Editorial, Thursday, Aug. 13, 1998

CATEGORY: EDT Editorials

AUTHOR: JOER

Editorial, Thursday, Aug. 13, 1998

Sunshine overwhelmed thunderstorm clouds Wednesday morning, an appropriate and optimistic portent at Alliant Techsystems’ official declaration that it is in Tishomingo County to manufacture major components for a new Delta IV rocket.

Smiles and applause came with the sunshine from assembled elected officials, delegations representing Alliant Techsystems and Boeing (the prime contractor for the new rocket), state employees, and some very happy civic leaders.

The contract for rocket structures (nosecones, interstages and other major parts made from composite materials) is worth $1 billion if all options are exercised, and it is scheduled to run through 2006 or later. About 95 percent of the high-technology workforce (starting with about 100 employees) will come from the region.

Wednesday’s event lacked the hoopla and huzzahs that accompanied earlier announcements at the Yellow Creek site, now named the Tri-State Commerce Park and owned by the state, not the federal government or federal agencies.

U.S. Rep. Roger Wicker of Tupelo set the tone for the brief and matter-of-fact ceremony with a candid summary of Yellow Creek’s history. It’s necessary to remember what didn’t happen at the huge industrial site to understand fully the significance of what’s happening now.

Wicker was an aide to then U.S. Rep. Trent Lott when Tri-State/Yellow Creek was supposed to be a TVA nuclear plant. He was a state senator when Congress mandated the building of an Advanced Solid Rocket Motor at the site, and he was a new congressman when Thiokol announced in 1995 that it would build nosecones in Tishomingo County. None of that came to pass.

“When the history (of Yellow Creek) is written it will indeed be an interesting story,” Wicker said. Heads nodded in agreement throughout the crowd. Many in attendance were veterans of project announcements.

The difference this time is the secondary role of the federal government. Congress, to be sure, was involved. Wicker, along with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Sen. Thad Cochran and many colleagues from adjoining states, used appropriate persuasion. But there is no congressional mandate.

The decision belonged to Boeing and Alliant Techsystems. It was a politically savvy one, but that is less important than the nature of the contract. Boeing is building a rocket for the U.S. Air Force. Its subcontractor for composite structures is Alliant Techsystems. The new rocket will be used by the Air Force; it also has significant potential as a commercial launch vehicle to compete with the European Space Agency’s successful Arianne rocket program.

The ill-fated ASRM venture at Yellow Creek died because Congress terminated the funds. Alliant Techsystems banks on its future from more than government contracts. Some of the contract options for the new Delta rocket involve private-sector, for-profit space ventures. The Air Force isn’t likely to terminate the Delta program. Variations of the Delta rocket have been a mainstay of reliable launch capacity for 30 years. It’s reassuring, however, to know not all the eggs in the basket belong to Washington.

Alliant Vice President Paul Ross said Wednesday the first components made in Tishomingo County would be ready next spring for shipment to the Boeing assembly plant in Decatur, Ala. The first rockets using Mississippi-made parts should be launched from Cape Canaveral within three years. Engine tests, it should be noted, will be conducted at Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, and the ship used to transport the rockets from Yellow Creek to Decatur to Florida is under contract at a Pascagoula shipyard.

Beong Vice President Mike Kennedy said his company has adopted the slogan “Share the Journey” for the Delta IV programs. Northeast Mississippians will have a greater appareciation of that idea when our region, like so many other places in the nation, shares in the economic benefits of investment in the journey.