Sea Launch venture
A rocket ship blasting off from the middle of the ocean into the vastness of space might look like a scene from a James Bond movie or a bizarre sci-fi thriller. Yet, in 1990s, serious people within the aerospace industry found the idea pragmatic enough to turn it into a business venture. Interestingly, the concept of reaching orbit from a floating launch pad goes all the way back to the dawn of the Space Age.
A typical ground track of the Sea Launch mission
Roots of the program
One of the earliest studies of a sea-based launch site was pioneered by the US Navy's Bureau of Ships around 1963. It considered a 17,700-ton, 565-feet vessel, capable of carrying up to three space launchers. Erected on the edge of the ship's stern, the rockets would lift off vertically, carrying satellites to a geostationary orbit. The main rationale for building a space-launching ship was its ability to be deployed in the equatorial regions of the Earth, where access to the geostationary orbit would be more energy efficient and cheaper compared to missions originating from Cape Canaveral. (263)
One of the earliest studies of a sea-based launch site conceived by the US Navy's Bureau of Ships around 1963.
In the USSR, during the 1960s, the development of the Tsyklon family of rockets was accompanied by an innovative effort to automate its launch procedures. The success of the project, prompted the prime contractor of Tsyklon's launch complex -- the Moscow-based KBTM design bureau -- to propose a sea-based version of the system. Preliminary studies conducted by KBTM showed that automated launch procedures and a compact pad could be deployed onboard cargo ships, however only after considerable technical problems had been solved. In the meantime, prospective geostationary satellites, which would be the primary cargo for ocean-based rockets, were emerging much larger than the lifting capacity of the Tsyklon rocket. Subsequently, the concept of an oceangoing launch pad receded to the background for the next decade. Still, KB Yuzhnoe, which developed Tsyklon, the TsNIIMash research institute, responsible for advanced problems of rocketry, and KBTM itself, continued low-level studies of the technical requirements for a sea-based pad, eyeing future rockets.
In 1975, the same industrial team which had built Tsyklon embarked upon the development of the most advanced rocket yet -- Zenit. Impressive payload capabilities and the state-of-the-art launch system re-ignited interest in the sea launch concept. (114)
On June 29, 1977, the Commission on Military-Industrial Issues within the Soviet of Ministers of the USSR requested that the concept of sea-basing Zenit be investigated. On Aug. 19, 1977, the Ministry of General Machine building, which oversaw the rocket industry in the USSR, authorized a feasibility study of the possible deployment of the Zenit rocket at sea.
As a result, by 1979, KB Yuzhnoe, the prime developer of the Zenit rocket, issued a report code-named "Plavuchest" or "Floating." The document evaluated possible regions for the floating launch site and the payload capabilities of Zenit. It also considered the possible workflow at sea, as well as estimated the minimum number of personnel needed to support such operations. Issues of guidance, tracking and flight control were also evaluated. (164)
By 1981, Yuzhnoe's subcontractor on launching hardware, KBTM, in cooperation with the industry also completed a detailed study of a sea-based launch pad for Zenit. This work left no doubts in the feasibility of the concept, however KBTM projected that the cost of its development would be comparable to that of a hypothetical 1,000-ton rocket based in Baikonur and delivering the same amount of cargo as Zenit would from an ocean pad. Such a conclusion became one of the reasons for another decade-long hibernation of the concept. (114)
The ultimate justification
With the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the resulting strained relations with Kazakhstan, Russia feared losing its main space port in Baikonur. Suddenly, most exotic solutions, including air- and sea-based launchers looked attractive.
On December 18, 1991, within days of the Soviet flag descending over the Kremlin, the head of NPO Energia Yuri Semenov issued an order to initiate the preliminary study of a sea-based launch pad. Conducted in cooperation with the research institute of the Soviet ship industry -- Soyuzmorniiproekt -- the study eyed various large vessels of the nation's civilian fleet. Between November 1991 and March 1992, NPO Energia looked at the possibility of adapting for sea launch pads its most current and most powerful launch vehicles, including Zenit, Energia-M and even the giant Energia. (52)
Besides RKK Energia, a number of other organizations within the Russian rocket industry explored the possibility of adapting existing boosters for sea-based space missions. The Makeev design bureau, famous for its nuclear tipped missiles based on Soviet submarines, proposed a sea-based complex called Priboi. This exotic concept included ejecting the rocket from the ship into the open water in horizontal position. A special ballast cistern on the tail of the rocket would then be filled with the water, swinging the semi-submerged rocket into vertical position. A remotely controlled blastoff would follow with no need for launch equipment! (207)
Despite many ideas, in the post-Soviet economic collapse, the Russian government had little chance of finding the needed cash for the development of any of these projects. However, unlike during the Soviet period, Russian rocketeers could now look for investors abroad.
In March 1993, Yuri Semenov established contact with the American aerospace giant Boeing. The first discussions of the project apparently took place during the summer of the same year, ultimately leading to the idea of an international joint venture which would offer its service to commercial customers. In addition to maximizing the payload of the rocket by flying from Equatorial regions, movable launch facility would offer great flexibility for potential customers to reach any conceivable orbit, while always flying over remote regions of the ocean.
NPO Energia officials also "discovered" the Odyssey oil-rig platform located at the Vyborg shipyard as a potential candidate for "reincarnation" into an ocean-going launch pad. To push the concept, NPO Energia published a small booklet advertising the possibility of launching Energia-M rocket from the sea. In the summer of 1993, the KBTM design bureau, specialized in launch facilities received an invitation to join the study. The company's engineers found NPO Energia's concept remarkably similar to their own project circa 1981. However, KBTM specialists also noticed significant differences: a considerably smaller floating platform and the launch pad placed at its stern, instead of in a central location. Such a layout generated concern about distribution of loads across the platform. (114)
On November 25, 1993, in the city of Turku, Finland, NPO Energia, Boeing and the Norwegian company Kvaerner Maritime, which owned Odyssey, signed an agreement on the development of the sea-based complex. Boeing promised to take responsibility for the organizational and marketing side of the project, while Kvaerner would outfit the platform for its new role. (52)
After assessing the potential vehicles which would be best suited for flying from the platform, the Zenit rocket ended up the undisputed winner. It was deemed best-suited for the ocean launch pad thanks to its non-toxic propellant and highly automated pre-launch processing. As a result, in February 1994, the Zenit manufacturer -- KB Yuzhnoe of Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine -- joined the company, bringing along the band of its traditional subcontractors.
Unlike the consensus on the rocket, the choice of the launch platform led to a major quarrel, apparently threatening the very existence of the joint venture for the first but not last time. While the Russians and Norwegians voted for a converted oil rig platform, Boeing argued for a supertanker. Ultimately, the conditions, which required the installation of all rocket-related hardware within Russian ports gave the platform the advantage. (52)
In May 1994, in Baikonur, RKK Energia, NPO Yuzhnoe, Boeing and Kvaerner signed a memorandum of agreement on the creation of the Sea Launch joint venture. In November 1994, during a meeting in the city of Oslo, Norway, all partners agreed on the basic concept of the complex and signed yet another cooperative agreement.
How Sea Launch works: Look mom, no hands!
The Sea Launch system emerged as a two-vessel flotilla, including an assembly and command ship, which would carry the rocket to the launch area near the Equator and the launch platform itself.
Upon arriving to the right spot in the ocean, the rocket would be transferred from the command ship to the platform in horizontal position with the help of a special ramp. Then, it would be lifted to the upper deck of the platform into a special hangar. After the command ship had moved to a safe distance from the platform and all personnel been evacuated from the facility, remotely controlled mechanisms would bring the rocket to the launch pad, erect it into vertical position and attach all umbilical connectors. Fully automated systems would then fuel the rocket, conduct final checks, maintain necessary climate control and, ultimately, launch the vehicle. In case of a scrub, the process could be conducted in reverse, still without direct human involvement.
The Zenit rocket would blast off, and, in most missions, would head East along the Equator. With mission accomplished, both vessels would then return to the home port of Long Beach, California, for servicing and preparation for the next launch.
Unlike most Russian orbital launches controlled which are controlled from a military center in Krasnoznamensk, Sea Launch missions would be monitored from the civilian Mission Control Center in Korolev, run by the TsNIIMash research institute. The center is world-known for its critical role in the Mir space station and International Space Station programs.
Challenges before the project
The creation of the Sea Launch complex was to be plagued with endless technical, political and financial problems, not unlike those experienced by many international economic and technological initiatives attempted at the end of the Cold War.
Soon after the development of Sea Launch had taken off, its main investors discovered that the projected cost of the whole enterprise had been grossly underestimated. (At the end of the 1990s, the price tag of the Sea Launch project was estimated at $950 million.) In an effort to control costs, Boeing tried to consolidate its power within the Sea Launch company, which met resistance from its Russian and Ukrainian partners. The high cost of the project also prompted Russia to seek loans from the World Bank, which after some wrangling did respond positively in 1997, providing around $100 millions.
To complicate matters further, the work on Sea Launch coincided with the merger of Boeing and McDonnell Douglas in 1996. In the wake of this consolidation, Boeing found itself responsible for America's workhorse rockets in the Delta family. As a result, Boeing would essentially compete against itself, when it worked to win new customers for Sea Launch.
In the meantime, inside the former USSR, the rocket industry had to overcome enormous bureaucratic hurdles and military secrecy in order to obtain needed government authorizations and export licenses to ship sensitive rocket technology overseas. (164)
Within the Russian rocket industry, the attitude toward Sea Launch was not unanimous either. A critical role in the project had to be delegated to KBTM, which developed sophisticated ground hardware for the Zenit rocket. However, the management of the company had mixed feelings about Sea Launch.
Until the very completion of the project in 1999, RKK Energia struggled to arrange the use of military-controlled ground tracking stations on the Russian territory, on which Mission Control in Korolev had to rely upon in monitoring orbital mission of the Block DM upper stage.
Major development milestones
A successful resolution of main technical issues related to the concept by March 1995 paved the way to the creation of the Sea Launch joint venture, which would take the project from concept to development. Upon issuing a conceptual design of the Zenit-3SL rocket for the Sea Launch complex in April 1995, the Sea Launch venture was officially formed on May 5, 1995, in the city of Seattle, Wa, where Boeing was based at the time. (98)
In December 1995, a major communications satellite developer -- the Hughes company --placed the first order with Sea Launch for an orbital mission. At the same time, the construction of the command and control ship commenced at the shipyard of Kvaerner-Govan in the city of Glasgow, Scotland. Initial modifications of the Odyssey platform would be conducted at the shipyard in the city of Stavanger, Norway.
In a high-tech version of recycling, Sea Launch arranged with the Russian and Kazakh governments the use of some crucial hardware from the Energia-Buran program. Most importantly, the RD-170 engines common for the Zenit rocket and the first stage of the Energia rocket, were removed from the "dead-on-arrival" Energia boosters and re-used for the Zenit-3SL rockets. (164)
In July 1996, Hughes agreed to fly three more missions from the Sea Launch platform, while Space Systems/Loral ordered five launches. As of the beginning of 1996, the first launch was scheduled for the beginning of 1998. At the time, Sea Launch had secured contracts worth more than a billion dollars. (52) On Aug. 8, 1996, a groundbreaking ceremony was held for the home port of the Sea Launch project in Long Beach, California.
In the fall of 1996, the KBTM design bureau received a contract from Sea Launch for ground-support equipment. Previously, the company had been asked to supply an umbilical boom for cables, the automatic docking interface of the launch pad and a set of processing and handling hardware for the assembly and command ship. All this technology would derive from existing hardware at the Zenit launch complex in Baikonur. However eventually KBTM's role grew to encompass all launch and processing hardware for the Sea Launch complex, with the exception of checkout equipment for the Block DM-SL upper stage.
On May 30, 1997, the Odyssey platform arrived to the Russian port of Vyborg, after the completion of a first round of upgrades in Norway. Now Russian contractors could start installing rocket-related hardware. This work would not be completed until April-May 1998.
On September 22, 1997, the Sea Launch command and control ship was christened at its shipyard in Glasgow, England. It arrived to St. Petersburg to be outfitted with rocket-related equipment on Dec. 27, 1997. Due to numerous technical problems, it was one month later than the most recent schedule had called for and almost a year behind the original schedule.
On April 25, 1998, Odyssey was powered up for the first time from its operational electric system.
Arduous journey to the US
On May 20, 1998, the first rocket stage -- the upper stage DM-SL No. 1TL -- was loaded onboard Sea Launch Commander in the port of St. Petersburg. A Zenit rocket was also brought onboard. On June 6 and 10, the second Block DM and a second Zenit rocket had arrived to St Petersburg and were loaded onboard the ship.
On June 12, 1998, Sea Launch Commander left St. Petersburg, Russia, heading to its permanent home base in Long Beach, California. Inside, it carried the first two Sea Launch vehicles. On June 20 or 22, it was followed by the Odyssey platform. The Sea Launch commander could reach the West Coast of the United States, by crossing the Atlantic Ocean and Panama Canal, while the Odyssey had to circumnavigate the globe via Suez Canal, Indian and Pacific Oceans.
During the journey, a water pipeline onboard Sea Launch commander burst, spewing water on the precious Block DM upper stage, requiring additional tests. As the ship was approaching the Panama Canal, it was discovered that Sea Launch had no license for the import of kerosene into the US, which the vessel carried for the tests of the rocket fueling system. As a result, 17 tons of kerosene had to be unloaded onboard a tanker.
In the meantime, the Odyssey platform survived its own "adventures" on the way to the US. During a storm in the Bay of Biscay, a crane in the hangar of the platform collapsed onto the state-of-the-art rocket erector. On July 16-26, 1998, Russian engineers examined the damage in the port of Gibraltar. Another stop for repairs was made in Singapore. It would ultimately take half a million dollars and four months to replace and repair the damaged hardware. Living up to its name, Odyssey finally made it to its home port in California on October 4, 1998.
Although the biggest technical problems were now resolved, Sea Launch was suddenly hit with another disaster, this time bureaucratic. On July 27, 1998, the State Department suspended the Technical Assistance Agreement, TAA, which allowed Boeing's involvement in the development phase of the project. The suspension was a result of more than 200 violations of the technology transfer procedures admitted by Boeing representatives. In turn, the World Bank suspended its part of funding of the Sea Launch project. After paying a 10-million dollar fine for alleged violations, and a three-month delay in practically all Sea Launch operations in Long Beach, all parties signed an amended agreement, lifting restrictions on future work. Normal business was resumed on Oct. 21, 1998. In the middle of November, Sea Launch and RKK Energia signed a contract for the conclusion of autonomous and the continuation of general testing of the complex. The first test launch was scheduled for March 14, 1999.
Between Nov. 5 and 14, 1998, both Sea Launch vessels were at sea, testing various systems. On Dec. 3, 1998, the Block DM-SL and the Zenit-2S rocket were mated together for the first time to form the Zenit-3SL of the Sea Launch complex.
In August 1998, Sea Launch decided to precede the first mission with a commercial payload -- the Galaxy-11 satellite -- by a test launch carrying a dummy payload. On Dec. 28, 1998, the first payload fairing built by Boeing was shipped from the home port to the command and assembly ship. On Dec. 31, 1998, the payload section and the rocket were mated for the first mission.
On Jan. 23, 1999, the first Zenit-3SL rocket was for the first time erected on the launch platform during so-called dry tests in the port of Long Beach. In March 1999, the Zenit-3SL rocket flew its first test mission from the Sea Launch platform, successfully delivering a demo satellite into orbit.
Hit hard by the January 2007 accident and following exodus of its customers, the Sea Launch company filed for bankruptcy protection on June 22, 2009. The company listed assets of up to $500 million against liabilities exceeding $1 billion. In its official press-release, Sea launch said it would continue operations as usual, while undergoing reorganization.
Sea Launch then spent several years emerging from bankruptcy under the ownership of RKK Energia in Russia and in new headquarters in Bern, Switzerland. Missions from the ocean-based platform resumed in 2008, however, after 10 successful launches, on Jan. 31, 2013, another Zenit plunged into the ocean shortly after liftoff from its floating platform. Smoke had hardly cleared from the ill-fated launch that reports surfaced in Russia that the leadership at RKK Energia had asked the government to take over the troubled Sea Launch venture. According to the Izvestiya daily, the head of RKK Energia Vitaly Lopota had made an offer to this effect to Vice Prime-Minister Dmitry Rogozin during his visit to the company's campus in Korolev on Jan. 15, 2013, i.e. even before the fateful accident. The Russian government was yet to respond, Izvestiya wrote on Feb. 4, 2013.
At the time, Sea Launch reportedly owed its creditors $530 million, even though RKK Energia put this number at $300 million. According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Sea Launch lost around $100 million in 2011. Yet, RKK Energia claimed that customers had booked 12 future launches from Sea Launch and more missions had been negotiated but it did not name those customers. According to its own estimates, Sea Launch needed to perform at least four launches a year to break even, however, in reality, it could not win more than two or three customers a year.
In December 2012, RKK Energia tried and failed to get a $200-million credit from the Russian Sberbank. Still, Lopota argued that the Russian government could support the project by taking over its liabilities and also shifting some of the federal missions to Sea Launch. The latter move was justified by the continuing dispute between Russia and Kazakhstan over the use of Baikonur. Lopota argued that Russia would get a launch site on the Equator for a "relatively small money" but did not say whether a losing-money venture under control of his corporation had any chance of becoming profitable when owned by the Russian government.
Apparently as a backup plan, Lopota also contemplated selling Sea Launch to foreign entities, naming China, Australia, US and Ukraine as interested parties. In particular, he described Lockheed Martin's Atlas rocket as a "perfect fit" for the Sea Launch platform. Lopota did not explain the rational behind Lockheed Martin's potential purchase of Sea Launch. In the pevious few years, the company had withdrawn from marketing Russian Proton rockets within the International Launch Services, ILS, venture, the main competitor to Sea Launch.
Around the same time, Boeing, the original majority stake holder in Sea Launch, also abandoned the venture. Moreover, Boeing reportedly asked Sea Launch to pay off a nearly $500-million share out of $1.5 billion of its investments into the project since its inception. The Norwegian company that developed the Sea Launch platform returned the money, but RKK Energia and KB Yuzhnoe refused to pay, citing unwritten agreement with Boeing.
(According to Russian sources, RKK Energia returned $155 million)
Boeing first attempted to bring the matter to the Swedish Court System, as it was prescribed by the agreement on the Sea Launch venture, but the case was dismissed in October 2011, after months of delaying tactics by RKK Energia.
In February 2013, Boeing filed a $355-million lawsuit against its former Sea Launch partners in the Central District of California, where the company's ships are based. The lawsuit alleged that RKK Energia owed Boeing $222.3 million and KB Yuzhnoe another $133.4 million.
Paying all creditors, combined with delays in restructuring of the company led to further financial damage to the Sea Launch venture.
In an effort to cut costs, RKK Energia apparently wrestled control over NPO Energomash, the maker of RD-170/171 engines, which power the first stage of the Zenit rocket. As a result, it was able to force NPO Energomash to reduce the price of each engine from $16 to $10 million, bringing the legendary propulsion company to the brink of bankruptcy. RKK Energia's own debt also continued mounting and according to Nezavisimaya Gazeta essentially turned into a disguised bankruptcy for several years. (631)
In August 2014, in the midst of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, Sea Launch announced that it would suspend its operations until the middle of 2015. The company also laid off its personnel, leaving only the most essential staff members.
Sea Launch case goes to trial
On June 29, 2015, the US court in the Central District of California held a hearing on Boeing's motion against its Russian and Ukrainian partners and on Sept. 28, 2015, it granted the plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment.
On May 12, 2016, judge Andre Birotte of the Central District of California, ordered RKK Energia to pay Boeing and its business unit, Boeing Commercial Space Company, BCSC, a total of $322.49 million in owed investments and interest.
The same ruling ordered KB Yuzhnoe and its production partner Yuzhmash, (both based in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine) to pay a total of $193.44 million.
The total sum owed by Russian and Ukrainian space industries in the Sea Launch debacle thus reached $515.93 million.
In 2016, the Russian airline company, the S7 Group, agreed to buy the assets of the troubled Sea Launch project, including both vessels and the launch support equipment in Long Beach, California, at a price tag of around $150 million. Following a series of negotiations, the project's main contractor, RKK Energia, and the S7 Group announced the deal on Sept. 27, 2016, at the International Astronautics Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico. At the signing ceremony, RKK Energia and S7 promised to resume Sea Launch missions by the end of 2018, or 18 months after obtaining approvals for the deal. Approvals had to come from the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls, DDTC, and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, CFIUS.
Sea Launch is then expected to perform around 70 launches before a major overhaul is required, its new investors believed. At the signing of the deal, RKK Energia and S7 said that the Sea Launch would remain based at the port of Long Beach and continue using the Zenit rocket. All previous plans to replace the Ukrainian-built vehicle with a Russian booster and to relocate the vessels to Russia were apparently dashed at least for the time being as financially and technically unrealistic.
At the same time, RKK Energia and S7 admitted that no agreement on the resumption of Zenit production in Dnepropetrovsk had been reached. The officials present at the signing ceremony were also unable to provide any scenarios for the resolution of the enormous outstanding dept hanging over Sea Launch, or any details on the prospects of settling the lawsuit with Boeing. However according to a transcript of the meeting between the Russian President Vladimir Putin and the head of Roskosmos Igor Komarov on Sept. 30, 2016, the Sea Launch's 19-billion-ruble debt ($302.3 million) will be "substantially" covered by the deal with the S7 Group.
At the same time, a deal between RKK Energia and Boeing signed in the summer (of 2016) will let the Russian side to return the money it owes to the US company in the form of supplies for a prospective joint program in human space flight, Komarov told Putin. Komarov referred to an international human-tended platform built in the lunar orbit or at the Lagrange point. According to Komarov, the deal between RKK Energia and Boeing envisioned strategic cooperation in the field of human space flight, commercial manned missions, deep-space exploration, docking systems, the development of solar panels and the formation of a joint venture.
Komarov expressed confidence that Sea Launch's problems would be resolved before the end of the year without additional (federal) funding, while paving the way for new technologies.
In its turn, KB Yuzhnoe in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, announced on September 30, that if the funding for the production of the Zenit rocket would begin in October of the same year, its production plant would be able to roll out the first new launch vehicle for the Sea Launch venture in the second half of 2017.
Read much more about the history of the Russian space program in a richly illustrated, large-format glossy edition:
Shares of original investors into the Sea Launch venture (as of 2000):
Shares of investors into the Sea Launch venture (as of 2010):
Zenit 3 payload capabilities:
Sea Launch industrial team:
A concept by the KBTM design bureau considering a single command and transport ship. Credit: KBTM
A concept by the KBTM design bureau considering a floating semi-submerged platform. Credit: KBTM
A concept by the KBTM design bureau considering a stationary self-lifting platform. Credit: KBTM
A concept by the KBTM design bureau considering a dual-body ship launcher. Credit: KBTM
A concept by the KBTM design bureau considering a semi-submerged self-propelled platform. Credit: KBTM
During the 1990s, RKK Energia evaluated the possibility of building a second sea-based launch pad, this time for the Soyuz-2 rocket. Credit: RKK Energia
The Zenit-3SL rocket launches Telstar 18 on June 28, 2004. Credit: Boeing
The Zenit-3SL rocket launches Koreasat 5 on Aug. 22, 2006. Credit: Sea Launch
The Zenit rocket with the NSS-8 communications satellite explodes on the Sea Launch pad on Jan. 30, 2007. Credit: Sea Launch