Sea Launch May Be Floating Pretty as Satellite Launch Business Picks Up

By Peter Pae, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The Boeing-led venture, which operates out of Long Beach, has a shot at turning a profit.

A team of Russians and Americans will be far out in the Pacific at the equator Wednesday to send a 9,500-pound television satellite into orbit from a floating launch pad.

Sea Launch Co. is an unlikely rocket venture that is 40%-owned by aerospace giant Boeing Co. Its partners are RSC-Energia, a Russian rocket engine company; a Ukrainian rocket maker; and a Norwegian shipbuilder. The consortium has invested more than $1 billion in Sea Launch, and after a rough start Boeing believes the idea is finally ready to take off.

One plus is that the long-suffering commercial satellite market is on the rebound. Sea Launch has six launches sold for 2006, starting with this week’s for EchoStar Communications Corp., the owner of Dish satellite TV network. Another eager customer is XM Satellite Radio Holdings Inc.

James Maser, a Boeing executive who is president of Sea Launch, said, “It looks like it’s going to be our busiest year,” with demand picking up for “big, heavy satellites, which is our niche.”

Sea Launch will break even if it can conduct six launches a year, Maser said. And if it can squeeze in seven it will produce a profit.

When Boeing jumped into the commercial satellite business in the mid-1990s, the telecommunications industry was expanding rapidly and demand was heavy for launches.

To help keep costs down, Boeing teamed up with its foreign partners to use older rockets originally designed by the Soviet Union for space missions.

But just as the venture was launching its first rockets in 1999, demand fell with the collapse of elaborate satellite systems planned by Teledesic and Iridium. Sea Launch sent up only one satellite in all of 2002. Rival start-up rocket launch companies went bankrupt.

Sea Launch’s remaining competitors are France’s Arianespace, which has experienced difficulties launching heavy satellites, and International Launch Services, which is owned by Lockheed Martin Corp.

Demand has gradually been picking up because many satellites launched in the early 1990s are beginning to wear out and need to be replaced.

Still, Sea Launch’s business plan bucked convention because virtually all other rockets are launched from land. Sea Launch had to prove itself, and its record is impressive: 16 of 18 launches have reached proper orbit, thanks to a rocket designed during the days of the Soviet Union.

“It sounds very kooky, but they have been very successful,” said Marco Caceras, senior space analyst for Teal Group Corp.

It typically costs about $70 million for a Sea Launch rocket and launch services, slightly more than Lockheed or Arianespace charge for ground-based launches.

Boeing, which handles Sea Launch’s sales, contends there are advantages to an ocean launch.

It’s from an isolated spot, so if a rocket fails it won’t come down in a populated area.

Also, a rocket launched from the equator benefits from the Earth’s rotation, providing the satellite with more momentum to help it reach orbit faster, using less fuel. As a result, a rocket can carry heavier, more powerful satellites that will stay in orbit longer, past the typical 15-year lifespan.

Sea Launch has won some converts, including DirecTV Group Inc., the nation’s leading satellite TV provider. The rocket company has launched two DirecTV satellites, and a third will go up next year.

“They were out there on the edge” with an unusual sales pitch, said Jim Butterworth, senior vice president of engineering for DirecTV in El Segundo. He’s now convinced that an ocean launch will extend the life of DirecTV’s satellites by “several years,” making up for the extra launch price.

The home port for Sea Launch is in Long Beach at a former Navy yard. Satellites are delivered by ship or a giant Russian cargo plane that lands at Long Beach Airport and then are taken to the port on an oversized truck.

The satellite is then put into a protective casing by Boeing technicians before it is hoisted aboard a Sea Launch ship. There it is mated to a 200-foot rocket.

The assembled launch vehicle is then transferred to a 20-story high floating launch platform that was once an oil-drilling rig. It is taken to sea on this rig.

Sea Launch fields an international crew. Ukrainians and Russians make the rockets and manage the launch, while Norwegian and Filipino crews operate the ships.

The launch ship left port first for the 11-day voyage to the equator for this week’s launch.

The faster command ship left several days later with its Russian and American engineers, who will monitor the liftoff of the rocket.

The ships were headed for an isolated spot in the doldrums 3,300 miles southwest of Long Beach and 1,400 miles south of the Hawaiian Islands. There is little air or boat traffic in the region.

After reaching the launch site the rocket platform, resting on two pontoons — each the size of a Trident nuclear submarine — is lowered several feet to provide stability.

Mission Director Daniel T. Dubbs has made these trips for seven years.

Other than the waves, the only noticeable sound during the voyage is the rocket launch itself, he said.

Night launches are particularly spectacular as the “water lights up for miles around,” Dubbs said. “It’s the ultimate light show.”

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