Martin Marietta scales back its satellite-launch plans

January 05, 1991|By Ted Shelsby

A year ago this week a Titan III rocket roared away from its launch pad at Cape Canaveral to successfully place two communication satellites into orbit and to initiate Martin Marietta Corp.'s formal entry into the nation's young commercial satellite launch industry.

But a lot has happened over the past year, including one failed launch resulting in a court case. Now, there is talk on Wall Street that Martin's next Commercial Titan launch will be its last.

Paul H. Nisbet, a research analyst with Prudential-Bache Securities, referred to the one scheduled launch that Martin has on its books at this time -- a National Aeronautics and Space Administration contract to propel a satellite into orbit around Mars in September 1992 -- and said in a recent research report that once that rocket leaves the pad the Bethesda-based defense and aerospace contractor will exit the commercial launch business.

The reason, he said, is the company's difficulties in finding two satellites as a payload for a single launch of its powerful Titan III rocket. Because of the size of the Titan, it is only economically viable to launch two satellites at once or one very large payload.

Phillip S. Giaramita, Martin's vice president of public relations at its corporate headquarters, denies that the company is ready to pull the plug on its Commercial Titan program, but said that adjustments to its strategy is taking place.

"We're not competing for every launch that comes along," he said, acknowledging that that its Titan III, which is capable of putting about 11,000 pounds into orbit, is too big and too expensive for a lot of commercial satellite businesses.

"With some launches we are not competitive because they require less lift capacity," he added, explaining that it is often more more economical for a customer to use another carrier that uses smaller rockets.

Other companies vying for a slice of the commercial satellite business include General Dynamics Corp., which flies its vintage Atlas Centaur rocket; McDonnell Douglas, with its Delta rocket; and Orbital Sciences Corp., the Fairfax, Va. company that placed a 440-pound satellite into orbit last year with its tiny Pegasus rocket.

The Pegasus is launched from the wing of a B-52 bomber after being carried aloft.

Martin is also competing with Arianespace, the European consortium that flies the French built Ariane rocket. It that weren't enough competition, the Soviet Union and China have also entered into the U.S. and world markets.

Martin officials admit that they originally over-estimated the size of the commercial launch market that grew out of the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986.

With the shuttle disaster and the resulting backlog of government launches, President Reagan ordered NASA to sharply limit its launching of payloads for commercial customers on the shuttle.

With eyes on grabbing a big slice of this business, Martin originally announced plans to build 20 Titan IIIs. It reduced this order back to 12 in 1989 when it set aside a $90 million reserve from fourth quarter earnings and now its down to four rockets.

But there could be a "new" rocket coming into Martin's commercial launch inventory. Arthur E. Koski, a spokesman for the company's Aeronautics Group in Denver, where the Titan program is based, said that it is looking into the possibility of converting some old Titan II intercontinental ballistic missiles it produced for the Air Force in the 1960s into satellite launchers.

The Titan II carries a much smaller payload and it would give the company a vehicle to use in competing for segments of the market from which it is now excluded. Martin has already been awarded a contract to convert 15 Titan IIs into satellite launchers for the Air Force, leaving about 35 of the missiles in the military surplus inventory.

"To say that that we are negotiating with the Air Force is too strong a word," said Mr. Koski. He said it would be more accurate to classify any talks as "preliminary discussions."

Mr. Koski said that Martin is looking at the possibility of using the Titan IIs in competing for a contract to launch 77 satellites as part of a plan by Motorola Corp. to develop a space-based cellular telephone system.

In addition to the increased competition from other companies in the launch business, Mr. Koski said that the advances in fiber optics have also reduced the number of communication to be placed into orbit.

He said that a new international fiber optic cable is capable of 100,000 voice channels, which is equal to the largest communication satellite.

To date Martin has had three Commercial Titan launches.

Its second launch last March left a $150 million Intelsat 6 satellite in a useless low orbit, and the company is being sued by International Telecommunications Satellite Organization for damages.

In June, Martin Marietta successfully launched another Intelsat communication satellite into the proper orbit.

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