Thiokol will likely still be making space shuttle boosters long after the year 2000, Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, predicted on the Senate floor Friday.
He said plans to replace Thiokol boosters with Advanced Solid Rocket Motors from a soon-to-be-built, government-owned plant in Mississippi are ill-conceived and won't meet timetables that would put Thiokol out of the booster business by the early 1990s."I guarantee we will be building the current generation (of Thiokol boosters), improving them as we go . . . well beyond the year 2000 because the new ones won't be ready," Garn said.
His comments came as a parting shot at NASA just before the Senate gave final approval Friday to NASA's funding for next year, which included funds for the $1.1 billion Advanced Solid Rocket Motor program.
Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., joined Garn in attacking the new booster plans, saying NASA's own advisers predict the new motors will not be any safer than Thiokol's and will divert funds from more pressing safety problems.
NASA, however, insists it needs the new motors to carry heavier payloads and to further improve safety after the Challenger disaster. Also, using a government-owned plant allows it to switch contractors more easily if it is unhappy with performance.
Garn - one-time shuttle astronaut and ranking Republican on the appropriations subcommittee overseeing NASA - complained the agency is developing timetables and designing flight parameters without first building and testing some new motors, something he said NASA wouldn't dare do with less complicated aircraft.
"They'll never meet the timetables and you are not going to improve the quality or the safety," he said. "You'll not see one (of the new boosters fly) until after the year 2000."
He also criticized plans for building the new motors in a government-owned facility.
"The issue of suddenly deciding that a government-controlled facility is the best way to produce safer solid rocket motors just boggles my mind. When has the government ever done something better than the private sector?"
He added that he feels the current boosters are sufficiently safe and that the boosters before the Challenger disaster were safe in design-parameter conditions, although not on a freezing cold day. "I'd ride them again tomorrow without a fix as long as it is a good, warm day."
Garn also complained that the decision to build the new plant in Mississippi was "political and not based on merits."
He said NASA claimed it wanted the plant near water to allow easier transportation via barge to Cape Canaveral. But if transportation is the real issue, the plant should be built at the cape itself. "We decided to go to Mississippi because we have the chairmen of the House and Senate appropriations committees from Mississippi."