A meeting with aerospace industry officials last week in Salt Lake City paved the way for a commitment from the industry, Department of Defense and NASA to reopen a needed plant that produces rayon for solid rocket boosters.
Avtex Fibers-Front Royal last Thursday shut down its Virginia plant that produces rayon fibers for booster nozzles, citing problems with cheaper foreign imports.The company, which has had continuing problems in complying with state environmental and worker-safety standards, is the sole source of the material for the nation's space and defense programs.
The plant that employs 1,300 people was to reopen starting Thursday.
John Gregg, AVTEX chairman and chief executive officer, said the company, encouraged by NASA and the DOD, "was able to negotiate a long-term contract with certain aerospace industrial companies that will allow the plant to return to full production."
Morton Thiokol, the largest user of the rayon fibers, and NASA, which uses about 5 percent of Avtex's rayon products, are playing key roles in the quest to keep the plant open and supplies flowing.
"I can say that we are taking an active and aggressive role in the negotiations; we do intend to support Avtex to get them going again in order to minimize the effects on our programs and that the other user industries are doing likewise," Morton Thiokol spokesman Rocky Raab said.
"Part of the negotiation does in fact involve financial assistance. And there are other elements involved also, but I can't give you specifics" on the proposals, Raab said, adding more information likely would be available Friday.
NASA earlier stated it did not want to dive in and rescue Avtex, preferring the industry explore ways to keep the plant open.
Ed Medal, spokesman for NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., said Wednesday government officials were working for the firm to "come to terms with other companies."
"We are continuing our discussions with Avtex, and trying to work out a financial package with them. There has not been a formalized agreement signed, and until then, it would be premature to comment" on the deal, said Medal.
The weeklong closure was the second time in six months the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, DOD and industry scrambled to pick up slack from problems with a sole-source supplier.
In May, Pacific Engineering Production Co.'s Henderson, Nev., plant that made a key ingredient in rocket fuel was leveled by a series of explosions. The government negotiated with a second firm to supply ammonium perchlorate for the space and defense programs while PEPCON rebuilds.
"We've been in continuing discussions with Avtex as well as looking at alternate sources, and we continue with both of those avenues," Medal said. "There's a company, North American Rayon in Tennessee, that has a similar type of process" for rayon fibers. "We are discussing the possibilities of them being a source. Again, it's just preliminary."
The rayon fibers are wrapped, coated and placed inside solid rocket motor nozzles to protect the metal inside the boosters that lift civilian and military payloads into space during the thermal assault of ignition.
"We are in fact eager to or anxiously looking to get Avtex back in business," Raab said. "At the same time, we are determined to identify and develop an additional source of the rayon yarn."