Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, says NASA chief James Fletcher privately favors a $1.5 billion proposal to build a government-owned plant to produce the next generation of rocket boosters for the space shuttle.

The Advanced Solid Rocket Motor would be able to lift about 12,000 more pounds than the current boosters made at Morton Thiokol's Wasatch Operations plant in northern Utah.The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which is about to ask companies to bid on designs for the new ASRMs and the new plant, has said it is open to suggestions about whether NASA or a private company would own the site.

But Garn says Fletcher already has made up his mind.

"Originally, NASA had every intention of making it a government-owned, contractor-operated plant, and Garn's contention is they probably still do," Garn aide Stephen Ko-hashi said Thursday.

Kohashi said Garn has made it clear to Fletcher and other officials that he strongly objects to a government-owned plant.

Fletcher has said he and other NASA officials will consider all bids equally. However, Garn felt strongly enough about the issue to call for a special hearing of a Senate appropriations subcommittee on Wednesday.

The (ubcommittee) met to air some of these issues," Kohashi said. "Senator Garn felt it was critical that we focus in and have a hearing on this critical program . . . "

During the hearing Garn told Fletcher, "I think you are going down the wrong track. The bias is there; you wanted to go with a government-owned facility from the very beginning."

Fletcher responded, "That is absolutely not the case."

Despite the furor, NASA apparently does not have the money to build a government-owned plant. The space agency is facing a constrained budget that includes mammoth money requests for the space station and redesign efforts on the current shuttle.

As the budget picture appears now, there isn't enough for all those needs as well as a $1.5 billion proposal to design the advanced boosters and then build a $200 million to $300 million plant, possibly in the South.

Garn said certain government people want to build a "bureaucratic empire" they can control.