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What Happened to Sea Launch
by Staff Writers
Bethesda MD (SPX) Sep 07, 2016

Rumors about the future of Sea Launch are frequently aired. As of last week, media reports indicated that the floating launch platform was to be sold in 2017, probably to Russian investors. So, stay tuned for the next, or final, chapter in the bumpy life of Sea Launch.

Sea Launch is a unique space launch system intended to be an attractive way to launch geostationary earth orbit (GEO) satellites. It was developed as a multinational endeavor that uses a mobile maritime launch platform for equatorial launches of commercial payloads on a specialized Zenit-3SL launch system. The first launch took place in March 1999 with launches occurring for the next 15 years. A total of 36 attempts produced 32 complete successes and one partial success.

Almost all payloads were communications satellites intended for geostationary transfer orbit (GTO). Customers included EchoStar, DirecTV, XM Satellite Radio, PanAmSat, and Thuraya. Launch vehicle assembly and payload integration were done on a special-purpose ship, Sea Launch Commander, in Long Beach Harbor, California. Before leaving the harbor, an assembled vehicle was placed on top of a self-propelled seagoing platform, Ocean Odyssey, and both the ship and platform steamed to an equatorial launch location on the Pacific Ocean, south of Hawai'i.

A sea-based launch system means launches can be made from the optimum position on Earth's surface for geostationary satellites. This situation leads to increased payload capacity and reduced per-kg launch costs compared to other launch locations. Furthermore, the satellite may experience extended life on station due to a lower propellant expenditure upon final GEO injection.

Unfortunately, due to financial and geopolitical complications, in 2014, Sea Launch had to mothball both ship and platform, and stop operations.

Looking back to 1995, Sea Launch was originally established as a consortium of four companies from Norway, Russia, Ukraine and U.S. It was managed by Boeing and based in Long Beach, CA. Operations were carried out by participants from the shareholder companies.

Normal operations took place for 10 years, but in 2009, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Nevertheless, Sea Launch claimed it would continue normal business operations after filing for reorganization. However, about a year later, Energia, a 25% owner, announced a plan to acquire controlling interest in the company. One result of this was the introduction of land-based launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in early 2011. Sea-based launches were to resume later that year.

Sea Launch did emerge from bankruptcy in October 2010 as Energia Overseas Limited, a Russian corporation. Boeing and other U.S. companies did retain minority shares. However, in 2013, Boeing sued the Russian Energia and two Ukrainian partners, claiming the companies refused to pay more than $350 million following the joint venture's bankruptcy filing in 2009.

Jumping to mid-2014, following the Russian military intervention in Ukraine, a number of Russian media reports indicated Sea Launch might mothball the Odyssey launch platform. These claims were denied. Nevertheless, in August 2014, Sea Launch reduced staff and stopped operations, because they had no launches scheduled until late 2015. In fact, its last launch was in May of 2014.

Rumors about the future of Sea Launch are frequently aired. As of last week, media reports indicated that the floating launch platform was to be sold in 2017, probably to Russian investors. So, stay tuned for the next, or final, chapter in the bumpy life of Sea Launch.

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