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Will U.S.-Russian Tensions Impact Sea Launch? - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Jun-2014
Updated: 26-Jun-2014 12:00 PM

UPDATE:  This story was updated on June 26, 2014 reflecting denials from a Sea Launch official and the head of the Ukrainian Space Agency.

Geopolitical tensions between the United States and Russia could mean a hiatus in launches of the Sea Launch consortium until relationships improve according to a report in the Russian media.   Sea Launch today is primarily a Russian company, but Boeing is still involved and the home port is Long Beach, CA.

Sea Launch uses Ukrainian Zenit-3SL rockets with a Russian upper stage to place satellites into geostationary orbit above the equator.  Launches take place from a platform, Odyssey, that is a converted mobile ocean oil rig.  Odyssey and its Sea Launch Commander command ship travel from Long Beach to the equator for the launch.  The first launch was in 1999, but the company suffered several total or partial failures, including a spectacular failure at liftoff in 2007, and filed for bankruptcy in 2009.  Originally, the company was owned 40 percent by Boeing, 25 percent by Russia's Energiya RSC, 20 percent by Norway's Kvaerner (which converted the oil rig) and 15 percent by Ukraine's Yuzhmash and Yuzhnoye.   It emerged from bankruptcy in 2010 with 95 percent ownership by Energiya and the Zenit-3SL return to flight in September 2011.  Another failure occurred in February 2013, but Sea Launch returned to flight again on May 26, 2014 with the successful launch of EUTELSAT 3B.

The question is what the future holds for this multinational enterprise.   Russia's RIA Novosti reported on June 24 that there are questions about whether the Zenit rockets can be built in Ukraine under current circumstances.   It quoted an unnamed source in the space industry as suggesting that a decision may be made soon to mothball the platform:  "He [the industry source] said if Russia, the United States and Ukraine fail to stabilize their relations, a decision may be made soon to mothball the Sea Launch until at least 2016."   RIA Novosti continues that the source added that it would not mean additional launches could not take place, but that it would take longer to get the launch complex ready.

The Sea Launch website does not provide a launch manifest showing upcoming launches so it is not easy to discern whether a hiatus through 2016 would have much impact on the company's business.   Spaceflightnow.com has a list of upcoming world-wide launches through March 2015; none are by Sea Launch.  The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation's most recent launch forecast volume (from May 2013) includes launches through all of 2015; none in 2015 are Sea Launch, although three are to-be-determined.   RIA Novosti said only that four Sea Launch Zenits are in various stages of construction at Yuzhnoye.

Peter Stier, deputy head of sales and marketing at Sea Launch, subsequently denied to the Moscow Times that the company is currently planning to mothball Odyssey or Sea Launch Commander, although is it "exploring contingency plans" in case such a step is needed.   The head of the Ukrainian Space Agency, Yuri Alexeyev, told Interfax that the supply of Zenit rockets for Sea Launch is not in jeopardy.


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