The sad ending of the Sea Launch project
Sea Launch is a floating spaceport for launching rockets. At the time of its creation, it was considered one of the most ambitious projects in the history of astronautics. In fact, it is a former Norwegian oil platform, which was adapted for launching rockets of the Zenit-3SL modification of the Zenit family. The point of the project was to deliver the launch vehicle by sea to the equator, where optimal conditions are observed for launching spacecraft into equatorial orbit.
Back in March 1993, the Russian enterprise NPO Energia, which had previously been engaged in preliminary research on the possibility of building a sea-based rocket and space complex, approached the American aerospace company Boeing with a proposal to take part in the implementation of this project. Already in the fall, a business meeting between representatives of NPO Energia and Boeing took place in the city of Turku (Finland). Also participating in this event was the Norwegian shipbuilding company Kvaerner (later Aker Solutions). The result of the meeting was the signing of a framework agreement on the creation of a marine spaceport. It is also worth noting that a year later, the Ukrainian production association Yuzhny Machine-Building Plant named after A. M. Makarov (Yuzhmash) and the Yuzhnoye design bureau were involved in work within the framework of this project.
In 1995, it was decided to create the International Consortium Sea Launch Company, which was supposed to implement this project. The current composition of its ownership seems surprising. So, if we consider the owners of the consortium from a state perspective, then the American side owned 40% (Boeing Commercial Space Company - a subsidiary of Boeing), the Russian side - 25% (NPO Energia), the Norwegian side - 20% (shipbuilding company Aker Solutions), and the Ukrainian one – 15% (Yuzhnoye Design Bureau and Yuzhmash Production Association). The starting cost of building a floating spaceport was estimated at $3,5 billion.
If we talk about the functional specialization of each of the parties, the Boeing subsidiary was involved in the creation of the head unit of the launch vehicle and ensured the system integration of the entire project. Aker Solutions has converted an oil platform for space needs. The rest of the project participants were engaged in the creation and preparation of Zenit-3SL modification rockets of the Zenit family; this launch vehicle was the only one that met all the conditions necessary for an effective launch from the Sea Launch platform. Thus, Ukrainian enterprises (PO Yuzhmash and Yuzhnoye Design Bureau) manufactured the two-stage launch vehicle Zenit-2S. NPO Energia produced the DM-SL upper stage (third stage), and Boeing's structural division specialized in payload blocks.
The geography of movement of components was also striking: the launch vehicle itself was built in Ukraine, and the necessary spare parts, for which the Russian side was responsible, also arrived there. After that, the disassembled Zenit-3SL was sent to the USA, where it was assembled, loaded onto a ship and sent on a platform to the launch point located on the equator line. Despite all the expenses, economic the effectiveness of the project was to save the fuel required to launch the spacecraft into equatorial orbit.
The first launch under the Sea Launch program took place on March 28, 1999. In 2009, the project encountered financial difficulties, which was affected by the low intensity of launches. During the bankruptcy proceedings, Boeing was forced to pay off debt to creditors for the entire consortium, paying them $448 million. The matter ended with a complete reorganization, after which one of the subsidiaries of NPO Energia received 95% of the project, 3% went to Boeing, 2% to Aker Solutions. In 2014, all activities within the Sea Launch program were suspended due to political situation in Ukraine. By this point in time, 36 launches had been carried out, spacecraft from different countries (USA, UK, UAE, Japan, Italy, France, South Korea and the Netherlands) were launched into Earth orbit.
In 2016, the head of the state corporation Roscosmos, Igor Komarov, said that the Sea Launch project was being prepared for sale and a potential buyer had already been found. It became the S7 Group of Companies, the cost of purchasing the complex was 6,28 billion rubles. The deal was closed in 2017. The new owner received the Sea Launch Commander ship, the Odyssey platform with missile segment equipment installed on them, ground equipment at the Long Beach base port in the United States and the Sea Launch trademark. The new owners announced their readiness to conduct commercial launches from 2019, for this it was planned to purchase 50 new rockets. In addition, there were plans to replace Ukrainian rockets with the domestically developed Soyuz-5 (the start of flight tests of this launch vehicle is expected only in 2024).
It is also worth clarifying that in 2020 the platform was relocated to the Far East to the port of Slavyanka, which is located 50 kilometers from Vladivostok. In the same year, the owner of S7, Vladislav Filev, emphasized that all actions to develop this project were postponed indefinitely, separately clarifying that the cost of basing the Sea Launch complex in the Russian Federation turned out to be twice as high as in the United States, although the Russian authorities initially said about economic conditions that will be similar to those in America.
Already in 2022, information appeared about the possible transfer of Sea Launch to the state corporation Roscosmos, since in the current economic and political conditions, commercial launches had become impossible. At the moment, the project is in a “frozen” state, its prospects are unclear, and all activities to maintain it in a functional state are a heavy financial burden on S7 Group and, according to one of the company’s top managers, exceeds one million dollars a month.
In conclusion, I would like to add that the Sea Launch project is a striking example of economic and scientific integration. In modern conditions, such close cooperation between states that find themselves on opposite sides of the barricades seems surprising. Now we can observe that Russia is having difficulty pursuing this program on its own; the financial costs of all programs that are in one way or another related to space are too high.
- Author: Viktor Anufriev