Hercules Aerospace Co. is savoring its winning a $13 million bid as the prime contractor in a NASA study that will examine ways to improve solid rocket motor nozzle design.

The study is the first prime contract Hercules has won in direct competition with Morton Thiokol Inc., said Richard Herman, program manager for NASA's Solid Propulsion Integrity Program at the West Valley firm."It's the first time we've gone out and competed head to head with Thiokol and beat them," Herman said. "Our competition on nozzles was Thiokol. It's the first time we've had a chance to compete with them on NASA."

Hercules has been a subcontractor to other manufacturers for other military and space projects, but the award is the first time the firm flies solo.

The two-year contract is an outgrowth of the Solid Rocket Motor Integrity Program begun by NASA in 1984 following near failures of key equipment during two space-shuttle flights. It was determined the failures were in part due to the industry's inability to adequately double check the materials and workmanship.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Congress, Department of Defense and the space industry were concerned about how well and how much engineers understood the boosters they were producing.

The study, which has a completion date in mid-1989, specifically examines solid rocket boosters used for the shuttle.

Other problems encountered with the rockets, such as glitches with joints and seals, were handled in the Rogers Commission report and the changes mandated in the wake of the Challenger explosion.

The $13 million contract Hercules won deals specifically with design, production and verification of rocket nozzles.

Hercules also is working as a subcontractor to Science Applications International Corp. on a related $4.7 million study that evaluates problems with bonding on booster rockets.

Adhesives have caused major problems for engineers trying to develop a sealant that can withstand the thermal assault of liftoff and maintain its holding power.

"In spite of all the things you've seen being done with the redesign and requalification effort up north and all the stuff you've heard, they've been targeting toward getting the bird up in the air. Our focus is more basic technology," Herman said.

"We do not go out and build big rocket motors and fire them and fly them. We never get to full scale. That's not our job. Our job is to identify how to do something in full scale and let some other program elsewhere do it."

Hercules is in the process of lining up subcontractors to perform various aspects of the study. Engineers from Lockheed Missile Systems, Hercules and Boeing head up the design, production and verification sections, respectively.

"This is going to be the standard," Herman said. "NASA's intent is that this program will be the standard in the industry for nozzles. And everybody will use it, instead of everybody going off on their own, which is what they've done."

An estimated 18 companies will participate in the study.

The first review of the study, which has options for three single-year extensions, is scheduled Dec. 1 at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.