Hughes Aircraft will make a bid later this month to build a rocket system that will launch satellites now grounded because of the space shuttle Challenger disaster, The Times has learned.
Hughes is currently holding discussions with Rockwell International and Boeing Co. to form a business team to bid for an Air Force program called the medium launch vehicle, worth upwards of $1 billion in potential business.
If Hughes wins the Air Force program, it would become the first U.S. company to enter the rocket production business in decades. Ever since the space shuttle was developed in the 1970s, the nation's expendable rocket booster industry has languished.
The program would represent a major new venture for the Culver City-based defense electronics, missile and satellite manufacturer.
"We are planning to bid for the Air Force program," said Albert Wheelon, Hughes executive vice president. "We will team with a number of other companies, but no agreements have been signed yet."
Plans to Buy at Least 12
A Boeing spokesman confirmed that his firm is holding discussions with Hughes but said he could provide no details about what Boeing's involvement would be.
Rockwell officials said they would neither confirm nor deny that they are talking with Hughes.
The Air Force has said it plans to buy at least 12 medium launch vehicles through the early 1990s. The Air Force is expected to issue two study contracts soon worth $5 million each. The first launch would be in 1989.
A variant of the Saturn rocket used to take U.S. astronauts to the moon is one possible system that Hughes will propose to the Air Force, Wheelon said.
The heavy-lift Saturn has been out of production since the early 1970s, but it has the most reliable record of any U.S. rocket system. The Saturn never experienced a launch failure in 18 Apollo and Skylab missions.
The Saturn V booster was capable of lifting 120 tons--240,000 pounds--of payload to low Earth orbit. The Saturn 1B could lift about one-fifth of that.
By comparison, the space shuttle is supposed to lift about 65,000 pounds, but it has never achieved that.
It was not clear whether Hughes will propose the Saturn V, or a smaller Saturn 1B configuration, or an entirely new configuration.
Boeing built the huge first stage of the Saturn and integrated the three stages of the entire rocket during the Apollo program. Rockwell International's Rocketdyne division built the F-1 engines that powered the first and second stages of the vehicle.
A Hughes venture into rocket boosters would not represent an entirely unknown line of work for the company, Wheelon noted.
Assure Access to Space
"We do all of the propulsion work that boosts our satellites from low Earth orbit to geosynchronous orbit at 22,300 miles up," he said. "We are already in the propulsion business."
Hughes communications satellites have integral rocket motors that place payloads in high orbit and keep them on station. The propulsion systems contain guidance and control systems that are also present in boosters launched from Earth.
Wheelon said Hughes' interest in entering the launch business is to assure access to space for its commercial satellites. Since the Challenger disaster, NASA and the Air Force have been debating whether to continue offering commercial launch services.
Hughes is the largest producer of communications satellites.
An Air Force spokesman said that other bids for the medium launch vehicle program are expected from the three current producers of boosters.
General Dynamics is expected to bid its Atlas rocket, McDonnell Douglas its Delta and General Dynamics its Titan. Versions of those systems have been flying for two decades.
'Lot of Bits and Pieces'
"They have a terrific head start, but what they are building now is not what is needed," Wheelon said.
"There are a lot of bits and pieces of rockets, (and) those are available to anybody," Wheelon pointed out.
The bits and pieces refer to various liquid rocket engines, solid rocket boosters and rocket stages, which are often mated in various combinations to serve different missions.
In addition to bidding for the Air Force program, Hughes has done exploratory work on building its own launch complex on a Pacific Island near the Equator, possibly Jarvis Island, part of the Carolinas chain.
Such a site would have an advantage over the NASA launch site at Kennedy Space Center. Because of an assist from the Earth's rotation that is greatest at the Equator, a rocket can launch a 25% greater payload there than in Florida.