Taking The Helm At Martin

May 03, 1993|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Staff Writer

If things had gone as planned, Bill Ballhaus might find himself leaning back in a big leather chair with his feet propped up on a mahogany desk at a prestigious Baltimore law firm.

But instead this morning he moves into another office, probably not nearly as luxurious, on the fifth floor at E-building at the Martin Marietta Corp. complex in Middle River. It's the president's office of the defense and aerospace company's Aero & Naval Systems division.

"In high school I was determined to be a lawyer," says William F. Ballhaus Jr., the man Martin Marietta has selected to take over the operations of its sprawling Baltimore County complex where young Glenn L. Martin opened his first aircraft plant during the early days of the Great Depression.

But Mr. Ballhaus's father, a top executive with Northrop Corp., he says, turned him onto an aeronautical engineering career that has had him playing a part in the development of this country's most powerful rocket and has involved him in sending space probes to Mars and Venus.

He recalls his father's advice: Give engineering a couple of years in college and decide if you like it. He took the suggestion and any fantasies about being the next Perry Mason vanished during his freshman year at the University of California, Berkeley, where he obtained his bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees in engineering.

By the age of 38, Mr. Ballhaus was already recognized as one of the nation's top aeronautical engineers, primarily for his work with supercomputers to simulate airflow around aircraft wings and spaceships.

This was during his days with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field and Edwards Air Force Base in California.

"It was less expensive than doing the work in wind tunnels," Mr. Ballhaus said during a visit to Baltimore last week. "If you made mistakes on the computer you could correct them without spending a lot of money. I spent eight years doing that."

In 1984 he was named director of Ames, responsible for research and technical programs and the overall management of the government facility that employed 5,000 workers with an annual budget of more than $500 million.

One of the more interesting projects he was involved with was research into the development of a supersonic passenger aircraft.

Mr. Ballhaus could see a strong demand for increased international travel. In a 1989 interview with Aerospace Daily he talked about the development of a plane that would zip through the sky at two to four times the speed of sound and cut the time of a flight from New York to the growing commerce centers in Pacific Rim nations from 14 hours to four hours.

He was with Ames for 18 yearsbefore resigning in 1989 as a result of a controversial federal government ethics law designed to address the "revolving door" issue. It barred federal contractors from hiring government officials who had supervised their competitors' projects.

He left Ames just days before the law was to take effect. A NASA official told the Associated Press at the time that Mr. Ballhaus was unhappy with "inadequate compensation for senior federal executives and vague new post-government employment regulations."

"My family situation is such that public service in the current RTC environment is no longer a viable option for me," the wire service quoted Mr. Ballhaus as saying at the time.

He was one of several senior executives to leave NASA in the week leading up the start of the law, prompting Richard H. Truly, the space agency chief at the time, to call a news conference in which he lashed out at federal regulators and called the departures "a crying shame."

Mr. Ballhaus came to Martin from NASA later that year as vice president of research and technology for the company's Astronautics Group in Denver.

He was later named vice president and program director of Martin Marietta Space Launch Systems. In this capacity he was responsible for the development of the Titan IV Centaur rocket, a big and powerful rocket designed to launch large payloads. The Titan IV Centaur's first flight is scheduled to take place sometime this year.

Mr. Ballhaus was named president of Martin Marietta Civil Space and Communication in 1990, supervising the company's nonmilitary space operations.

His rocket days could be behind him as Mr. Ballhaus moves into his new office.

The Middle River plant made its mark on the nation's space program, but this was in the early days of the space race with the Soviet Union. Baltimore was the home of the ill-fated Vanguard rocket that the government called on in the late 1950s to answer the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik. Vanguard's first attempt to launch a grapefruit-sized satellite ended in a fiery explosion.

The last rockets built at Middle River fared much better. These were the Titan II vehicles that powered the two-man Gemini spacecraft into orbit during the 1960s and paved the way for flights to the moon.

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