Saturday, May 3, 2014

Week in review (4/27 to 5/3)

There was a fascinating item from New Orleans late in the week that could have a big impact on this region. NASA on Thursday issued a notice in federal business opportunities saying that it's looking for partners to develop under-utilized green space around Michoud Assembly Facility. (Post)

NASA says development of the green space is an integral part its "vision" for transforming the facility. The notice doesn't specify what that vision is, but I can tell you what NASA was thinking back in 2008.

I was the editor of Alliance Insight, former science and technology newsletter of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Alliance for Economic Development, and I was writing a story about Michoud Assembly Facility when a NASA official in Huntsville, Ala., told me something that really caught my attention.

The way it was explained to me, NASA was well aware that the 830 acres around Michoud was not being utilized as well as it could be. In keeping with an agency that looks to the future, NASA wanted to turn the acreage into an advanced manufacturing research park, similar to Cummings Research Park in Huntsville.

Now if you don't know anything about Cummings, let me fill you in. It’s the second largest research park in the nation, fourth largest in the world. The most prestigious aerospace and defense companies in the world have operations at Cummings, and all that activity changed the one-time cotton town into one of the most high-tech regions of the country.

Doing something Cummings-like around Michoud really piqued my interest. There's a lot to be said about Michoud's capabilities. The building is huge, 43 acres under one roof. At the time I wrote the story for the newsletter, MAF was still building external tanks for the Space Shuttle program. That was scheduled to end in 2011.

But NASA at that point had already picked MAF to build structures for the Constellation Program. The thinking was MAF, the Constellation Program and the available acres could be a magnet. And it's no small matter that MAF happens to be the home of the National Center for Advanced Manufacturing.

Now fast forward to 2014. NASA has apparently not dropped the idea, and issuing the notice is significant not only for New Orleans, but for South Mississippi and Stennis Space Center some 40 miles away. SSC itself has 3,900 acres of green space it says is ready for development.

It doesn't take much to envision what could happen. Both Michoud and SSC are involved not only in NASA programs, but commercial space programs as well. MAF is where NASA's Orion spacecraft and the core stage of the Space Launch System are being built. It's also being used by Lockheed Martin to build composite components for Sierra Nevada's shuttle-like Dream Chaser spacecraft.

SSC is where NASA and commercial engines are tested. The most recent commercial company to set up shop at SSC is SpaceX, one of the really hot companies in the commercial space game. If all the pieces fall into place, the Stennis-Michoud corridor could take off as a major research and advanced manufacturing center.

Now step back for a moment and look at the entire region between New Orleans and Northwest Florida and the aerospace activity that are in place. You have space activities in the western portion, aircraft assembly in the center in Moss Point, Miss., and Mobile, Ala., and military aviation and weapons development in Northwest Florida.

A lot of sharp folks in this region embrace the idea that there's something to be said for showing off the capabilities of the entire region. Yes, economic development is local, but it swims in a regional pool. Troy Wayman, vice president of economic development for the Mobile Chamber of Commerce, put it succinctly at this week's World Trade Conference at Pensacola Beach.

Mobile of course points out its considerable capabilities and assets when talking to a prospect, but Wayman said it also claims the assets of its neighbors to the east and west as its own. It's clear Mobile itself can't handle all the activities that will come over time as a result of Airbus building A320s in Mobile. So why not point out the benefits of the rest of the I-10 corridor early and often.

The trade conference I mentioned earlier? I went to one session about trade opportunities in the Gulf Coast Aerospace Corridor. The Airbus A320 final assembly line being built in Mobile, Ala., was of course discussed. The plant will open in 2015 and will produce its first plane in 2016. It will hit full stride around 2018.

Major sections for the A320s will be shipped to Mobile from Europe. And just how often will those shipments come in? Michelle Hurdle, director of economic and community development at Airbus in Mobile, said during the trade conference that originally the vision was one ship a month. Now? More like one ship a week, she said.

Europe's Airbus is just one example of foreign interest in the region. Crystal Sircy, senior vice president of business development for Enterprise Florida, that state's economic development group, said Florida is working 295 active economic development projects right now, and 35 percent are foreign direct investment. (Post)

-- Speaking of the Airbus plant, Rob't J. Baggett Inc., and B.L. Harbert International were awarded the final general contractor packages for the Airbus plant at the Mobile Aeroplex. (Post)

-- The Atlantic Council honored Airbus Group CEO Tom Enders with the 2014 Distinguished Business Leadership Award at its Annual Awards Dinner in Washington, D.C. Enders, who helped develop the close ties between Airbus and Alabama, accepted the leadership award from former Alabama Gov. Bob Riley. (Post)

-- The U.S. Army's decision to buy 100 more UH-72 Lakota helicopters for pilot training improves the potential for international sales of the aircraft, according to company officials. Airbus builds the Lakota in Columbus, Miss. The Army had planned to conclude its purchase of 340 Lakota UH-72s in 2015. The company plans to deliver the 300th aircraft to the Army in the coming weeks. (Post)

There was a story this week that said President Obama's proposed 2015 budget drops funding for purchases of the Navy's Fire Scout unmanned helicopter. The story said Fire Scouts are built in Mississippi, home state of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus.

OK, a couple of things. Fire Scouts are not built in Mississippi. Yes, Northrop Grumman does use the term "final assembly" for what's done at Moss Point, Miss., but it's actually finishing work. The first variant of the Fire Scout, the MQ-8B, used a Schweizer 333 built in New York. That company, by the way, was purchased by Sikorsky.

The current MQ-8C variant uses a Bell 407 that’s built in Canada. From Canada it's sent to Ozark, Ala., where the manned flight equipment is removed. It then goes to Moss Point, where workers fit it with unmanned systems architecture.

The second thing: This is the president's proposed budget, and who knows what it will say after it goes through Congress. Remember when the Pentagon wanted to kill the Global Hawk Block 30 because the U-2 supposedly did a better job? Well the U-2 is going away and Global Hawk is staying, and there are multiple variants of the unmanned aircraft to boot.

There was also a story pointing out that Fire Scout breached the Nunn-McCurdy Amendment for cost overruns, putting it at risk of being killed. But Navy officials said the Fire Scout’s redesign, including the shift to the larger Bell helicopter, is the main reason for the cost increase.

Here's something else to think about when it comes to the Fire Scout and drones as a group. Retired Marine Col. Robert Work was confirmed by the Senate at the end of last month as the new deputy secretary of defense. The former Navy undersecretary in July 2011 questioned whether the Navy's F-35C program could be reduced in favor of more unmanned systems.

One final thing with Fire Scout. Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems in San Diego the other day was awarded a $10.8 million contract for the development and integration of a Multi Capability Pod (MCAP) onto the MQ-8C Fire Scout, which provides multiple electronic warfare sensors for employment in the littorals.

I wouldn't bet against Fire Scout.

I don't want to give you the wrong impression when I pointed out that Bob Work in the past questioned the F-35C program. I mainly used that to show his belief in the future of drones. The F-35 program, A, B and C models alike, will be with us a long long time. And that means training F-35 pilots and maintainers at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., will be with us for a long long time.

This week, Pratt and Whitney Military Engines of East Hartford, Conn., was awarded a $105.2 million contract to procure long-lead components, parts and materials in support of 34 low rate initial production Lot IX F-135 propulsions systems for the F-35.

That includes 26 F-135-PW-100 for the Air Force F-35A; six F-135-PW-600 for the Marine Corps F-35B; and two F-135-PW-100 for the Navy F-35C. In addition, the contract provides for the procurement of 13 F-135-PW-100 and 6 F135-PW-600 systems for international partners and foreign military sales customers.

Work will be done in East Hartford (67 percent); Indianapolis, Ind., (16.5 percent); and Bristol, United Kingdom (16.5 percent); and is expected to be completed in September 2017. The contract combines purchases for the U.S. Air Force (31 percent); the U.S. Navy (26 percent); international partners (35 percent) and international participants (8 percent). (Post)

One thing you've got to admit. Elon Musk is shaking things up.

The head honcho at SpaceX said late last week that he was going to sue the Air Force over awarding a multibillion-dollar contract to United Launch Alliance without seeking any bids. The company did just that on Monday.

A U.S. court issued a preliminary injunction late Wednesday blocking ULA, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, from buying Russian-made rocket engines. The ruling blocks payments to any entity subject to the control of Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, including the Russian state-owned company that makes the rocket engines.

Rogozin heads Russia's defense industry and space program, and is on a sanctions list over the crisis in Ukraine. The injunction could be lifted if the U.S. Treasury, Commerce Department or State Department reviews the deal and finds it does not violate sanctions. (Post)

The Russian-made RD-180 that has powered ULA’s Atlas V for 20 years now isn't the only Russian-made engine used by American companies. Aerojet Rocketdyne's AJ-26 engines is a modified versions of the Russian-built NK-33 and NK-43 engines, which is no longer built. Tested at SSC, the AJ-26 powers Orbital Science's Antares rocket, used to launch the Cygnus spacecraft on cargo missions to the International Space Station.

SpaceX is one of the new kids on the block when it comes to the space program. It's already doing supply runs to the International Space Station, and has made no secret that it also wants to get involved in deep-space missions and, apparently, the satellite launch game cornered by ULA.

The I-10 region has reason to follow SpaceX and its exploits. It will be testing its deep-space rocket engine at Stennis Space Center, Miss. There's also reason to follow the activities of United Launch Alliance. Its Delta IV rocket, also used to launch satellites for the government, uses RS-68 engines tested at SSC.

One more "connection" if you will: ULA partner Lockheed Martin builds satellite core propulsion systems at SSC.

-- Alliant Techsystems (ATK) of Arlington, Va., is merging its aerospace and defense segments with Orbital Sciences, a Dulles-Va., commercial space firm. The $5 billion transaction is expected to be completed later this year.

The new company will be Orbital ATK, based in Dulles. ATK, a major ammunition maker, is spinning off its hunting gear segment into a separate company. ATK is looking to bolster its aerospace business and Orbital Sciences hopes to boost the scale of its existing operations and gain a foothold in the defense sector.

Last year Orbital's Cygnus spacecraft successfully docked with the International Space Station, the second commercial company to do so after SpaceX. ATK is also involved in space activities, building aerospace structures and rocket engines. This month it received a contract from ULA to deliver hardware for the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets.

Orbital Sciences' Antares rocket is powered by AJ-26 engines tested at Stennis Space Center, Miss.; ULA's Delta IV is powered by RS-68 engines tested at SSC; ATK also has operations in Huntsville, Ala., and an aerospace structures business in Iuka, Miss. (Post)

-- NASA picked 383 research and technology proposals for negotiations that may lead to contracts worth a combined $47.6 million. The proposals, from 257 U.S. small businesses and 29 research institutions, are part of NASA's Small Business Innovation Research Program (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Program. Eight selected proposals involve technology being administered by the Office of the Chief Technologist at NASA’s Stennis Space Center, Miss. (Post)

-- A host of products, including three with ties to Stennis Space Center, Miss., are featured in Spinoff 2013, an online publication that highlights commercial products created using NASA-developed technology. The SSC products include cloud based data sharing for emergency managers, an early warning system to identify potential threats to the nation's forests, and smart sensors to monitor components on rocket engine test stands in order to avert equipment failure. (Post)

The ninth annual Emerald Warrior military exercise got underway Monday in Northwest Florida and will continue until May 9. It's sponsored by the U.S. Special Operations Command, and is considered the premiere irregular warfare exercise.

Last year about 1,900 service members from different branches participated, and organizers expected the number to be about the same this year. About 90 aircraft will participate in the exercise, which includes Hurlburt Field, Eglin Air Force Base and Apalachicola, all in Florida, Camp Shelby and Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, Pelham Range, Ala., and Melrose Range, N.M.

Participants interact using not only actual aircraft and personnel, but virtual simulators and computer-generated emulators that will interact in a live scenario. (Post)

-- A Navy T-34C training aircraft crashed during a routine mission over the Gulf of Mexico during the week. The student-pilot and instructor from Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas' Training Squadron 28 (VT-28) bailed out. T-34C Turbo Mentors have been used in primary naval aviation training for more than two decades, but have been replaced by the T-6A Texas aircraft at Florida's Naval Air Station Whiting Field's Training Air Wing Five. (Post)

The publication Airline Weekly said Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans was the fastest growing United States airport in terms of passenger traffic from 2012 to 2013. The 7 percent growth rate beat Houston, Austin and San Jose, Calif., which all showed 6 percent growth. (Post)

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