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NASA Report Said Utah Rocket Was Chosen Because it Was Cheapest

February 15, 1986

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ A seamless booster rocket without joints or seals was rejected for use with the space shuttle by NASA because the multi-segmented design offered by a Utah firm was cheaper, the Los Angeles Times says today.

Possible failure of a joint on the right booster rocket of space shuttle Challenger is suspected as a cause of the explosion that destroyed the orbiter and its crew of seven shortly after liftoff Jan. 28.

The seamless booster design was proposed by Aerojet General, a California firm that built Titan and Polaris missiles.

Aerojet’s design and rocket systems proposed by two other firms were rejected because Morton Thiokol, the Utah firm that built the multi-part solid fuel rocket, ″would give the agency the lowest funding requirements,″ a 1973 National Aeronautics and Space Administration document says.

Morton Thiokol’s boosters are reuseable steel rocket casings made up of four segments bolted together at Kennedy Space Center.

The decision to build the boosters in segments was a serious error, said Werner Kirchner, a former vice president of Aerojet General who headed its solid rocket program.

″I wouldn’t build a rocket the way that one was built,″ he was quoted as saying in the Times. ″If you put a number of joints in the rocket, every joint is a potential area of concern. You won’t find any Defense Department rockets built like that.″

Current Aerojet General officials at the firm’s La Jolla headquarters declined to comment on the NASA report and their seamless rocket proposal.

A Morton Thiokol spokesman could not be reached for comment in a call made after business hours to the company’s plant in Brigham City, Utah.

In its 1973 statement about the decision to choose Morton Thiokol, NASA found that the other three bidders would have cost more, but it praised Aerojet’s design, saying it ″precluded potential failure modes associated with joints and seals.″

Aerojet General was eliminated early in the competition because it planned to begin building the rockets in California then switch to a Florida plant it had acquired.

NASA concluded that ″any selection other than Thiokol would give rise to an additional cost of appreciable size.″

The report said Morton Thiokol would benefit from low labor costs at its Utah plant, even though there was ″some early risk because of a lack of experience (in building nozzles).″