Hercules Aerospace is awaiting word on a $1 billion contract to produce the next generation of solid rocket boosters, what could be the biggest contract the Utah firm ever received.

The company was host this week to some Mississippi officials who are trying to decide how to contend with 1,400 workers expected to descend on their community when the advanced solid rocket motor facility is built.NASA is evaluating proposals to build the government-owned, contractor-operated rocket booster facility in Yellow Creek, Miss.

The ASRM is the next generation of boosters that will take over heavy lift capabilities for the nation's space program. Morton Thiokol holds the contract for the boosters through the mid-1990s but opted not to compete for the advanced motors.

Hercules teamed with Atlantic Research, Martin Marietta's Michaud unit, Bechtel and other operations to provide one-stop shopping for NASA, from building the plant to making the rockets.

Kenneth Miller, executive director of the Corinth, Miss., Chamber of Commerce Industrial Development association, headed the 13-member delegation that toured the Salt Lake area.

"We represent a group called the NASA Impact Committee, and we are here primarily to determine the needs of the Hercules and its quest for construction of the advanced solid rocket motors that are going to be built at a site very near Corinth."

The delegates visited Brighton High School, the Bell Canyon Learning Center, Willow Creek Montessori School, Kearns High School's model child development lab and Alta View Hospital.

Salt Lake City was the last stop for the group, which also visited Lockheed's Sunnyvale, Calif., operation and Aerojet in Sacramento. The delegates returned Friday to northeast Mississippi.

"We know the impact's going to be tremendous," Miller said. "We want to make that transition for the people moving in there as smooth as possible."

The Hercules-Atlantic Research team submitted its proposal on the project last October. The contract is expected to be awarded sometime in April.

"Where we are in the process is normally considered sensitive," said Ed Haenke, procurement director for the Marshall Space Flight Center. Marshall, in Huntsville, Ala., oversees propulsion systems for NASA.

But, Haenke added, "We're getting down there" to making a decision.

While industry insiders contend the Hercules-Atlantic Research team is a winner, Congress is, as with all federal programs, dealing out limited dollars. And, combined with the swollen federal deficit and problems with the nation's savings and loans, the ASRM project must compete against the redesigned solid rocket motors.

The $450 million solid rocket redesign program was undertaken by NASA and Morton Thiokol following the shuttle Challenger accident. NASA and the aerospace industry hailed the boosters as the safest ever flown in the history of solid rockets.

Add to that the trend to putting more emphasis on the private sector - and a government-owned, contractor-run plant may face stiff opposition in Congress when it comes down to paying the tab.