Sea Launch promises return to flight in two years
The S7 Group, which owns the Sea Launch venture, has published a launch schedule for the Ukrainian-built Zenit rocket from the ocean-based platform. The missions were not expected to resume until the end of 2019, but once the did, S7 planned to fly the Zenit roughly every three months. A total of 12 launches were promised before the end of 2022.
The Sea Launch flight manifest was posted without much fanfare on the Russian-language version of the corporate web site for the Sea Launch venture, apparently, shortly after the successful campaign to launch the Zenit rocket with the Angosat-1 satellite on Dec. 26, 2017.
Although the schedule detailed all the launch dates with accuracy to a month, it listed no customers or their payloads to be carried during any of these missions. It was unclear, whether Sea Launch was in negotiations with any potential riders at the time.
The description accompanying the schedule also said that the permanent office of the S7 company had been established at the home port of the Sea Launch vessels in Long Beach, California, to handle the tasks of re-activating the facility and resuming launch operations. Based on estimates from a monitoring group, the complex would be ready for operations in 2018, the S7 Group said.
The company also announced that the Russian firms RKK Energia, Roskosmos State Corporation and the Ukraine-based Zenit manufacturer Yuzhmash would be partners in Sea Launch, which would be managed from Moscow by the S7 KTS company, also known as S7 Space.
Sea Launch flight manifest as of December 2017:
On January 11, the Yuzhmash production plant in Dnipro, Ukraine, announced that under an April 2017 contract with S7 Sea Launch Limited, the company had already been manufacturing two Zenit rockets for delivery in 2018. The company was also expecting an additional order for three more Zenit rockets in February 2018, Yuzhmash said.
At the beginning of February, the S7 Space Systems posted an undated press-release saying that the company had been expecting to complete all the procedures pertaining to its purchase of the Sea Launch venture in March. The company said that it had already secured key licenses from the US federal government and the State Department, including one unidentified permission received in January 2018. Previously, The Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States, CFIUS, and the Defense Technology Security Administration, DTSA, approved the deal, S7 said.
The company also said that it initiated work on re-activation of the Sea Launch complex and was ordering flight hardware for future launches. A number of key spacecraft manufacturers had already expressed interest in using the Sea Launch's services, the S7 said. The company reconfirmed that Sea Launch operations would resume at the end of 2019, or a year later than originally promised.
Despite loud pronouncements in the Russian press and optimistic launch dates, experts behind the scene have seen no real progress in reviving the production of the Zenit rockets. According to Ukrainian sources, the various obstacles before the Yuzhmash factory have remained the subject of an endless correspondence with space officials in Moscow, resembling a conversation between a "blind person and a deaf one." Essentially, Russian space officials have so far been unable to help their Ukrainian colleagues in obtaining the missing components necessary for the manufacturing of the rocket.
In addition to the broken supply chain, the proposed final assembly of the Zenit in the United States also faces numerous challenges. The available processing equipment inside the Sea Launch commander vessel based in Long Beach, California, is inadequate for the integration of the RD-171M engine with the rocket's first stage as proposed by Roskosmos in order to bypass its government's ban on deliveries to Ukraine.
Renting existing industrial facilities in the United States would not suffice either, because the complex rocket would need a specialized assembly hall with custom-designed access bridges and lifting equipment.
In order to build this infrastructure by the time of the proclaimed first mission from the revived Sea Launch platform at the end of 2019, the work should have already begun in the United States, however there are no signs that it had actually taken place.
Last but not least, many of the workers, technicians and engineers who participated in the assembly of the Zenit rocket have left or retired from Yuzhmash since Russia has stopped ordering these vehicles in 2014 in the wake of the Crimean conflict. Only a skeleton team of mostly aging specialists remains at Yuzhmash. As result, the factory will certainly face a serious personnel shortage when assembling a team capable of going to the United States to resume Sea Launch operations, experts familiar with the matter said.
On April 17, S7 Group announced the closure of the deal to buy the assets of the Sea Launch venture, including the Sea Launch Commander vessel and the Odyssey platform.
In its press release, S7 Group quoted its Director General Sergei Sopov claiming the company's intention to resume launch activities as soon as possible and promising four launches per year. Sopov also forecasted around 70 launches in the next 15 years. The announcement of the deal made no mention of the continuous deadlock in the production of the Zenit rocket in Ukraine or the fact that the Russian replacement to the Zenit was still on the drawing board and was not officially scheduled for launch until 2022. Moreover, given the current realities of the Russian space industry, the new rocket most likely would not fly until the middle or even the second half of the 2020s. The absurdity of the situation was underscored by Yuri Koptev, the Head of the Scientific and Technical Council at Roskosmos, who just a day before the Sea Launch announcement, essentially admitted that without restoring the relations between Russia and Ukraine, the Zenit's future was bleak.
For all practical purposes, S7 Group found itself with expensive infrastructure on its balance sheet, but no compatible rocket to launch and no customers to serve.
Read much more about the history of the Russian space program in a richly illustrated, large-format glossy edition:
Zenit launches one of the Eutelsat satellites from the Sea Launch platform. Click to enlarge. Credit: Sea Launch