When it picked the builders of its space station yesterday, NASA reshuffled the competitive deck for the nation's aerospace players, creating a host of corporate winners and one big loser -- Martin Marietta Corp. in Bethesda.
The space station has long been touted as the nation's next big adventure in space, a project that in its complexity, scope and cost will ultimately rival the Apollo and space shuttle programs it succeeds. As such, it has long fired the imaginations not only of space visionaries, but a squadron of aerospace firms that have been jockeying for more than five years to get a piece of the action.
Yesterday NASA announced its results, bringing shouts of joy to McDonnell Douglas Astronautics, Boeing Aerospace, General Electric Co.'s astrospace division and Rockwell's Rocketdyne division, along with more than 30 other corporate partners that signed up on their respective space station "teams."
The firms gained much more than the $6.5 billion value of the contracts announced. They also gained an incalculable boon to prestige, identification with a highly visible space extravaganza, and a key stake in the nation's manned space program well into the nation's 21st century, according to analysts.
"This starts to clear the lineup for the American leadership in space through the year 2000," said Wolfgang Demisch, an aerospace industry analyst with First Boston Corp. "But it doesn't really do much in terms of sales and earnings for the rest of the 1980s. These are fairly small contracts by aerospace industry standards stretched over a number of years. ... What it does do is determine is who are the guys whose names are going to be on the buildings."
In that sense, at least, the NASA selection leaves out one name, Martin Marietta, that has long been a familiar one in the space program. An eight-member team headed by the Bethesda-based firm was edged out by a team headed by Boeing Aerospace in the competition for a $750 million contract to build the space station's laboratory and living quarters.
The 10-year contract, which has yet to be negotiated, will mean about 1,000 jobs -- employment that will now be concentrated at Boeing's facility at Huntsville, Ala., rather than Martin Marietta's Michoud facility in New Orleans.
In the other major competition, McDonnell Douglas Astronautics beat out Rockwell International for an even larger $1.9 billion contract to develop the space station's basic framework. But Rockwell's Rocketdyne division's $1.6 billion bid on the power production contract was uncontested, assuring the company of a major role in the space station no matter what happened yesterday.
In an effort to diversify the program throughout as much of the industry as possible, NASA had divided the space station competition among four work packages. But, in a strategic decision that began to look dubious yesterday, Martin Marietta was the only one of the major players who had not hedged their bets, staking all on its one bid on the laboratory and living room package.
"Martin is the big loser in all this," said Neal Hosenball, former general counsel of NASA and now a Washington lawyer representing aerospace firms. "I think they wanted to win this very badly."
A Martin Marietta spokesman declined to speculate on what the company may have done wrong, issuing a terse statement congratulating the winners. "We are of course disappointed," said spokesman John Boyd.
There are, to be sure, still serious doubts about funding for the estimated $14.6 billion program.
Industry analysts also noted that the decision was hardly a mortal blow to Martin Marietta, which had been an uncommonly good competitive streak lately and is expected to enjoy an overall boost in earnings and revenue this year. As a result of last year's shuttle disaster, the Air Force has ordered 23 of Martin Marietta's Titan 4 rockets, used to boost heavy payloads into space. Gerald Supple, an analyst with Wheat, First Securities, estimates that Martin Marietta's Titan backlog at its Denver space facility may be as high as $6 billion.
The firm also had just won a major new Army competition to build a new conventional air defense missile system to protect ground forces from attacking helicopters and jets. It could eventually be worth more than $4 billion for Martin Marietta.
"You can't kiss all the pretty girls," said Supple about Martin Marietta's loss yesterday. "They've kissed their share lately."
Martin Marietta's stock closed yesterday at $39.25, up $1.25.