Lockheed Missiles and Space Co., long a pioneer in space travel and modern computer communications, has come up with a new communications system that's older than even the telephone. Pigeons.

Since mid-December, eight feathered messengers have been flying from Lockheed's Sunnyvale, Calif., headquarters to its Santa Cruz research station with microfilmed computer data strapped to their legs.

Werner Deeg, the Lockheed research scientist who developed the program, says the birds are a swift, if unconventional, solution to a communications problem between the two facilities. He says the only thing that prevents them from flying is bad weather, otherwise the winged delivery crew has a 100% reliability record.

Originally, the company sent finished blueprints made from microfiche via the company mail truck, but the material arrived too late for the day's work. Faster local courier services charged $50 per day for motorcycle messengers to travel 90 minutes over 50 miles, which often included winding mountain road. Then Deeg became a member of a local pigeon club and started raising his flock at a loft he installed at the research station.

At 8:30 a.m., a pigeon goes by truck from the research station to the Sunnyvale plant. The next morning, it is released with the microfilm shortly after 6 a.m. It then flies home to the station, arriving at the start of the morning shift.

"Best of all, the birds work for chicken feed," says Deeg, who tends the flock himself. Annual cost to Lockheed: between $50 and $100.