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NASA, Thiokol in Contract Talks at Time of Blast

February 23, 1986|PETER H. KING and MAURA DOLAN | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — At the time of the Challenger disaster, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the builder of the spacecraft's solid rocket boosters were in the midst of negotiating a new contract and the space agency had announced its intention to solicit competition for future rocket contracts.

A NASA shuttle program official said that Morton Thiokol Inc. officials "naturally were not pleased" with the specter of competition over a billion-dollar contract it had held exclusively since 1973. The official declined comment, however, when asked if this could have brought an element of added pressure to the firm's internal deliberations over whether to recommend launching Challenger.

Why Morton Thiokol management decided to recommend launch over the objections of 15 of its own engineers, who were concerned about how seals in the solid rockets would perform in abnormally cold weather, has emerged as a primary focus of investigations into the nation's worst space disaster.

Failure of a seam in the spacecraft's right-hand solid rocket booster is considered a primary suspect in the catastrophe that claimed the lives of seven crew members, including a New Hampshire schoolteacher who was chosen to be the first private American citizen in space.

NASA officials and Morton Thiokol executives and engineers who participated in lengthy prelaunch discussions about the safety of the seals in the freezing weather at Cape Canaveral on the morning of launch are expected to testify Tuesday and Wednesday here before a presidential commission investigating the Challenger disaster.

Interviews Continue

Smaller teams of the 13-member commission continued to interview principals in the discussions Saturday, trying to determine what prompted NASA officials and Morton Thiokol management to override what had been unanimous opposition to launch by engineers who helped design and build the 149-foot rockets.

Thomas Russell, a Morton Thiokol spokesman, told United Press International from company headquarters in Chicago that the firm was "very comfortable" with its decision-making process and he challenged the notion that the pressure of contract negotiations might have influenced the call on whether to recommend launch.

'Overriding Pressure'

Russell said that Morton Thiokol is the only firm now geared up to manufacture the solid rocket motors--the interior of the rockets, including propellant, which are loaded into reusable casings for final assembly at Kennedy Space Center--and added that it would take at least five years before a competitor could start taking away business.

"Is that an overriding pressure to do something that is contrary to our best judgment?" UPI reported Russell as saying. "I think I could argue it both ways. If the (shuttle) program is going on, we're going to have the contract."

Attempts to reach Russell by telephone were unsuccessful.

Negotiations to Resume

The negotiations for the contract, suspended when the Challenger blew up Jan. 28, will resume perhaps as early as next week, said Russell Bardos, NASA's manager of shuttle propulsion productivity and operations support.

Analysts have estimated that Morton Thiokol generates between $300 million and $400 million in yearly revenues from its relationship with NASA, a figure that company officials do not dispute.

The new contract will run through 1988 and involve the packing of 120 of the reusable rockets, enough for 60 flights. At the same time, NASA had announced in late December that when the new contract expired in 1988 or 1989 it would for the first time entertain competitive bids for part of what would be the fourth rocket contract it has let since the shuttle program began in the 1970s.

Bardos said that NASA wanted to develop a "second source" of rockets for several reasons. "One was we wanted a broader industrial base, rather than having one plant and one company producing these motors. . . . Also, we thought there was potential for long-term savings. We thought competition would be healthy."

He said that the December announcement by acting Administrator William R. Graham did not please Morton Thiokol officials.

'Were Not Pleased'

"Naturally," he said, "they indicated there was no need for a second source and they were not pleased with the activity related to the second source."

However, Bardos said the announcement did have "some influence on lowering the price" sought by Morton Thiokol when negotiations commenced two weeks before the Challenger flight. He estimated that they would have concluded in about another two weeks had the Challenger mission been successful.

In a related development, NASA's new shuttle chief on Saturday appointed a respected space agency engineer as his top deputy. The announcement appeared calculated to help restore a sense of forward momentum to NASA, a once relatively glamorous federal agency which in the month since the disaster has appeared to be in a state of institutional drift.

'Can-do Spirit'

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