Questions raised about rocketmaker

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Morton Thiokol, the company charged with management problems by the President's shuttle commission, is a prime Pentagon contractor for missiles of almost every type. The company makes electronic control systems and the first stage of the big MX ICBM. Its solid-fuel propulsion systems help power Trident 2 submarine-launched missiles. Smaller Sidewinder air-to-air rockets and Harpoon antiship missiles use Thiokol components.

Some members of Congress are looking at reports of poor quality in some of these products. As yet, these reports are unsubstantiated, however, and the Pentagon has voiced no complaints.

``We've had no quality problems with them,'' an official of the Air Force's ICBM modernization office says.

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In its report, released Monday, the special commission appointed to investigate the shuttle disaster said that it was caused by failure of a joint in a solid-rocket booster made by Thiokol.

The commissioners further charged that Thiokol had known the joint was dangerous for years, and yet was slow to begin a safety redesign.

In recent months, Thiokol's image has also been tarnished by release of NASA documents blaming the company for a booster-assembly accident that took place before the shuttle disaster.

There have even been charges that Thiokol has engaged in petty retribution against its own employees. After candid testimony before the commission, two Thiokol engineers were reassigned to less-challenging duty -- although both have since been reinstated.

Overall, it has been a very damaging half-year for a company that had grown in size and reputation along with the US rocket force.

The Thiokol Corporation (the company was bought by Morton Salt Company in 1982) was one of the pioneers of solid-fuel missile propulsion. A Thiokol plant in a 20,000-acre patch of wasteland near Brigham City, Utah, began turning out solid-fuel motors for Minuteman ICBMs in the 1960s.

Since then Thiokol and its arch competitor, Hercules Inc., have grown to become the dominant companies in the narrow field of propulsion systems for big US strategic missiles, such as the MX and the Trident.

``Between them they account for 90 percent of that market,'' says Mary Schoenbrod, an analyst who studies Thiokol for the brokerage firm of Duff and Phelps.

Unlike aircraft, strategic missiles are built by a number of companies working together. Thiokol builds the MX first stage, for instance, while Hercules provides the third stage. (Other parts are provided by Aerojet and Rockwell.)

Thiokol also has a development contract for the new, small Midgetman mobile missile.

Thiokol's motors are used in smaller, tactical missiles as well. Among their projects: propulsion for Harm radar-seeking rockets, Patriot air-defense missiles, Maverick TV-guided missiles, the famous air-to-air Sidewinder, and the Army's antitank TOW. Thiokol flying drones are used in some US military target practice.

Small missiles are like bullets, however: Many companies make the same munition. So Thiokol faces much more competition in this area, notes Ms. Schoenbrod.

Overall, Thiokol ranks 56th on the Pentagon's list of the top 100 defense contractors for fiscal 1985, with $318 million worth of work. About 23 percent of Morton Thiokol earnings came from these contracts. By contrast, 15 percent were space shuttle derived.

Since the spotlight of the shuttle commission has begun lighting up Thiokol's operation, there have been rumors of quality problems with its Pentagon contracts.

``We've gotten a number of reports in the past concerning quality control over there,'' says a House staff investigator. This source says the reports are being examined, but nothing specific has yet been found.

Company spokesmen deny there have been any major flaws in their products for the Pentagon. Defense work may soon become a larger percentage of its business, but by default: Congress may well break Thiokol's current monopoly on shuttle booster production.

Rep. Robert G. Torricelli (D) of New Jersy, a member of the House Science and Technology Committee, says ``the struggle continues to get a second source'' for shuttle boosters. Mr. Torricelli adds that officials of rival Hercules have told him Thiokol uses outdated technology and dangerous facilities.

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