...The past few months have brought some encouraging developments for South Mississippi’s
aerospace activities, and point to continued growth. Consider the following:
...- In September NASA announced plans for a heavy-lift rocket that will use space shuttle
main engines and the J-2X engines, tested and/or assembled at Stennis Space Center. The
heavy-lift program is likely to supercharge growth of the Stennis and Michoud space corridor.
...- In August the Army turned over the former Mississippi Army Ammunition Plant to NASA,
adding a 1.6 million square foot facility and increasing NASA’s building space by a third, and
adding 4,000 acres of land. The new rocket announcement suddenly makes this even more
...- In July GE Aviation said it would build a plant in Ellisville near Hattiesburg, the second GE
Aviation facility in Mississippi and first in South Mississippi. That decision adds another major
aerospace engine company to the impressive list already operating in South Mississippi.
...- The Navy plans to buy a larger version of the Fire Scout unmanned helicopter to satisfy a
pressing special operations need, and that could bode well for the Northrop Grumman
Unmanned Systems plant in Moss Point.
...- American Airlines will buy more than 200 aircraft from Airbus, and industry experts say
Airbus parent EADS may have to dust off plans to build an assembly facility in the United
...All of those announcements are encouraging signs that the Mississippi Gulf Coast can expect
to see more growth of its aerospace footprint. And that’s significant because aerospace is a
$219 billion industry that creates high-paying jobs and has an eye constantly on the future.
...In September NASA Administrator Charles Bolden unveiled plans for the Space Launch
System (SLS) rocket, a heavylift vehicle designed to take astronauts into deep space. More
powerful than the Saturn V that launched astronauts to the moon in the 60s, it will fly in 2017
– just six years away.
...SLS will be designed to carry the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle – a survivor from the
defunct Constellation program – as well as cargo, equipment and science experiments. It also
will be a backup for transportation services to the International Space Station.
...The plan is to leverage proven hardware, tooling and manufacturing by using proven
systems from the Space Shuttle and Constellation programs. And that’s good news for Stennis
Space Center (SSC).
...For the core stage, the SLS will use five liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen RS-25D/E
engines that were used in the space shuttle. All those space shuttle main engines were tested at
SSC, and so will the SLS main engines. The upper stage will use the J-2X engine being
developed by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne. Those engines, also using liquid hydrogen and
liquid oxygen, are assembled and tested at SSC.
...Stennis Space Center (SSC) Director Patrick Scheuermann said the decision on Space
Launch System (SLS) “will secure this place and our prime mission for the next 30 to 40
years,” according to press reports.
...But what may be just as important for South Mississippi is the impact the SLS program may
have on NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, just 40 miles from SSC. It’s
now working on the Orion, and will play a role in development of SLS. The huge plant – 43
acres under one roof – built huge structures for the Saturn and Space Shuttle programs, and
was tapped as well to build the upper stages for Ares I and Ares V for the defunct
Constellation program. It’s one of the few manufacturing operations owned by NASA.
...In late September, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said Michoud will build several components of
the SLS, including the core stage and upper stage, the instrument ring and integrating
engines with core and upper stages. That could mean thousands of jobs at the plant that lost
thousands with the end of the Space Shuttle program.
...Despite the job losses, the plant has continued work on space programs. In September
engineers at Michoud started welding together the first space-bound Orion Multi-Purpose
Crew Vehicle, using an innovative new friction stir welding process developed especially for
Orion. The process creates a seamless, leak-proof bond that has proven stronger and higher in
quality than can be achieved with conventional welding.
...NASA also remains interested in turning unused acres, about 800, surrounding Michoud into
an advanced manufacturing park. SLS could, in fact, wind up boosting more than a crew
capsule and cargo.
NASA's new plant
...Either through great foresight or serendipity, in August the Army formally turned over the
1.6 million square-foot former Mississippi Army Ammunition Plant to NASA, upping NASA’s
building space at SSC a whopping 33 percent. It also transferred an additional 4,000 acres to
NASA for the agency’s use.
...Two years ago more than 3,900 acres of NASA property at SSC were designated as ready
for development. Significantly, NASA officials pointed out that the 3,900 acres is close to
utilities and roads, but other acres could also be developed.
...The land availability, coupled with NASA’s push to have commercial companies take over
near-Earth space activities and now the SLS program, makes SSC a hot spot for companies
involved in aerospace. Companies that move in here not only have NASA, but 30 other federal
agencies nearby, including the Navy and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
...While the SLS announcement certainly gave SSC workers reason to celebrate, it’s not like
the end of the Space Shuttle program caused a sudden cessation of propulsion work. In fact,
quite the contrary is true. SSC has a long track record of being used by commercial companies
to test rocket engines that are not necessarily tied to specific NASA programs.
...On the NASA side of the equation, in July engineers conducted a chill test and ignition test
of the J-2X rocket engine that is now destined for the upper stage of the SLS. Testing on the J-
2X, which is also assembled at SSC by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, will continue over the
coming months and likely well into the future.
...SSC has also been the site where the AJ-26 rocket engine is being tested for Orbital Sciences.
...Ohio-based GE Aviation will invest $56 million in a 300,000 square-foot plant in Jones
County to make composite components for aircraft engines. Ground will be broken at Howard
Technology Park by the end of the year, with production to begin in the first half of 2013.
...Ellisville Mayor Tim Waldrop said the GE Aviation plant “will change the future of our
county, our city and southeast Mississippi," according to the Hattiesburg American.
...The advanced materials components were developed in collaboration with the University of
Southern Mississippi School of Polymers and High Performance Materials, and GE will
continue working with the school. It also has ties to Raspet Flight Research Laboratory at
Mississippi State and the Center for Manufacturing Excellence at the University of Mississippi.
...The GE Aviation announcement makes clear the importance of university research, and the
value of having activities that are crucial to the aerospace industry, like advanced materials and
geospatial activities. South Mississippi has both.
...What is most striking is that the addition of GE Aviation grows the already impressive engine-
related activities in South Mississippi. NASA’s Stennis Space Center is known worldwide for
testing rocket engines, most recently for the Space Shuttle program but now for both NASA
and commercial endeavors, including the Aerojet AJ-26 systems that will power Orbital
Science’s commercial rocket.
...Stennis Space Center (SSC) is also where Rolls-Royce tests commercial aircraft engines and
where Pratt & Whitney tests and assembles RS-68 and J-2X rocket engines. And while both
Rolls-Royce and Pratt & Whitney are GE Aviation competitors, the company has also
partnered with both competitors at times.
...When Northrop Grumman opened its state-of-the-art Unmanned Systems Center in Moss
Point, officials said it would be used for more than Fire Scout and Global Hawk unmanned
systems. Indeed, it soon did work, temporarily but work nonetheless, on Hunter unmanned
...Now a larger, more capable Fire Scout is on the horizon, and that may have implications for
the Moss Point plant, which is involved in building the smaller version.
...Fire-X is the name used for the prototype unmanned helicopter that’s been developed by
Northrop Grumman and Bell over the past two years. The two companies anticipated the
military’s need for a more capable surveillance and supply unmanned helicopter and jointly
funded the development of Fire-X . It uses a Bell 407 airframe in place of the smaller
Schweizer 333 of the current Fire Scout, MQ-8B.
...Designed to be flown by remote control or autonomously, the medium-range Fire-X made
its first flight in December. The companies moved forward quickly because the Fire-X uses
systems already proven on the MQ-8B.
...The Navy recently outlined details of the 15-month competition to select the medium-range
multi-role unmanned helicopter. Northrop Grumman/Bell will offer Fire-X, while Boeing is
expected to offer the Hummingbird and Lockheed Martin/Kaman the K-Max.
...But an interim solution may have given a leg-up to Northrop Grumman. The Naval Air
Systems Command recently picked Northrop Grumman to build 28 MQ-8C Fire Scout “rapid
deployment capability” unmanned helicopters to satisfy an urgent need from U.S. Special
...The notice of intent, which says the aircraft are to be fielded by the first quarter of 2014,
says Northrop Grumman is the sole developer and manufacturer of the current MQ-8B system
and is the only firm able to meet the required Joint Urgent Operational Needs Statement
timeframe because it can use the existing avionics, software and other equipment.
...The MQ-8B built in part in Moss Point no doubt helped pave the way for the larger Bell
model. It’s been deployed by the Navy aboard ships and has been used in Afghanistan. One
was shot down over Libya, and future versions of the Fire Scout likely will be armed.
...With Moss Point workers playing such a key role in development of the Fire Scout, it seems
likely they will play a role in the larger version as well. But only time will tell.
...Although the Gulf Coast lost the tanker competition when the Air Force picked Boeing
rather than EADS, Boeing’s European rival may have to dust off its plans to build an assembly
plant in this country. Why? Orders for Airbus planes are on the rise.
...The opening salvo was in July when American Airlines said it would be ordering 460 new
single-aisle planes from Boeing and Airbus in a deal valued at more than $38 billion. Airbus
is getting the larger piece of the pie – 260 Airbus A320s compared to 200 Boeing 737s. The
deal includes options and purchase rights for 465 additional planes through 2025.
...Airbus has not sold a plane to American Airlines in more than two decades. While that deal
in itself may not be enough to prompt Airbus to build an assembly plant on U.S. soil, analysts
are in agreement that more orders are coming down the pike, and the company will have a
hard time keeping up with demand with its current assembly plant lineup.
...Then in early September it was reported that FedEx is considering wide-body freighters from
Boeing and Airbus SAS to update the fleet of the world’s largest cargo airline, three people
familiar with the matter said. The order would involve about 50 planes, and discussions center
on Boeing’s 767 and Airbus’s A330. A final decision may not come for months.
...While these developments are impressive, what’s particularly striking is that it’s all occurring
at a time when belt-tightening is the norm. That South Mississippi’s aerospace activities are
growing may be indicative of things to come. – David Tortorano