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Diverse Aerospace Sector Flourishes Across State

Rockets in the north, helicopters in the middle, commercial jets in the south—and dozens of related services in between—are all part of a diverse and robust aerospace sector in Alabama.

The Eastman-Kodak mirror assembly being tested for the James Webb Space Telescope at the X-Ray Calibration Facility at Marshall Space Flight Center.

The Eastman-Kodak mirror assembly being tested for the James Webb Space Telescope at the X-Ray Calibration Facility at Marshall Space Flight Center.

Stargazers

Whether you’re hoping for a view from the next generation James Webb Space Telescope or an x-ray look at a distant nebula, scientists at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center have played a role.

Mirrors of the JWST are being developed and tested at Marshall. The space-based telescope will offer an infrared-range look at the heavens, with some images in the visible range.

Scientists at Marshall also are working with the Chandra X-ray Observatory, which creates images of distant elements of the universe.

And when we’re ready to visit, NASA’s team at Marshall is taking the lead on developing the next heavy-lift launch vehicle, which will carry humans and all they need to live and study the universe up close into realms beyond low-earth orbit.

United Launch Alliance Atlas V lifts off from Space Launch Complex 41 carrying NASA’s Twin Radiation Belt Storm Probes payload.

Cloudbusters

It’s not every firm that congratulates its client for successfully landing the Curiosity rover on Mars. But United Launch Alliance does. The nationwide space firm, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, has an 800-employee rocket building facility in Decatur. Built from decades of experience creating the rockets that take payloads into space, the joint venture still supplies Atlas and Delta rockets when missions need to leave the planet.

Its website congratulates NASA for its “flawless landing” on Mars after a nine-month journey. The accompanying picture shows the ULA Atlas V that carried NASA’s project into space.

Earth Watchers

Spying on an enemy force and patrolling the border for illegal immigrants are the uses we think of today for unmanned aircraft systems—known familiarly as drones. But experts, plenty of whom are headquartered in Huntsville, anticipate that it won’t be long before they’re used more commonly to fight fires, to deliver disaster relief, to check out areas that have been contaminated by chemical spills or to help law enforcement in hot pursuit.

The UAS cluster is so strong in Huntsville that industry leaders are pooling their resources to lobby for selection as one of six centers operated by the Federal Aviation Administration to test the possibilities for integrating unmanned craft in the nation’s airspace.

“The Tennessee Valley area enjoys one of the highest concentrations of UAS expertise in the world,” Dallas Brooks, of Wyle CAS Inc., told Business Alabama. “We are looking forward to the opportunity to contribute in groundbreaking ways to this newest and most exciting area of aviation.”

Among the players in Huntsville are Raytheon, developer of the Tomahawk Block IV missile, a 550-mph remotely guided craft; Griffon Aerospace, which makes fiberglass composites for the craft; Redstone Arsenal, which supervises drone projects of the U.S. Army, and Chandler/May Inc., which makes unmanned craft.

Meanwhile, Boeing engineers in Huntsville and New Mexico are working on weapons to shoot down enemy drones.

PAC-3 missile developed by Boeing, part of the Army’s Ground-based Midcourse Defense system. 

Major players

Boeing came to Huntsville in the 1960s to build rockets that would take men to the moon. Despite a lull after the moon program, Boeing has come back strong. It celebrated 50 years in the Rocket City this year, noting its rank as the biggest aerospace company in the state.

The city is headquarters for two key Boeing defense projects—Strategic Missile and Defense Systems and Ground-based Midcourse Defense—but it’s also looking to space.

The company’s Exploration Launch Systems is centered in Huntsville, where engineers work on the nation’s new heavy-launch vehicle—the next-generation space workhorse that will carry scientists, experiments, equipment and more to and from the International Space Station.

Celebrating its Alabama anniversary, Boeing officials said, “Throughout Boeing’s 50 years of operation in Alabama, local employees have built a reputation for innovation and engineering excellence in space technology, systems engineering, and missile defense. Boeing engineers have achieved significant technology advances with programs such as the Saturn S-1C booster rocket that delivered astronauts to the moon; the Lunar Roving Vehicle that allowed human exploration of the moon’s surface; the Skylab Orbital Workshop; and the crew habitat for the International Space Station.”

Boeing has almost 3,000 employees in Huntsville.

Airbus’ Engineering Center in Mobile is a precursor to the recent announcement that the European air giant will build a $600 million, 1,000-employee commercial aircraft plant in Mobile. This center designs passenger interiors for Airbus aircraft.

Headline makers

Airbus was Alabama’s big newsmaker for 2012. Gov. Robert Bentley, the state’s U.S. senators and congressmen and women, local officials, and a host of Mobile area business leaders crowded into the convention center to welcome Fabrice Bregier and the Airbus team for the big announcement in July.

Hints of the announcement ran in news media around the world before the fact.

When the news finally came it was a whopper. The European commercial aircraft company, which twice nearly won a U.S. military contract for work in Mobile, left those plans idle and announced its first U.S. commercial aircraft assembly line for Brookley Aeroplex on the shores of Mobile Bay.

The 1,000-employee plant, expected to cost $600 million, will build 320neo craft—single-aisle fuel-savers that already have a waiting list of buyers.

More than the company’s own investment, local officials anticipate a burgeoning cluster of suppliers like the group attracted by the automotive industry; one Alabama economist predicted an annual economic impact of $100 million in wages with an extra $1 million in taxes to the city, $750,000 to Mobile County and $5 million to state coffers. The Mobile Press-Register quoted Moody’s Investor Service saying that while the city’s credit rating wasn’t changing yet, an anticipated measurable drop in unemployment would likely have that effect. 

Dreamers

Stratolaunch Systems, a new company founded by space pioneer Burt Rutan and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen picked Huntsville for its headquarters late in 2011.

The Stratolaunch team is developing a reusable launch system for commercial transportation to and from space. The key element—a super-wide-winged aircraft (think longer than a football field) like two 747s with a rocket between them—is expected to carry the rocket away from the earth’s surface, launch it from the air, and then return to earth to be used again.

The company plans to test fly its craft, which is being built in the Mojave Desert, in 2015 and to test its launch system the following year.

Like many space ventures, Stratolaunch is a team effort. Burt Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites, is building the aircraft. Another California firm, SpaceX, is building the booster and handling the launch design. Dynetics, also a Huntsville firm, is providing systems engineering and integration. Stratolaunch is responsible for the “mating and integration system” that unifies the project.

And more

Even before the big Airbus announcement, GE Aviation broke ground for a $50 million plant in Auburn, making super-alloy machine parts for jet engines.  Expected to open in 2013, the plant is expected to employ 300 to 400 people. GE Aviation said it chose Auburn for easy access to technical experts at Auburn University and Tuskegee University.

The maintenance, repair and overhaul sector got its own boost this year, when the Legislature passed a tax measure granting a tax break on parts, trying to help the industry even its competitive stance with neighboring states. Within months, a new MRO company, DRS Technologies, a Finmeccanica company, announced plans for a new maintenance/overhaul facility at South Alabama Regional Airport in Andalusia.

Nedra Bloom is the copy editor for Business Alabama

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