It was a rough week for the nation's commercial space programs. First, Orbital Sciences' Antares rocket exploded just after liftoff early in the week at Wallops Island, Va. The rocket and 2.5 tons of cargo bound for the International Space Station were destroyed, and the launch pad and surrounding buildings at NASA's Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport were damaged. But nobody was killed. (Post)
The same can't be said for another catastrophic accident later in the week, this one over California's Mojave Desert. In that case, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, designed to ferry passengers to the edge of space, crashed and killed one pilot and injured the other. The accident is under investigation.
The two accidents, though separate missions, threw some cold water on the nation's hot commercial space programs. There have already been several successful resupply missions to the International Space Station by both Orbital Sciences and SpaceX, and other companies are working hard on separate efforts to carry humans into space.
In the case of the Antares explosion, the culprit appears to be the first stage Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ-26 engines, modified Russian-built NK-33s that were originally were designed and built to boost Russian cosmonauts to the moon. That was more than 40 years ago.
Folks in the Gulf Coast region are familiar with those engines. They are tested at Stennis Space Center, Miss., and most of those tests have gone by without much notice. The last time one of those engines made headlines in this region was back in May, when one failed during a test. But as officials said at that time, that's the reason for the testing – have 'em fail on the ground. But sometimes, failures can occur in flight.
Those engines have caused some headaches for Aerojet Rocketdyne parent at GenCorp Inc. The company singled out the AJ-26 as a major reason for its fiscal third quarter loss of $9.5 million and net loss of the year to date of $61.8 million.
GenCorp said it took a pretax contract loss of $17.5 million on the program last quarter, and $31.4 million loss on the program for the year to date. GenCorp blamed the loss on the cost to repair or replace engines after the test failure, apparently the one at SSC in May. Orbital Sciences, which has enough AJ-26 engines to complete its contract with NASA, has been looking for alternative engines for a while now. Space News reported in March that the several alternatives all are Russian engines.
In the SpaceShipTwo accident, the spacecraft was carried to 45,000 feet by the four-engine, twin fuselage White Knight Two, then released and fired its engines. It wasn't long after that release that something went wrong with the aircraft built by Scaled Composites, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman. Officials said the spacecraft was using a new fuel formula the company switched to in May. While this region is not involved in the Virgin Galactic program, it is involved in other commercial space activities.
SSC was chosen by SpaceX to do research and development on its next generation engine, and at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, Lockheed Martin has done composite structures work for Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser spacecraft.
While the success of NASA programs has always been of high interest here, so, too, is the success of commercial endeavors. While the two accidents won’t kill commercial space activities, it does underscore the dangers inherent in space flight.
The first plane that will come out of the Airbus final assembly line in Mobile, Ala., will be an A321 rather than an A320 as originally planned. That's what Airbus Americas President Barry Eccleston told an audience in Seattle during the week. The A321ceo, or “current engine option,” will come out of the plant at the Mobile Aeroplex in April 2016 for customer JetBlue.
The change is a reflection on the growing interest in the larger version of the A320 family. In the year through September, Airbus has booked 311 gross orders for the A321, which seats about 185 passengers in a two-class configuration but can accommodate up to 220 for economy carriers. (Post)
The head of the F-35 program office said that by the end of December he expects to have decided on a permanent solution for a design issue that caused an F-35A engine to fail in June at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., home of the F-35 integrated training center.
Engine-maker Pratt and Whitney has offered several potential fixes, said Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher C. Bogdan. The engine failure and subsequent fire were the result of micro fractures in one of the three-stage fan sections. These sections are lined with a polyimide material that is designed to rub against the fan blades to reduce pressure loss. In the Eglin incident, the third fan rubbed in excess of tolerance during maneuvers several weeks before the failure, causing the blades to heat to 900 more than ever expected. This led to micro fractures in the titanium part of the rotor, which grew over the next few weeks of flying before finally failing. (Post)
-- There were multiple contracts and modifications awarded during the week in connection with the F-35 program. In each the Naval Air Systems Command, Patuxent River, Md., is the contracting activity.
Pratt and Whitney Military Engines, East Hartford, Conn., was awarded a $793 million modification to the previously awarded Low Rate Initial Production Lot VIII F135 propulsion systems contract. It provides for the procurement of engines for the Air Force, Marines, Navy and international partners. Work will be done in Connecticut, the United Kingdom and Indiana and is expected to be completed in March 2018. (Post)
Lockheed Martin Aeronaucics Co. of Fort Worth, Texas, was awarded three contracts. In one, it was awarded a $411.1 million modification to a previously awarded contract for the repair and replenishment of government-owned F-35 fighters, including spare parts for the Navy, Marines, Air Force and international partners. Work will be done in Texas, California, the United Kingdom, Florida, New Hampshire and Maryland and is expected to be completed by November 2015. (Post)
In another, it was awarded a $391.6 million contract to provide recurring sustainment support for delivered air systems for the F-35 program including, but not limited to: ground maintenance activities; action request resolution; depot activation activities; and more, including activities to provide and support pilot and maintainer initial training for the Air Force, Marines, Navy and international partners. Work will be performed in Texas, California, the United Kingdom, Florida, New Hampshire and Maryland and is expected to be completed by Nov. 30, 2015. (Post)
The company also was awarded a $220.7 million modification to a previously awarded contract that provides for the System Development and Demonstration Phase I Increment 2, to continue support of F-35A Conventional Take Off and Landing (CTOL) air system for the government of Israel under the foreign military sales program. This modification includes the development and demonstration of the hardware and software for the Israel F-35A CTOL air system. Work will be performed at Fort Worth and is expected to be completed in March 2019. (Post)
Military aircraft and vessels from across the country are participating in a two-week training exercise at the National Guard’s Trent Lott Combat Readiness Training Center in Gulfport, Miss. More than 52 units are reportedly involved in Southern Strike. The exercise has grown each of its first three years and now involves units from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, FBI and Special Operations Forces. (Post)
-- Fleet helicopters gathered at Naval Air Station Whiting Field, Fla., during the week for the 25th annual Fleet Fly-In. The event is designed to let military student pilots see the aircraft they will fly once they go out in the fleet. Some two dozen Coast Guard, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft were involved. (Post)
-- Drone Aviation Corp of Jacksonville, Fla., has been hired to expand the capabilities of the state-of-the-art lighter-than-air balloon it provided to Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., earlier this year. At Eglin, they’re used to gather information about weapons tests. The company has other contracts with the Army, but Eglin’s is the only current Air Force contract. (Post)
Alabama Aviation Center held a career fair and open house Saturday at the Aeroplex in Mobile, Ala. Employers are seeking current and future A/P mechanics, composite technicians, avionic technicians and mechanics and lead mechanics, sheet metal assemblers, design engineers, master structure technicians, IT specialists, ground test engineers, flight test engineers and team leaders. (Post)
Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co., Fort Worth, Texas, was awarded a $486.5 million modification to exercise an option year to a previously awarded contract for F-22 sustainment activities. Work will be performed at Fort Worth, Texas, and is expected to be completed by Dec. 31, 2015. F-22 pilots are trained at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla. … Raytheon Technical Services Co. LLC, Indianapolis, Ind., was awarded a $35 million contract for Joint Miniature Munitions Bomb Rack Unit (JMM BRU) aircraft integration and lifecycle technical support. Contractor will provide aircraft integration and life cycle technical support throughout the technology development and engineering, manufacturing and development (EMD); and EMD F-15 flight test and production phases. Work will be performed at Indianapolis and is expected to be completed by Aug. 31, 2021. Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is the contracting activity.