The calendar reads mid-March. Normally by this time, John Thirkill has frequented the local ski resorts at least a half-dozen times.
But not this winter.Winter 1987-88 instead has been one of all work and no play for Thirkill, vice president of Morton Thiokol's Space Operations, who is overseeing the company's gargantuan task of redesigning the booster rockets that will soon carry the space shuttle aloft.
His already difficult job has been further complicated by the fact that this has been a season filled with upheaval and distractions:
The redesign program weathered a minor calamity in late December when an outer boot ring on the booster's nozzle crumbled during a static test. America's news media immediately bemoaned the failed component as a major setback of the nation's manned space-flight program despite Morton Thiokol's insistence to the contrary.
NASA indirectly gave Morton Thiokol a vote of no confidence recently when it recommended to Congress building a $1.2 million government-owned plant to build new shuttle boosters.
Speculation persists that Morton Thiokol Chairman Charles Locke will sell the company's aerospace arm if the price is right.
Funding restraints on the company's shuttle contract caused the cancellation of some redesign work and forced the layoffs of more than 125 workers.
All that, and Thirkill still managed a smile when asked about the redesign program's status recently.
"I'm happy as hell. My hardware (booster segments) have been delivered (to Cape Canaveral for pre-launch assembly)," Thirkill said, noting that if any glitches were expected in three remaining full-scale pre-flight tests, the booster segments never would have been shipped.
"We're going to be ready to fly in August," he said, running his hand over his tightly cropped Marine-style haircut. "I don't know if the rest of the shuttle program will be ready, but we will be. We've collapsed the umbrella the rest of the shuttle community has been hiding under."
He said Morton Thiokol has taken a lot of heat in recent months much of it undeserved for the boot-ring problem and subsequent delays to the shuttle launch schedule.
The boot ring, for example, wasn't nearly as severe a problem as the media portrayed it, Thirkill said. Had the ring failed in flight it never would have been known and its breakup likely would have been attributed to water damage during splashdown.
Thirkill realizes that once a high-profile company like Morton Thiokol is thrust into the limelight, it's difficult to escape. But he resents the debilitating effect negative coverage can have on company morale.
"Nobody writes a sentence without mentioning that Morton Thiokol built the boosters that caused the Challenger disaster. I don't want to evade responsibility (for Challenger), but I think that responsibility is shared," he said.
Thirkill said he was stunned by NASA's announcement of plans to build its own shuttle booster facility an idea he says is strictly out of left field.
So far it hasn't caused a rift in relations between Morton Thiokol and NASA, but that's no guarantee it won't have a negative impact down the road, Thirkill said.
Because the redesign program transcends both Morton Thiokol and NASA, people involved with it won't be influenced by NASA politicking at least for the time being. But hard feelings may develop over time, he said.
That aside, however, Thirkill questions NASA's wisdom. "It's just not a smart thing to do," he said. "I think it would be a step toward nationalizing our industry. And I'm anti-government control on anything."
Thirkill said he can't see the government investing hundreds of millions of dollars to duplicate facilities that are already in place. "My sense is that they'd just like to be in control."
Thirkill said he also tells workers not to worry about rumors that the Aerospace Division will be sold.
"My understanding is that Locke was asked if he's willing to sell the Aerospace Division. His response was he'd sell any and all the company if the price is right. That sounds like a businessman to me.
"I tell my employees that I'm the one that has to worry, not them. I'm the one they'd probably fire," he said.
Of course he knows he'd have a hard time convincing the 125 or so employees who were recently terminated of that.