The countdown for the next mission to the red planet begins today for Martin Marietta Corp. as it officially marks the activation of launch complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, Fla., the launch site for the Mars Observer scheduled to blast off in mid-September.
Martin won a $335 million Air Force contract in 1989 to refurbish the 27-year-old launch tower and provide the military with another East Coast tower for launching Titan rockets, which carry some of its military satellites into space.
But the launch complex's first use is not scheduled to be a military mission. If everything goes as planned, a Titan III is scheduled to lift off with the Mars Observer payload tucked into its nose.
Bob Gordon, a Martin spokesman at Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, said the Mars probe would be used to map the surface of the planet, and to land a payload to analyze minerals on Mars' surface.
The Mars mission is expected to mark the end of Martin's disappointing Commercial Titan program. This year, Norman R. Augustine, chairman and chief executive of Martin Marietta, said the company did not have enough business to continue the program of launching satellites for commercial customers.
Commercial Titan was launched in 1986 after the space shuttle Challenger exploded. By using a version of its powerful Titan III rocket, Martin had hoped to win contracts to launch satellites bumped from the space shuttle after NASA reduced commercial launches to concentrate on government payloads. It received orders for only four launches.
The new complex launch tower has replaced a tower that was used for 39 launches, including probes to Mars in the mid-1970s.
"We completely rebuilt it," said Robert Gordon, a Martin spokesman at Cape Canaveral Air Force Base.
"At one time," he said, "as many as 900 different contractors were working on it at the same time. At one time, 600 steelworkers were working on it." Martin was the prime contractor.
The rebuilt tower was designed to accommodate Martin's Commercial Titan, the Titan III and the more powerful Titan IV -- the Air Force's heavy-lift vehicle.