If the folks at Martin Marietta Corp. were superstitious, they'd be looking for the guy in the company who broke a mirror or walked underneath a stepladder.
For one reason or another, the Bethesda-based company's space program has had an incredible run of bad luck in recent months -- topped off by Tuesday's failure of a $220 million observation satellite that was built by Martin Marietta and launched on a company-made Titan II rocket.
Patricia Viets, a spokeswoman for the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, owner of the Landsat 6 satellite, said yesterday that mission control people are not sure the craft achieved orbit.
The company's problems began in early August when a giant Titan IV blew up two minutes into its flight with the loss of a $$ billion-dollar-plus Air Force spy satellite. Seven days later, the launch of the company's $63 million weather satellite ended in failure. And before the month was over, ground controllers lost contact with the Mars Observer space probe only days before it was to zoom into orbit around the Red Planet. It was a Martin Marietta spacecraft riding a Titan rocket.
"They sure have had their unfair share of troubles the past few months," said Paul H. Nisbet, president of JSA Research in Newport, R.I., which concentrates on the aerospace industry.
But he said that it would be a mistake for anyone to underestimate Martin Marietta's position in the market.
Mr. Nisbet, formerly an analyst with Prudential-Bache Securities, said he didn't think Martin Marietta's reputation has been damaged. "These things happen," he said, "and they happen DTC throughout the industry. And for some strange reason they seem to come in bunches."
He noted, for instance, that General Dynamics Corp. has had three failures in the last 10 launches of its commercial Atlas rocket, and that Ariane, the French government's satellite launch program, had to suspend flights for more than a year a few years ago because of troubles with its rocket.
The exception has been McDonnell Douglas, which is riding a string of 44 consecutive launches of its Delta rocket. "Over the past 33 years we've had 210 successes out of 222 launches," company spokeswoman Anne McCauley said. "That's a 94.6 percent success rate."
That, however, is no better than the success rate of Martin Marietta's Titan program covering nearly 180 launches over roughly the same period.
"We've gone through an unfortunate series of incidents, but our overall record is one to be proud of and we stand by it," said Charles Manor, a spokesman for Martin Marietta.
But at this time, Mr. Manor said, the company is not focusing on past success but on trying to find out what has gone wrong in recent months. "Our job is to find out what the problems are and fix them."
Space, including the production of spacecraft, launch vehicles and the external fuel tanks for the shuttle, represents a $3 billion-a-year business for Martin Marietta.
Martin Marietta is one of the nation's three largest manufacturers of satellites, according to Alexis Allen, a spokeswoman for the Aerospace Industries Association in Washington. It's primary competitors are Hughes Space and Communication Co. in Huntington Beach, Calif., and Loral Corp. in New York.
Mr. Manor said that the former General Electric Corp. aerospace division, which Martin Marietta acquired earlier this year, has successfully put more than 200 satellites in orbit while posting 12 failures.
According to Emery Wilson, a Hughes spokesman, the industry is not expected to benefit from Martin Marietta's misfortunes. He said the industry is always pushing the technology to the limit and customers realize that these problems occur. Mr. Nisbet said that Martin "may have to bid a bit more aggressively" for new contracts.
Martin Marietta's investors don't seem to be troubled by its recent misfortunes. The stock closed yesterday at $45.25, up 12.5 cents.