Earlier this month, White House advance men were scouring the country for a place where President Reagan could give a speech supporting the Strategic Defense Initiative. They weren't looking at military bases, or national labs. Instead they visited corporations and universities, eventually settling on a 5,000-acre Martin Marietta compound 20 miles southwest of Denver.
``We found out he was coming here only about two weeks ago,'' says a Martin Marietta spokesman.
As the search shows, the location of yesterday's speech was no accident. It emphasized both a particular Martin Marietta project - the Zenith Star laser test - and the extent to which SDI research is carried out by private contractors, not government scientists.
In fact, part of President Reagan's tour of the facility included classified briefings from other SDI contractors about their work.
Over the last four years the Pentagon has awarded about $6.8 billion in SDI contracts. Of that, $4.4 billion went to 20 large military contractors, according to an analysis by the Council on Economic Priorities (CEP), a private group that opposes SDI. By contrast, the 20 largest government entities involved in the program - most of them basic research labs - received $1.5 billion worth of contracts.
Martin Marietta has an important role in the program. Besides Zenith Star the company works on ways of aiming lasers at targets. Zenith Star - a flashy demonstration of laser technology in space, tentatively scheduled for around 1990 - has raised questions about compliance with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The compound visited by the President has an aiming and tracking lab mounted on a giant rock for stability. But with $78 million in contracts, the company is only the 20th largest SDI contractor, according to the CEP analysis. Leading companies have work worth up to 10 times more.
Take Lockheed, for instance. The No. 1 ``star wars'' contractor, it has won work worth more than $720 million since 1983. That's almost 10 percent of all SDI money spent so far. The company's main SDI project is ERIS, a ground-based interceptor rocket that is perhaps the most mature technology.
General Motors/Hughes Aerospace, the No. 2 SDI firm, with $612 million dollars in contracts, is also involved in interceptor rockets. These so-called kinetic energy weapons would be the backbone of any initial strategic defense system. The schedule for GM's rocket has been delayed because of budget cuts.
Boeing is the third largest SDI contractor, with about $373 million worth of work. Its specialty is the infrared sensors that would be the target-tracking eyes of any defensive system. TRW, working mainly on lasers and other directed energy weapons, and EG&G Company, a little-known firm that helps develop nuclear weapons, round out the top five.
On the whole, defense contractors have been reluctant to publicize their involvement with SDI. One Washington trade association executive has tried for several years to establish an SDI contractors association, with no success. He says that the companies are reluctant to be seen as advocates of a program that is so politically controversial.