Martin Marietta aborts its Titan launch business


Martin Marietta Corp. has abandoned the six-year venture into the commercial satellite launching business that it started in the summer of 1986, seven months after the Challenger explosion.

By using a version of its powerful Titan III rocket, Martin had high hopes of picking up a big portion of the satellite launches that were bumped from the space shuttle program when President Ronald Reagan told the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to sharply limit its commercial launches and concentrate on government payloads.

But the program never got off the ground the way Martin executives expected it to.

The original plan was to build 20 Titans for commercial launches. That number was later reduced to 12, and the company charged $90 million to fourth-quarter earnings in 1988 for a reserve to help finance the launch venture.

Martin eventually built only four commercial Titans, the last of which is scheduled for launch in September carrying a payload to map the surface of Mars and look for possible landing sites on that planet.

Norman R. Augustine, Martin's chairman and chief executive, said in an interview this week that the company found it difficult to compete with Arianespace, the European consortium that launches the French-built, government-subsidized Ariane rocket.

When it comes to submitting bids for satellite launches against the French government, Mr. Augustine said, "all you do is waste paper."

Because the Titan is so large, the type of launches that make economic sense using it are limited. A Titan launch, each of which costs $100 million to $120 million, typically carries a large satellite or a package of two satellites. But the company found it difficult to coordinate such launches.

One of Martin's three launches proved embarrassing. In March 1990, a 5-ton, $157 million Intelsat communications satellite ended up in a useless orbit 350 miles above the Earth. The satellite failed to separate properly from the launch vehicle because of an engineering design error in the rocket.

Astronauts aboard the space shuttle Endeavour, which was launched last night, plan a space walk in hopes of recovering the stranded satellite. They hope to attach a new rocket booster and send it into its proper orbit 22,300 miles up.

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