Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Let Skylab be a reminder of what happens to a neglected space station

Posted by John Keller

Everyone remember Skylab? You know, that orbiting laboratory that NASA operated as America's first space station from 1973 until, neglected, its orbit decayed in 1979 and Skylab burned up in the Earth's atmosphere before its remains crashed in the Southern Hemisphere -- some of it on Australia.

Such a waste.

Yes I know, there were REASONS that Skylab met such an ignominious end, most of them involving money, or the lack thereof. Skylab was a victim of NASA's success in the Apollo program that landed men on the moon for the first time. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, 1969, Apollo 11? Of course you remember all that.

What evolved from that summer day in 1969 when Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon in the lunar module, within several years, was a collective yawn from the public after the first few moon missions. Everyone wondered what was next. Well what was next was the Skylab space station, but after the first moon landing even Skylab wasn't all that exciting anymore.

So for Skylab, funding ran short, and the orbiting lab was mothballed. The plan was for the yet-to-be-developed U.S. space shuttle to refurbish Skylab and reinvigorate that space station program, which fallen into disuse.

The problem with that plan was the space shuttle didn't get developed in time to save Skylab. NASA couldn't boost it to a higher orbit, and the Earth's gravity eventually sucked the orbiting lab to its doom.

Now are you wondering why I brought this up? Well, indications are that we're ready to go through Skylab Part II. The International Space Station, the multi-nation legacy of Skylab and an early Russian space station called Mir, is ready to be abandoned. Space experts are starting to fret that chances are increasing of losing the newest Space Station.

The latest chapter began with the crash of a Russian rocket that was supposed to resupply the Space Station recently due to malfunction, leaving the International Space Station short of food, water, fuel, and other essentials.

The Space Station's current crew most likely will have to leave it before another resupply mission can be attempted. Now where do we see this going? Is it sounding familiar?

I'm wondering if, due to federal budget cuts here and around the world, the International Space Station could share the same fate as Skylab. What a coincidence that would be; can't you see the scenario unfolding? Lack of money, lack of interest, lack of a way even to get to the orbiting lab.

I wish I didn't see it happening like this, but I do. Here's another delicious twist on dwindling government money. On 20 July 1969 I was a 10-year-old kid on vacation at McGrath State Beach, a campground in California, listening on a transistor radio as Armstrong and Aldrin maneuvered the Apollo 11 lunar module to the lunar surface.

This campground where I listened to history in the making is scheduled to close permanently this fall. The reason: not enough money to operate it and fix a crucial sewer line.

Launch of 737 MAX restores competitive balance between Boeing and Airbus for narrow-body jetliner market

Posted by John Keller

So Boeing's finally done it; they've introduced a fuel-efficient narrow-body jetliner -- the 737 MAX -- in response to the Airbus launch last December of the A320neo family of single-aisle medium-range passenger jets. It had been anticipated for a while, and was seen as an imperative for Boeing to come up with an alternative to the Airbus A320neo, and fast.

Airbus introduced the A320neo -- short for new engine option -- less than a year ago, and at the Paris Air Show last June absolutely wiped the floor with Boeing in the perpetual two-company struggle for a dominant share of the global airliner market.

Normally the big international air shows like Paris and Farnborough see roughly equal aircraft sales among Boeing and Airbus, but this past June it was different. Airbus took orders at Paris for 730 aircraft worth a total of $72.2 billion -- 667 of those orders for the A320neo. Boeing, by contrast, sold 142 commercial aircraft at Paris.

One of the big reasons for the lopsided sales performance at Paris was the lack of a Boeing offering to counter the A320neo, which at the time was promising to be the most fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly single-aisle medium-range aircraft available in the world. by the end of the show, orders for the A320neo family had reached 1,029, making it the best selling airliner in the history of commercial aviation, Airbus officials claimed.

The sales showing at Paris was so lopsided, that experts believe Boeing had to come up with an alternative, or continue losing sales to Airbus. That alternative was announced on Tuesday, but with strikingly few details about the 737 MAX. We know it will be a variant of the venerable Boeing 737, with three different versions, but no details on lengths or seating configurations released, as of yet.

The twin-engine 737 MAX will have will have LEAP-1B engines from CFM International S.A. that will be optimized for the new Boeing aircraft. The A320neo, by contrast, will offer a choice of the CFM International LEAP-X or the Pratt & Whitney PW1100G PurePower engines. The A320neo is scheduled to enter service in 2015 or 2016, while the 737 MAX most likely won't enter service until 2017.

Boeing's announcement Tuesday of the new 737 MAX claimed orders for the new jet, but gave no details on which airlines might be most interested in the new aircraft. At least one tantalizing possibility for the future 737 MAX might be Southwest Airlines, which operates versions of the Boeing 737 exclusively, and by 2017 might be ready to replenish its hard-working fleet.

We know something more about the A320neo than we do about the 737 MAX. The A320neo will consists of variants of the Airbus A320, A321, and A319, seating from 124 and 220 passengers in a variety of seating configurations. No details yet about seating configurations for the 737 MAX. We'll learn more as time goes on.

On hindsight, it seems Boeing had little choice in offering up its 737 model for upgrades to the 737 MAX configuration, given time constraints and intense pressure from Airbus. Still, I had been hoping for something a little different, and perhaps much bolder.

Boeing has been heavily touting its latest all-new passenger aircraft design, the 787 Dreamliner, for years. The composite-design, fuel-efficient 787 is a long-range widebody aircraft designed to compete on international routes. For an answer to the A320neo, I had hoped for a narrow-body version of the 787, with composite construction and those large passenger windows that Boeing makes so much of on the 787.

We may see a miniature single-aisle version of the 787 yet, but probably not for a while, if ever. As it is, however, we've see a restoration of the competitive balance between Boeing and Airbus for the future single-aisle jetliner market.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

More meaningless posturing over "automatic" cuts in the defense budget

Posted by John Keller

I don't know whether to be amused or frustrated over political rhetoric coming out of Washington about these so-called "automatic" cuts in the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) budget over the next decade if Congress doesn't either reduce projected spending or raise taxes.

First, talking about "required" defense budget cuts right now anywhere beyond federal fiscal year 2013 is just silly, empty, political fluff. I get tired of beating this dead horse, but I'll say it again: Congress does whatever it wants to do on a year-by-year basis. There are NO "required" cuts in the future because every Congress acts on its own, regardless of promises made in the past.

Nothing's binding; it's all just a bunch of talk. Rather shocking behavior to see from Washington, don't you think?

Look at the stories making the rounds over the past few days containing dire predictions of hurting our national defense due to potential "automatic cuts totaling an additional half a trillion dollars" ... "if Congress fails to enact additional deficit reduction legislation by the end of the year." You can read rhetoric like that in a story today in the Los Angeles Times entitled "Pentagon says projected spending cuts could undermine security."

Take a close look at these stories. They all contain caveats like "unless Congress decided to overturn the cuts." IF Congress were to overturn the cuts? They actually mean WHEN Congress overturns the cuts, as lawmakers, in their wisdom and calculation, undoubtedly will do.

They always do.

Every Congress acts on its own every federal fiscal year. They're bound by nothing in the past. They start every year out with a clean slate. Overturning commitments made in the past is just part of the routine, and can be predicted like the sun rising in the east.

So, with this in mind, every dire prediction you read about "automatic" defense cuts over the next 10 years is all just political theater performed to exert pressure for the perceived need to do something now. In this case the pressure being applied is about raising taxes, and the rhetoric is intended to hold the DOD budget hostage to make that happen.

The budget will be cut drastically in the future unless Congress enacts new taxes, we hear from Washington. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta trotted out a statement this week warning these deep cuts in the defense budget would hurt national security, and that the American people should accept higher taxes, rather than deep cuts in the defense budget.

It's right off the Obama Administration script. Panetta delivered his lines like the Democrat party pro he is. I remember years ago interviewing Panetta in his Capitol Hill office when he was a congressman representing Monterey, Calif. He was a skilled, experienced political infighter then, and he's a skilled, experienced political infighter today. Same party, same script, different job.

So, if you find yourself starting to get worked up over future military budget cuts based on what you're hearing out of Washington, just take a breath and remind yourself that this is only a movie.

Because that's all it is.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Smoke, mirrors, and other hocus-pocus take center stage at U.S. deficit-reduction talks

Posted by John Keller

You gotta love some of the proposals tossed onto the table during the continuing deficit-reduction talks among members the U.S. Congress and the administration of President Barack Obama.

The latest proposal from the Senate's so-called "Gang of Six" senators from both parties seeks to make "$3.75 trillion in savings over 10 years" and "contains $1.2 trillion in new revenues."

First, predicting how Congress will spend money a decade in the future is like predicting the weather in 2086. Of the Democrat and Republican lawmakers who are trying to convince us now how they'll spend money in 10 years, well, many of them won't even be around then, so what do they care about commitments they make today?

If Congress were to approve such a scheme, they'll be able to hear the giggles in Washington from Kansas City. Some of those senators and representatives in 10 years will be out of office, some will be dead, a few might still be in Congress, but no one will remember by then. Long story short, 10-year spending plans in Congress are pure fantasy cooked up to placate important constituencies, and only for the time being.

If Congress is going to make meaningful cuts in federal spending, they have to do it now, this year, before the 2012 elections. Anything other than that is something akin to the guy staggering home with lipstick on his collar at 2 a.m., smelling of whiskey, and telling his wife that he was at a midnight mass.

You can't trust politicians to do two things: tell the truth, and not spend taxpayer money; it's just not in their makeup. History bears this out.

Second, I just love this government rhetoric about "new revenues." The word revenue means different things to different people. In the private sector, revenue means income that a company receives from its normal business activities, usually from the sale of goods and services to customers. More to the point, in private business revenue is earned. Not so in government.

In government, revenue refers to tax money confiscated from citizens. It's not earned, it's simply taken -- with or without the taxpayer's consent. So whenever you hear anyone in government talking about "new revenues," just substitute "tax hikes," and see how that proposal plays with you.

That's just the point, isn't it? The government is just playing with us. No wonder so many American citizens so fed up.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Must an entire sector of U.S. civil aviation be demonized in the interests of Obama re-election campaign?

Posted by John Keller

President Barack Obama, in a speech at the White House Wednesday, saw fit to paint an important sector of U.S. civil aviation -- business aviation -- as an icon of corporate greed worthy of contempt by ordinary working Americans who have been hit hard by the long economic recession.

Business aviation, which consists of private jets, crop dusters, and corporate aircraft of many different kinds, provides jobs to factory workers at places like Hawker Beechcraft, Bombardier, Cessna, and Piper. This sector of our civil aviation industry also provides livelihoods for those who work at fixed-based operators, aircraft parts sellers, fuel vendors, and even publishing.

Business aviation, in short, provides honest work for many Americans -- many of whom are like the rest of us, just getting by and struggling to make ends meet. Instead, our president who's running an increasingly desperate campaign for re-election in 2012, wants to tar these people as purveyors of corporate greed.

The president told a news conference Wednesday, "The tax cuts I’m proposing we get rid of are tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires; tax breaks for oil companies and hedge fund managers and corporate jet owners."

Corporate jet owners must be bad, even though they provide employment for a large sector of U.S. civil aviation, our president reasons. Well this just isn't true.

Corporate jet owners aren't fat-cats who light big cigars with hundred-dollar bills, as the president and many of his supporters would like us to think. They are people running important industries who can't afford to waste time in commercial airports waiting for commercial flights. Without the benefit of private aviation, these industry executives often cannot make money or continue to employ workers.

And this does not even address the other American industries that our president is trying to hurt here. I used to get a paycheck from the oil industry. So did my dad, and a lot of other people I know. My dad's paychecks, which had the name Chevron up at the top, helped feed and clothe me as I was growing up, and helped pay my way through college. This so-called "big oil" money helped sustain me and my entire family. It's the same with business aviation.

Those who must use corporate jets work hard, they hire people, and they don't deserve this kind of disrespect from our nation's president. Business jet manufacturers have long been demonized as serving only the undeserving rich. They have endured the public's disdain, and have labored under so-called "luxury tax" burdens that few other sectors of our economy must bear.

The Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), a trade association in Arlington, Va., that represents the nation's aviation and aerospace companies, also was quick to react to President Obama's unfair and heavy-handed rhetoric.

"We're disturbed by President Obama's remarks on business aviation today," wrote Marion Blakey, president and chief executive officer of the AIA shortly after Obama's press conference. "It seems odd that he would undermine the aviation industry one day after visiting Alcoa's factory and praising the workers who make parts and materials that are critical to producing business jets," Blakey wrote. "General aviation plays an important role in our economy and took a substantial hit in the recent recession. We feel that disparaging comments from the president regarding business jet users are not conducive to promoting jobs, investment and economic growth."

Nevertheless, President Obama said at Wednesday's news conference, "I think it’s only fair to ask an oil company or a corporate jet owner that has done so well to give up a tax break that no other business enjoys. I don’t think that’s real radical. I think the majority of Americans agree with that."

Well here's an American who doesn't, and I'd like to hear the opinions of every employee who's involved in the civil aviation industry on the subject. What the civil aviation industry does not need is job-killing tax increases. What the civil aviation industry needs right now is sensible economic policies that create and maintain jobs, and get unemployed and under-employed Americans back to work.

This won't happen if the president continues to demonize legitimate industries, and to pit different groups of Americans against one another.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Today's laser weapons buzz may mean military deployment will be sooner than we think

Posted by John Keller

There's suddenly a lot of buzz in our industry about laser weapons development. Several different technological advances and upcoming laser weapons tests has me thinking that the first field deployments of laser weapons may be sooner than we think.

The latest news is a completed systems integration by Boeing Directed Energy Systems of the U.S. Army's truck-mounted High Energy Laser Technology Demonstrator (HEL TD) -- a high-energy solid-state laser weapon designed to shoot down incoming rockets, mortars, artillery shells, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) -- and planned tests of the experimental weapon this fall at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

That announcement, which came on 27 June, follows closely on last week's $39.8 million contract award from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. in San Diego to develop a 150-kilowatt high-energy solid-state laser weapon that could be mounted to ships, fighter aircraft, armored combat vehicles, and perhaps even unmanned vehicles. The contract is part of the fourth phase of the DARPA High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS) program.

Just two months ago laser weapons experts from DARPA and the U.S. Navy demonstrated a high-energy laser off the California coast as the laser disabled the engines on a small boat. This demonstration was part of the military's Joint High Powered Solid State Laser (JHPSSL) program. The laser fired off California, called the Maritime Laser Demonstrator (MLD), was built by the Northrop Grumman Corp. Space Systems segment in Redondo Beach, Calif.

So what might all this activity in laser weapons research mean? It might mean nothing beyond several programs coming to fruition at the same time. On the other hand, it might mean a lot.

We often read in the press about nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missile development in Iran. Now couple that with the upcoming demonstration of a powerful laser weapon designed to defeat incoming rockets and missiles. Coincidence? Maybe, and maybe not.

Despite several laser weapons research programs recently yielding promising technology, a lot more has to be done before these technologies deploy in fielded military systems. The military services first must demonstrated a tangible need for laser weapons, and then they need to find money in their budgets to develop and produce them. That's much more difficult than it sounds.

Still, we've developed high-energy laser weapons technology, and see a demonstrated threat out there. The rest is up to the U.S. military to put two and two together.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Smart money today isn't betting on the success of space exploration

Posted by John Keller

Wanna know where American space-exploration efforts are headed? Just watch how the smart money bets.

The Boeing Co., one of the world's largest and most influential aerospace companies, is laying off 510 workers in the company's Space Exploration division in Houston, the company announced today. That's 510 employees. That doesn't sound like Boeing has a lot of confidence in the future of U.S. space exploration.

Okay, Boeing officials are saying the layoffs are due to the planned completion of the Space Shuttle program. I'll buy that. But take a look at the long-term prospects for sustained U.S. space exploration, and you'll find not much there.

It's not that U.S. agencies like NASA, which are in place to promote space exploration, don't want to pursue new projects with vigor. There's just no money, and little, if any, national will to send humans into space on any great scale.

The Shuttle program is ending, the International Space Station is being mothballed, and there's really nothing on the horizon with any prospect for adequate funding to generate much more than the occasional press release.

U.S. space exploration is heading for another dark age. It reminds me of the 1970s after the Apollo program, and after the first U.S. space station program, called Skylab, lost its luster. Apollo was done, the moon was conquered, the nation was exhausted from Vietnam. Nobody wanted to put serious time, energy, and money into space anymore.

The Skylab space station, launched in 1973, was left adrift in space without any support. The Saturn V program was over, the Space Shuttle wasn't ready yet, and Skylab in 1979 sunk into the Earth's atmosphere and burned up on re-entry.

The first Space Shuttle launched in 1981 -- two years too late to save Skylab. Now the Space Shuttle program is over, leaving the U.S. with no spacecraft capable of serving the International Space Station. Russia, about the only country left with the rocket capability to get to the Space Station, doesn't want to pay for supporting that mission anymore.

It's looking like the International Space Station could face the same fate as Skylab. I'm betting that about 510 soon-to-be-former employees of Boeing today are thinking the same thing.