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Morton Thiokol Faces Stiff Competition : Space Shuttle Disaster May Open Door to Rivals for NASA Contract

March 17, 1986|WILLIAM C. REMPEL | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — Morton Thiokol is a company that power built. Deafening, fiery, earth-trembling power. The power of massive first-stage rockets surging with a million pounds of thrust. The power that muscles space ships from their launch pads and hurls them beyond gravity.

Since the dawn of America's manned space program, every U.S. astronaut has relied on Thiokol power.

But that power failed on Jan. 28 when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, apparently because of a faulty Thiokol booster rocket. It was a particularly bad time for such a devastating failure.

Already the company's exclusive hold on shuttle booster production was being challenged. From the halls of Congress to the deserts of Utah, competitors for the potential $300-million to $500-million shuttle market were pushing for a chance to share Thiokol's booster rocket monopoly.

Hercules Inc., for example, based in Delaware, already was building a $140-million automated plant just 90 miles from the Utah site where Thiokol has been making its rockets for 30 years. The new, robot-manned Hercules facility will be able to manufacture the giant shuttle boosters by summer--if the company can capture a piece of that business from Thiokol.

"We just can't let that kind of market go uncontested," E. A. Mettenet, president of Hercules Aerospace Products Group in Utah, said.

Also, there were clear signs in Washington that the lobbying efforts of Thiokol's rivals were opening the door to increased competition. Only days before the shuttle accident, in fact, NASA had agreed to solicit "second source" proposals--the first step toward sharing at least a portion of the booster market with a second rocket maker.

And now there are indications that Thiokol's rocket industry dominance could be further challenged because of the shuttle disaster.

Challenger's crash will "make it much easier" to promote competition for booster suppliers, Rep. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.) predicted. The House science and technology subcommittee member said the crash underscores "the importance of real competition."

"The United States cannot remain captive to one solid rocket supplier," he said in a telephone interview. Torricelli added: "The lack of competition can breed more than waste--it can breed laziness and compromise with safety. I'm not accusing Thiokol of that, but competition is the best deterrent."

By 1988, when Thiokol's current 15-year contract with NASA expires, it is estimated that the company will have received $1.6 billion from the government. It costs an estimated $8 million to $9 million to make each solid rocket booster for the space shuttle program.

If Thiokol feels besieged by the demands of competition and the pressures of a politically sensitive accident investigation, it shows no signs of surrendering any market share without a fight. It is continuing negotiations with NASA for another order of 120 booster rockets and reportedly is offering to reduce prices substantially.

"We're not about to roll over and play dead--stick our feet in the air," one company source said. "People here have a lot of pride."

It is a response that could have been expected from a company that has grown accustomed to success. In fact, the story of Morton Thiokol is an American history lesson rich in entrepreneurial enterprise, serendipitous discovery and high-stakes competition.

The Morton half of the corporate family is a direct descendant of the Morton Salt Co., an institution of Midwest commerce since 1848. It is the same company that in 1914 adopted what remains the classic advertising motto: "When it rains, it pours."

The company thrived on salt. It supplied the booming Chicago meat-packing industry of the 1850s. It supplied the Union Army during the Civil War.

Through more than a century, salt was the steady--if unflamboyant--cash generator that financed the company's steady growth. Over the years, corporate acquisitions and development of a chemical division converted the Midwest salt mining company into a billion-dollar conglomerate in salt, pharmaceuticals, household cleansers and specialty chemicals.

Sought Chemical Firm

In 1982 the company sold off its pharmaceutical interests and with the profits went shopping for a specialty chemical business. It found Thiokol available for $540 million.

While Morton relied historically on that ancient product, salt, Thiokol was betting on a product of the future--rocketry. Ironically, the company got its start thanks to a laboratory accident.

It was on a day in 1926 that a Kansas City chemist failed in an attempt to create a new, cheap antifreeze compound. Instead, he fouled his lab with an odorous gunk that could neither be dissolved nor flushed down the sink. But when a piece fell on the floor, it bounced.

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