The tiny North Dakota town of Fortuna apparently has lost its chance for frame and fortune because of a behind-the-scenes battle in the Pentagon.
Thanks in part to lobbying by Sen. Milton R. Young, ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee and its defense subcommittee, the Air Force announced last year that Fortuna would get the $60 million ground control center for the new Navstar satellite system.
Some Pentagon specialists were stunned at the decision, claiming that isolated, snowy Fortuna was the worst possible choice. They complained privately that it would cost twice as much to put the ground complex there rather than in a less remote, warmer place.
But plans went forward. Young, according to Air Force sources, took a personal interest in pressing Fortuna' case and keeping in touch with the Pentagon about the ground station after the town won the competition.
When politicians from other states demanded to know why their recommended sites lost out to Fortuna, population 185 in 1970, they were told its northerly location was an advantage.
The Fortuna site, asserted the Air Force in a letter to Rep. Virginia Smith (R-Neb.), would enable the ground control station to keep in touch with the satellites nearly every hour of the day.
Smith sought to have the Navstar control station built on the old Cornhusker Army ammunitation plant in Nebraska. She was promised instead what the Air Force called "a small electronics unit" to procees some of the data from the Air Force's satelities.
Also, the Air Force noted that it had property in Fortuna and "an existing infrastructure" to serve as a nucleus for the new control station.
But as plans for the Fortuna complex ricocheted from one Pentagon office to another, critics said that, according to the drawings, much of that infrastructure, along with a hill that would have to be bulldozed out of the way.
This, plus the lack of technical people anywhere near Fortuna, caused more grambling in the Pentagon's usually silent bureaucracy. The Washington Post heard some of this and submitted a list of questions on Fortuna to the Air Force June 26.
Yesterday, an Air Force spokesman said the answers were still being coordinated with the service's liaison officers who work with Congress. But the spokesman did indicate that the Air Force is having second thoughts about spending $60 million in Fortuna now that its decision is under challange.
Another Pentagon source said the real holdup is how to break the bad news gently to the influential Young and Fortuna and other North Dakota politicians. One suggestion, sources said, is to assert that technical breakthroughs have made it unnecessary to put the station in Fortuna. Another idea is to declare that the Air Force will put the master control station in California on an "intermin" basis -- meaning never in Fortuna the way things stand at the moment.
"Should the decision to construct a separate master control center" in Fortuna "be reaffirmed," said an Air Force spokesman yesterday in hinting at the bad news to come, the Air Force station in the tiny North Dakota town could be revitalized.
"We've heard there are some problems," said an aide to Young yesterday when asked if it looked as if the air force would still enable Fortuna to live up to its name, which means luck and fortune in Latin.