A Virginia company, whose product is important to some U.S. aerospace and defense programs, closed its doors this week, triggering immediate study of alternative ways to maintain production and avoid delays in the manufacture of some rocket boosters.
Government and defense industry officials expressed concern about Thursday’s demise of Avtex Fibers Inc. of Front Royal, Va., which made a rayon fiber critical to the space shuttle and some military missiles. They raised the possibility that at least a portion of the plant might reopen.
In the wake of financial and environmental difficulties, Avtex announced Monday that it was folding, putting 1,300 employees out of work. Avtex was the sole supplier to a number of defense contractors of rayon yarn used in the manufacture of rocket boosters used by the space shuttle and a number of military missiles.
“This is the base-line material used in all solid-phase rockets,” said an industry official whose company uses the Avtex yarn. “This has put the industry in some distress.”
Government officials said they were reviewing a number of options in the wake of the Avtex closing, which has left the defense industry in some cases with relatively short supplies of the critical yarn.
“We’re in the process of looking at what might be done,” said George Abbey, deputy associate administrator for the office of space flight for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA has only enough rayon yarn to meet the needs of the space shuttle program through the end of 1989.
“The immediate option is to look at the possibility of reopening the plant,” Abbey said.
But White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said it is unlikely that President Reagan will invoke any law to force the plant to continue production. “It’s more likely that what we would do would be examine alternatives--whether there are other sources for this material, how much we have on hand, those questions,” Fitzwater said.
Elsewhere, representatives of 14 defense contractors met to determine how the plant might be kept operating. One scenario, officials said, would be a temporary arrangement in which the company would reopen to produce enough of the material to tide the defense industry over until testing on a substitute could be completed.
The rayon yarn manufactured by Avtex is used to insulate the nozzles at the bottom of rockets from the heat generated as the fuel burns. The material has been manufactured by Avtex for rocket manufacturers for more than 20 years and is considered a critical component in the success of any rocket launch.
Industry experts said other types of synthetic yarn based on an acrylic base were as good, if not better, than the Avtex rayon material. But switching to the acrylic yarn would require at least two years of testing, said an official with Morton Thiokol, which makes the solid-fuel rocket boosters for the space shuttle.
Morton Thiokol officials said enough fiber is available for production of the Standard missile through February. Morton Thiokol also is working with Hercules Inc. on the submarine-launched Trident D-5 missile, and enough fiber is available for its production to continue through mid-1989, the company said.