9 August 2003
Blast at rocket-fuel plant leads firm to put on brakes
Huge explosion's cause still being investigated
Alan Gathright

San Francisco Chronicle


The decision Friday by a South Bay manufacturer of rocket engines to halt operations while investigating what caused a huge explosion in a fuel- mixing facility could delay planned military and space launches, a company executive said Friday.

Thursday night's blast at the Pratt & Whitney Space Propulsion Division complex in the rural hills south of San Jose prompted company officials to order the precautionary step of shutting down two similar fuel-mixing facilities until they pinpoint what ignited the volatile chemicals.

The explosion, which shook homes up to five miles away, blew the walls off a three-story rocket fuel-mixing building and sparked a 37-acre grass fire but caused no serious injuries.

"We have shut down the other mixers until we find out why this exploded on us," said Webb Harwell, an executive of the company, which is a subsidiary of the giant manufacturing conglomerate United Technologies Corp.

While saying a delay in delivery of the solid rocket fuel and motors Pratt & Whitney provides the U.S. military and NASA "certainly is possible," Webb stressed that "we're going to do everything in our power to minimize the impact. All of our customers are aware of the situation."

The firm supplies rocket fuel and motors for the government's "Star Wars" missile defense system as well Navy missiles, NASA rockets, the space shuttle and satellite launch vehicles.


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