It was only two years ago that Norman R. Augustine, fledgling author and rising star at Martin Marietta Corp., came out with a new edition of "Augustine's Laws," a sort of Poor Richard's Almanac for corporate executives, spiced with wry aphorisms on the perils and pitfalls of business management.

"Sad to say," wrote Augustine in a typically pungent assessment, "much of the planning conducted by American business has ... made astrology look respectable."

Last week, now ensconced as Martin Marietta's chief executive officer, Augustine the CEO seemed well on his way to making Augustine the author look bad.

Martin Marietta recently has found itself on a heady corporate roll, finding a cache of new military and space business that will mean billions of dollars in fresh revenue for the Bethesda-based firm over the next few years. Its success vividly illustrates how, through strategic planning and no small degree of luck, at least some large military contractors can insulate themselves from adversities, whether they be budget cuts, nuclear arms agreements or disastrous space accidents.

In the past two months alone, a period that roughly coincides with Augustine's brief tenure at its helm, Martin Marietta has nailed down four long-targeted, high priority contracts, including one that will make it among the prime players in President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative and another that has propelled it into the stratosphere of commercial space transportation.

Perhaps even more important, these contracts have placed Martin Marietta, the second-largest publicly owned corporation in the Washington area, with 70,000 employees and more than $5.2 billion in revenue last year, in a rare and enviable position, according to many industry analysts. It is a defense firm -- the 11th-biggest Pentagon contractor -- that appears in excellent shape not only to survive but also to prosper in the new post-Reagan era of tighter military budgets.

"The defense industry has really changed and our market is clearly a declining one," Augustine said in an interview last week. "But I think we're going to continue to grow. I think we're going to continue to increase our market share."

The reason, Augustine said, is at least in part because of a somewhat risky strategic plan the company embarked upon in the mid-1980s as it was recovering from its bruising takeover battle with Bendix Corp.

"Three years ago, we identified a three-year period in which we thought there would be a lot of opportunities -- the 'window of opportunity,' we called it. We all talked about it, and we decided to spend a lot more money than we normally could afford to spend in order to win those programs," Augustine said.

Some Wall Street analysts were skeptical, complaining that the hundreds of millions of dollars the firm was spending on stepped-up research-and-bid proposals were depressing short-term earnings.

But, said Augustine, who was then winding up a tour as president of the firm's Denver aerospace division, the corporate planners in Bethesda -- led by chairman and then CEO Thomas Pownall -- already had seen the handwriting on the wall: The defense industry was heading for bad times, and time was short.

"We could see an election coming up in 1988 and we felt that the defense buildup was likely to tip over, and -- depending on who won -- might turn down," Augustine said. "Clearly, the deficit was a major concern, the pressure was growing. ... So it was generally agreed by the people that run this company that we were going to have to do very well during this three-year window, because ... if we don't, it will be very bad beyond that."

Today, the results are almost all in, Augustine said.

"History has proven us correct," he said. Despite a few defeats, including one crushing loss in a bid to become a prime builder of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's new space station, "We clearly won the big ones," he said. "We won like 45 percent of the programs we bid on and about 60 percent of the dollars. And that's far, far better than the industry average."

The company's capital investment strategy was "a gutty decision," said Gerald Supple, an analyst with Wheat First Securities, a Richmond-based investment firm. Martin Marietta executives "stunned the financial community by increasing their expenditures for R&D and penalizing their earnings. And now it's redounded to their everlasting glory. ... They have come from nowhere to take positions in high-priority areas. ... I think they're in the catbird's seat."

That should make life easier for Augustine, who by all accounts had long been the company's consensus choice to take over from Pownall.

An amiable Princeton-educated engineer, Augustine, 52, served three stints in the Pentagon -- most recently as undersecretary of the Army during the Ford administration -- before joining Martin Marietta as a vice president in 1977 and steadily moving up the ranks, becoming president and chief operating officer in 1986.

Along the way, Augustine developed a keen appreciation for the foibles of corporate management, an insight that prompted him to promulgate his volume of "Laws," first published in 1983 and then revised and expanded two years ago.

Some samples: Law Number XL: "Most projects start off slowly -- and then sort of taper off." Law Number XXXIX: "Never promise to complete any project within six months of the end of the year -- in either direction."

"In 52 succinct laws, he sums up the lot of the average jerk," wrote novelist James Michener in praise of the book.

Augustine said he has already developed some new ones, at least some of which are based on his recent observations as chief executive. Here's one: "The more the CEO is around," he said with a smile, "the worse things get."

If that seems to defy the record of Augustine's own brief administration, there is little doubt that he has benefited from the strategic repositioning he inherited from Pownall, who won high marks from analysts for the way he brought the company back from the financial and psychological pounding it took in defending itself from Bendix's takeover attempt in 1982.

Indeed, the remarkable aspect of Marietta's recent success, according to many analysts, is the extent to which it touches on so many diverse elements of the sprawling corporation.

As the winner over rival Rockwell International Corp. for the highly coveted $508 million Strategic Defense Initiative "national test bed" award earlier this month, Martin's Information and Communications Systems division (part of its Information Systems Group) will design and operate the computer "nerve center" of the entire SDI program.

The project, now under way at Falcon Air Force Station outside Colorado Springs, will be a giant supersophisticated war-game facility that will simulate nuclear attack scenarios and test a range of ground- and space-based defenses.

Augustine insists that the test bed program is truly research -- not hardware -- and is thus likely to survive even a Democratic administration, if not a U.S.-Soviet strategic arms agreement.

"We think the test bed is a higher priority than other parts {of SDI} and it's got broad technology applications," he said.

But even more importantly, he added, "I do believe this country won't abandon the concept of defending itself against ballistic missiles, no matter who is president. We may not call it an SDI program, but that type of work will continue."

Critics, however, are not so sure, noting that the test bed project hinges on plugging in the results of thousands of field tests that are intended to be a precursor to deployment of SDI. Moreover, as one of the nation's largest missile companies, Marietta will clearly have a self-interest in the outcome of the program, raising the perennial question of whether there are potentially stacked results, some analysts noted.

"It's basically predicated on getting ready to deploy," John Pike, policy analyst for the Federation of American Scientists, said of the test bed program. "If somebody {opposed to SDI} gets elected, they're going to say, 'Why do we need it?' ... It's definitely safer than other {parts of the SDI} program, but I don't think they {Martin Marietta} are home free."

Even if the test bed falls victim to an anti-SDI administration, however, Marietta's others recent prizes show its ability to withstand such losses.

Last week, the firm's newly formed Denver-based Commercial Titan division announced the largest commercial space contract in history, an agreement to launch 15 communications satellites to be built by General Electric Co. The satellites are to be carried on Titan rockets launched from government facilities at Cape Canaveral.

The company's Titan is one of the best examples of Martin Marietta's serendipitous positioning, analysts say. As the maker of the huge external fuel tank for NASA's space shuttle, Marietta saw its shuttle business virtually decimated by the Challenger explosion two years ago. About 1,000 workers at its Michoud space facility in Louisiana were laid off -- they have yet to return -- and external fuel tank orders dropped drastically.

Yet the shuttle disaster also generated new demand for unmanned rockets. As a result, Marietta, the maker of the country's largest and most powerful unmanned launch vehicle, has seen its overall space business boom.

The Air Force currently has 23 Titan 4 rockets under order, worth about $3.6 billion, as it builds up a fleet that can launch spy satellites and other strategic payloads of the future. The new commercial orders -- a burgeoning business that has sprung up almost entirely because of the Challenger accident -- will come on top of those and may be worth an additional $1 billion to the company over the next three to five years.

"Speaking from at least the financial point of view, the Titan has probably at least offset the loss of the shuttle," Augustine said.

The Titan business also has propelled the company into a fierce new "commercial space race" as it vies to launch the world's communications satellites against an array of formidable competitors, including the French-owned Arianespace -- the current market leader -- and, most ominously, according to Augustine, the Soviet Union.

While the commercial space business looks promising today, largely as a result of the backlog created by the grounding of the shuttle, Augustine is increasingly wary of a long-term fight, especially against the vaunted Soviet space program.

"We think we have a seven- to eight-year window in which we can make this a very profitable venture," Augustine said. "But this is like a game of poker: The very wealthy players can take out the less wealthy ones. ... I worry about the Russians as much as anybody in that regard. If they come in a heavy-handed way, I believe they will be able to destroy the world market."

Indeed, Augustine said he already sees evidence the Soviets are doing that, offering rides on their Proton rockets for prices at half of U.S. launch rates. "They have indicated a willingness to launch payloads for factors a lot less than we, numbers that bear no relationship to cost, none whatsoever," said Augustine. "They must have some motive other than making money. ... I assume they see this as a route to getting hard currency, greater political influence, and possibly a chance to get a look at some of the Western electronics and payloads that are being launched."

Stealing the world satellite business away is not the only threat the Soviets have posed to Marietta of late. As the prime contractor on the Pershing 2 intermediate range nuclear missile, the company has seen that business at least partly wiped out as a result of the intermediate and short range nuclear forces (INF) agreement signed in December by President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, a pact that calls for the destruction of the Pershings.

For his part, Augustine said he is "very supportive" of the treaty. "We should give it a chance," he says. As for its impact on Marietta, once again, "there tend to be offsetting effects."

As almost all military strategists have observed, the signing of the INF treaty has only refocused attention on beefing up and improving conventional forces, again playing right into Marietta's hand. Last month, the firm's Orlando, Fla.-based Aero & Naval Systems division was selected as cobuilder of a sophisticated new air defense system that will replace the Pentagon's canceled Sgt. York gun.

The ADATS system, which may mean as much as $4 billion to $6 billion for the company over the next five years, is designed to protect NATO ground forces from a Warsaw Pact invasion, using laser-beam-guided missiles and advanced electro-optics to shoot down attacking helicopters and low-flying airplanes.

Then there is the company's new Lantirn electro-optic system, for which it won a $608 million contract in late November. Under construction in the firm's Defense Electronic and Tactical Systems headquarters, also in Orlando, the Lantirn system is designed to dramatically enhance the guidance systems of F-15 and F-16 aircraft, turning "night into day," as company literature puts it, permitting fighter pilots to operate at speeds of up to 500 miles per hour at tree-top level, in darkness and in bad weather.

Lantirn, Augustine contends, is a textbook case of high-technology defense, precisely the kind of program that will anchor the next phase in the company's strategic planning over the next five years.

"We're now looking at a period of four or five years of declining defense budgets. ... a period when, although we may need them, the U.S. will probably not be able to afford a large number of ships, a large number of tanks and a large number of airplanes," Augustine said.

"So what we have to do is to take the ships and tanks and airplanes we already have and make them better. How do we make them better? We think ... you choose new optics and electronics in those airplanes and you keep the same aluminum."

That's a particularly profitable area to be in, if only because, as Augustine stressed, the shelf life of such state-of-the-art technology is little more than three years. "So in order to keep the airplane modern, you have to keep introducing new electronics every few years," Augustine said.

That, of course, means less business for the airplane makers and more for retrofitters like Martin Marietta, one prime reason why Augustine is especially sanguine about the future. "We're going to have to work smarter and work harder, but I think we can do that," he said. "I think we're going to remain a very solid business in the years ahead."