Utahns are mistaken if they think NASA is turning its back on the state and Morton Thiokol when space agency officials talk of building a new government-owned facility to manufacture the next generation of space shuttle booster rockets, a high-ranking NASA official says.
J.R. Thompson, director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., said everyone from Morton Thiokol to the local media to the man on the street has overreacted to statements he and other NASA brass made to Congress last week about plans to locate a new booster manufacturing facility outside Utah, preferably on government-owned land along the Gulf Coast.Thompson, who was in Ogden Thursday to pump hands with Morton Thiokol's space shuttle subcontractors and mend a few fences, said people are forgetting that NASA and Morton Thiokol will remain partners in the shuttle business well into the next decade, when the new, larger boosters capable of carrying bigger payloads are expected to be ready for flight.
"Morton Thiokol will be NASA's sole source for boosters for another 10 years," Thompson said, noting that between now and then the Utah rocket giant is scheduled to deliver motors for 79 additional shuttle flights, plus make ground tests at a total cost of about $3 billion.
"Very few contractors in the shuttle program have that kind of commitment from NASA," Thompson stressed. "That's one helluva commitment to Morton Thiokol and Utah."
He said NASA isn't crying wolf when it says it wants to build its own state of the art booster manufacturing facility. Such a facility simply doesn't exist now and probably never will unless NASA takes the initiative.
"In today's cost-competitive environment, the incentive (for private contractors) to upgrade existing facilities hasn't been there. We wouldn't be talking about this if it just duplicated existing facilities. We need that upgraded plant."
Thompson personally favors a government-owned operation to a contractor-owned facility because it increases NASA's options.
Thompson also said locating the new booster plant is still open for discussion despite comments to Congress suggesting otherwise. A site selection committee has been formed and its job in future months will be to recommend a suitable location for such a facility, he said. However, because both rail and water transportation capability are high on NASA's shopping list, it's still unlikely Morton Thiokol's Wasatch Operations will merit more than a cursory look.
Thompson said he has yet to hear from Utah's congressional delegation regarding NASA's long-range plans to produce its own boosters, but when he does, he's ready to stand his ground.
"They've got their job to do, and I've got mine," he said.