I was shocked to learn that Adm. Hyman Rickover is being forced into retirement.

Is the admiral to be fired because he is 81 years old? Anyone who knows him is aware that he is more vigorous than most men much younger and that he continues to work hard and productively. While many of us were watching the Redskins-Lions encounter, for instance, Rickover was at sea supervising the initial trials of a nuclear attack submarine. Hardly a restful Sunday for a feeble old man! The president properly dismissed age as an issue in his Nov. 10 press conference, when he noted that Gladstone was at the peak of his career at 83.

Is the admiral to be fired because he has displeased some large defense contractors by his position that the Navy should pay only what it owes and should reject unsubstantiated claims for public funds? The admiral urges Navy officials to defend the contractual rights of the American people rather than to pay whatever the contractors ask. Will the firing of the admiral send an opposite message? You can be sure that some contractors hope so!

Is the admiral to be fired because the Navy wants to lower the standards for the selection of operators of our nuclear- powered ships and submarines, or because the Navy wants to ease the rigorous training program he runs for these men?

Is the admiral to be fired because the Navy wants to change the direction in which he continues to lead the nuclear propulsion program? If that is the case, has the Navy determined the technical alternative it wants to develop, identified the technical experts who can do it and found a source for the many billions of dollars required to develop an alternative?

Is the admiral to be fired because the secretary of the Navy has identified a man who is more qualified for the job? If so, and if the Department of Energy agrees, clearly Rickover should be replaced because his job should be filled by the most qualified man available. But that brings up another question: where does DOE stand on this issue? In the past, the department and its predecessors, ERDA and AEC, have strongly supported retaining Rickover. His principal job is to be the DOE engineer responsible for the development of naval nuclear reactor plants. That is how he spends most of his days and many of his nights--ensuring that the myriad technical matters involved in the development of naval nuclear reactors are handled properly.

Is the admiral to be fired so that his organization can be broken up and restructured to handle naval nuclear propulsion in some different manner? The admiral has labored long and hard to develop what is considered by many to be one of the finest organizations in government. Just the fact that the admiral is to be fired will send shock waves through the entire organization. If something were to happen to Rickover physically, as of course could happen to anyone at anytime (including his replacement), the admiral's staff would keep the program on track until the Navy and the DOE decided how to proceed. But to force the admiral to retire is an expression of lack of confidence in the staff as well. If the powers that be want to force a change, why should those who are left feel obligated to stay?

Is the admiral to be fired because in his testimony to Congress he expresses opinions that may not coincide with the views of the incumbent officials in the Navy? Where would the nuclear Navy be today if Congress had not considered his testimony when authorizing construction of our nuclear fleet?

It is important to know why the secretary of the Navy wants to fire Rickover and to know what changes in the direction of the naval nuclear propulsion program the secretary is trying to bring about. Make no mistake about it: the manner in which this program is handled has far-reaching effects on our national defense. The Navy's nuclear-powered submarines, carriers and cruisers are vital elements of our strategic deterrent and naval strike forces. The admiral produces nuclear power plants that work well. All Americans have an important stake in the changes in this program that will be caused by Rickover's departure.