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Hold off on booster switch

NASA needs to jettison its plans to replace the space shuttle's solid rocket boosters with liquid fly-back boosters.

The proposal, if carried out, would not only devastate northern Utah's Thiokol but would cost taxpayers billions of dollars.The major flaw with the proposal is that by NASA's own estimates the current shuttle program is only supposed to last another 15 years. The X-33, a half-scale model of the first true space plane, is slated to have its first experimental flights in 1999, with 10 of the landings slated for Dugway Proving Ground.

If the X-33 succeeds, a reusable launch vehicle named Venture Star is slated to be built early in the next millennium and will be a likely successor to the space shuttle.

If it is determined that the space shuttle program will continue in its current form for longer than 15 years due to delays in the new reusable launch vehicle program, then changing booster programs might make sense. It doesn't now.

That is because it would cost up to $7 billion to develop the new fuel system. And it would be years before the liquid fly-back boosters replaced the solid rocket boosters. Continuing with Thiokol's boosters would be cheaper and would use proven technology.

As Rep. Merrill Cook, R-Utah, who testified in a House Science Committee hearing last week, noted, "The liquid boosters may not even be able to provide the needed thrust to get the shuttle into space."

That's not exactly a ringing endorsement for putting thousands of Thiokol jobs at risk.

About 85 percent of Thiokol's Utah employees - 2,900 out of 3,400 - work on the solid boosters. The company's annual payroll is $186 million. That would put 85 percent of that total around $160 million a year. There's a significant downside domino effect to that.

Thiokol purchases $117 million worth of supplies annually from 880 Utah vendors, including equipment used for non-shuttle projects. The switch could seriously threaten the future of one of Utah's largest employers.

Once developed, it is NASA's hope that the liquid boosters would lead to lower-cost flights. It is envisioned they would have jet engines attached so that when they are jettisoned from the shuttle, they can be flown by remote control back to earth and landed safely. The current Thiokol boosters are recovered after they are dropped into the ocean from the shuttle. They can then be repacked and refurbished.

NASA is not to be faulted for looking at better and less expensive ways to do things. That's what it should be doing. But it also needs to look at all of the ramifications of change.

Doing so in this instance will show that, on balance, this is not the time to make a switch.