragon in May 2012.

Orbital and SpaceX, both private companies, stepped in to ensure the United States' ability to reach the ISS after the retirement of the space shuttle program in 2011. Orbital has a contract with NASA worth $1.9 billion for eight cargo resupply missions to the ISS. The launch is Orbital's second trip to the ISS, following a successful demonstration launch in September. (Post)

In another launch, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket took off Monday evening from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., to put a commercial communications spacecraft into orbit for Thai satellite operator Thaicom.

The satellite, built by Orbital Sciences, was deployed about a half-hour after the launch. The launch was the second in just over a month for SpaceX. Orbital Sciences tests its AJ26 rocket engines for its Antares launch vehicle at Stennis Space Center, Miss., where SpaceX will test its new generation Raptor engines. (Post)

-- The avionics system that will guide NASA's Space Launch System has seen the light. The flight software and avionics for SLS were integrated and powered for testing Thursday at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

The test will help NASA perfect the system and ensure the units communicate together as designed. Avionics tell the rocket where it should fly and how it should pivot its engines to stay on course. Stennis Space Center, Miss., tests engines for the SLS, and Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, is building portions of the SLS. (Post)

-- A secretive military space plane will move into a vacant former space shuttle hangar at
Kennedy Space Center, Fla., possibly bringing hundreds of jobs. Use of the former shuttle hangar called Orbiter Processing Facility-1 will allow the Air Force's classified X-37B program "to efficiently land, recover, refurbish and re-launch" the unmanned system in Florida, according to Boeing, which built and supports the program's two orbital vehicles. Officials did not say how soon the military program could move to KSC, which has been seeking new users for facilities it no longer needs following the shuttle’s retirement in 2011. NASA’s Stennis Space Center, Miss., also offers unused/underutilized facilities for commercial use. (Post)

-- NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana will visit the agency's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans Monday. They will be updated on construction of the facility that will manufacture the massive core stage of NASA's Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and progress on launching it on its targeted first flight test in 2017. The Michoud Vertical Assembly Center will be home to one of the world's largest welding tools when the facility is completed in March. (Post)

Allan McArtor, chairman of Airbus Americas, will replace Sean O'Keefe as chairman and
chief executive officer of Airbus Group Inc., the company's North American business unit, when O'Keefe resigns March 1, 2014.

O'Keefe elected to step down in order to fully address ongoing medical issues due to injuries he sustained in a 2010 aircraft accident in Alaska. However, he will continue with the company on special assignment to oversee and facilitate the compliant transition of the company’s ongoing security agreement with the Department of Defense to the new U.S. Group structure.

The company this year changed its name to Airbus Group from the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co., EADS. The new Airbus Group will feature divisions called Airbus, Airbus Defense and Space, and Airbus Helicopters.

Airbus Helicopters is a direct name change from Eurocopter. Airbus is building an A320 final assembly line in Mobile, Ala., at Brookley Aeroplex, where it also has an engineering center. It also has an operation at Mobile Regional Airport; American Eurocopter has an assembly facility in Columbus, Miss. (Post)

-- Airbus won its annual order race with U.S. rival Boeing in 2013, industry sources said. Boeing earlier reported 1,531 gross commercial airplane orders for 2013, or 1,355 net orders after subtracting cancellations. Airbus booked more orders in both categories, the sources said. The European company delivered over 625 aircraft in 2013, beating its target of up to 620 but lagging Boeing's total of 648 deliveries, one source said. Airbus declined to comment ahead of an annual news conference on January 13. (Post)

Boeing set a company record in 2013 for the most commercial airplanes delivered in a single year with 648. The company's unfilled commercial orders stood at 5,080 at the end of the year, also a new Boeing record. Boeing also booked 1,531 gross commercial orders in 2013, a new company record and 1,355 net commercial orders in 2013, the second-largest number in company history. In 2013, three programs set records for deliveries in a single year. One was the 737 program, which delivered 440 next-generation 737s. Boeing has operations in the Gulf Coast region, and its biggest competitor, Airbus, is building an A320 assembly line in Mobile, Ala. (Post)

-- Singapore Airlines chose Airbus's A320 to launch its new Indian joint venture with Tata Sons, a win over rival Boeing as the airline market in Asia's third biggest economy shows signs of a revival. Sources familiar with the decision said a project team picked Airbus over Boeing's 737, the aircraft ordered by low-cost operator SpiceJet to expand its fleet in a deal reported by Reuters on Tuesday. The A320 market is of interest to Mobile, Ala., which is getting an A320 final assembly line. (Post)

-- Gov. Robert Bentley said Wednesday that Boeing might have used Alabama as leverage during union negotiations in Washington state. But he said Alabama would have been in the top three states competing for a new Boeing plant had the manufacturer not reached a deal with the union. Bentley said he asked Boeing officials whether they were seriously considering locating a new 777 plant in Alabama or if they were using the state to force a deal with unions. "When I met with them the first time, I said, 'Are you using us to get a positive vote out of the union or are you truly serious about moving?'" Bentley said. "We were the first state that they had met with and they said they were truly serious about moving." (Post)

The experimental Thatcher CX5 aircraft, a two-seat plane designed by Dave Thatcher of Pensacola, made its initial flights in December at Jack Edwards Airport in Gulf Shores, Ala. The experimental aircraft is powered by a modified Volkswagen engine. Once test flights are finished, the Thatcher CX5 will return to Pensacola International Airport in Florida, where the plane was built in a private hangar. Thatcher plans to sell plans for the CX5 after tests are finished for about $475. Thatcher sold 574 plans for his CX4, a single-seat plane he designed. (Post)
-- A ruptured fire sprinkler water pipe over the main concourse at Pensacola International Airport in Florida caused delays in boarding passengers for about 20 minutes one day during the week. The flooding affected the carpeting from gates 3 through 10 but was cleaned up by work crews. Boarding passengers were redirected to other gates. (Post)

-- A small plane made an emergency landing near Trent Lott International Airport in Moss Point, Miss., Monday evening and the pilot was uninjured. The pilot was traveling from St. Elmo, Ala., and was landing at Trent Lott Airport to refuel, but he lost power and set down in a field northeast of the airport. (Post)

Lt. Col. Erick Gilbert on Monday landed the first of five F-22 Raptors at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., the new home of the 95th Fighter Squadron. The five planes that arrived from Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico are the first of 24 Raptors that will be based at Tyndall. The remaining planes will arrive by the end of April. The arrival symbolizes an expansion of Tyndall’s mission into combat operations for the 95th Fighter Squadron, a first in Tyndall’s history. (Post)

-- A civilian contractor died and three others were injured Wednesday afternoon after the fire suppression system in 90,000 square-foot King Hangar at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., released an unknown amount of foam. The contractors worked for Defense Support Services (DS2), which provides support services. DS2 said the employee who died was Jonathan Lord, 31, a tool and parts attendant. A resident of Valparaiso, he is survived by his wife and one child. Three other DS2 employees were treated and released. (Post)

-- A brigadier general has been fired amid an investigation into an alleged inappropriate personal relationship. Brig. Gen. Jon Weeks was relieved as commander of the Air Force Special Operations Warfare Center on Thursday. Gen. Eric Fiel, head of Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field, Fla., said he made the decision based on preliminary information from the ongoing investigation. (Post)

-- Col. Robert G. Armfield of Hurlburt Field, Fla., has been nominated for appointment to the rank of brigadier general, Pentagon officials said Thursday. Armfield is currently serving as the commander, 24th Special Operations Wing, Air Force Special Operations Command, Hurlburt Field. The appointment was among 31 nominations named in a release from Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced today. (Post)

Northrop Grumman and the Navy completed nine initial flight tests of the Triton unmanned aircraft system, the half-way point in a process called envelope expansion. During envelope expansion, the test team validates the aircraft's ability to operate at a range of altitudes, speeds and weights.

The flights are taking place at the company's manufacturing facility in Palmdale, Calif. Completion of envelope expansion will allow the test team to prepare for installation and further testing of Triton's surveillance sensors. The Navy plans to field 68 Tritons. Central fuselage work on the Triton is done in Moss Point, Miss. (Post)

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