From its headquarters in Bethesda, Martin Marietta Corp. runs a $3.3-billion-a-year business whose products are as far out as the fuel tanks on the space shuttle and as down to earth as crushed rock.

The biggest industrial corporation based in the Washington area, Martin Marietta is also the most diversified. The 450 workers in the headquarters complex off I-270 are the nerve center of corporate operations at more than 100 plants in 35 states and a dozen foreign countries.

Martin Marietta's aluminum, cement and aggregates divisions turn out the basic building blocks of industry by the millions of tons a year. Martin Marietta Chemicals produces more complex compounds -- dyes that color blue jeans blue, hardeners that make blast furnace linings last longer and minerals that help cattle grow faster.

But it is Martin Marietta Aerospace -- one of the nation's biggest defense contractors -- that yields the bulk of the company's revenues and profits.

A Martin Marietta Viking rocket blasted the United States into space for the first time, establishing the company as a major missile maker. The firm today is the prime contractor on the MX missile, builds the Titan III space-launch vehicles, produces the fuel tanks and other assemblies for the space shuttle, supplies the Pershing missile and Copperhead laser-guided projectile to the Army, and will make part of the B1 bomber.

The lucrative defense business is the only segment of MM's operation that is growing this year. The recession has slowed sales of chemicals, aluminum, cement and stone products, slashing first-quarter profits by 60 percent and trimming 40 percent off earnings in the second quarter.

In the first half of this year, Martin Marietta profits plunged to $56 million ($1.57 a share) from $100.8 million ($2.69) in the first half of 1981. Thanks to the defense business, total sales so far this year are up to $1.7 billion from $1.6 billion a year ago even though all the other divisions are having a down year.

The aluminum operations -- which account for about 19 percent of total volume -- have been hardest hit by the recession. Aluminum shipments dropped by one-third in the first quarter and cement tonnage was off 17 percent from last year's already depressed level.

Aluminum, cement and aggregates (crushed stone, sand, etc.) all lost money in the first quarter, and the aluminum operations are not expected to turn a profit for the year, said Martin Marietta Chairman F. Donald Rauth. Chemical profits are down, but the division still is making money, according to Martin Marietta's latest report to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The aerospace business, which produced 43 percent of Martin Marietta's record $200 million profit last year, is carrying the company now. With defense business accounting for 58 percent of 1981 sales, the aerospace division is expected to be a major beneficiary of the Reagan administration's defense build-up, but the division does have some problems.

Seventeen minutes into its first full-scale test flight last month, the Pershing II missile blew up, raining debris over Cape Canaveral and dampening hopes that the Pershing II can be deployed quickly in Western Europe. The Marietta-built medium-range missile not only is behind schedule in development, but also is over budget by 57 percent, Army officials have testified.

A year ago this week, Martin Marietta found itself at the top of a list of defense contractors that had been found by Pentagon auditors to have billed the government for the cost of lobbying for government contracts. A lawsuit filed by Common Cause disclosed that the company had charged the taxpayers $181,000 for running its Washington office from 1971 to 1975.

That was before Martin Marietta began a massive build-up in its defense business, which has tripled the size of the aerospace division in just five years.

Aerospace brought in $1.9 billion in revenue for 1981 -- three times the $614 million volume of the aluminum division, whose 19 percent share of total revenues last year will drop substantially this year. Chemicals contributed $276.5 million to sales last year but earned 18 percent of profits--equivalent to $36 million after taxes. Cement sales totaled $200 million, and the aggregate business brought in another $171.5 million.

The company's increasing dependence on government contracts is reflected in its board of directors, which includes former attorney general Griffin Bell and former Defense secretary Melvin Laird. Other directors include prominent Washington businessmen John J. Byrne, chairman of Geico Corp.; and A. James Clark, head of the Omni and George Hyman construction companies.

All five divisions as well as the corporate offices have headquarters in Bethesda in a sprawling complex built in 1974 after the company consolidated its top management.

Martin Marietta traces its corporate lineage to Glenn L. Martin, the pioneer naval aviator for whom the University of Maryland's school of aeronautical engineering is named.

The old Martin aviation plant near Baltimore is now an industrial complex called Chesapeake Park surrounding a 2,400-worker branch of the aerospace division. In all, Martin Marietta has about 3,200 workers in Maryland, including 250 in the data systems division in Greenbelt and small staffs at cement plants, quarries and other operations.