Even now, long after the end of the Cold War, it is an odd sight. At the tip of the former Long Beach Naval Station, a brawny rocket built...

Share story

LONG BEACH, Calif. — Even now, long after the end of the Cold War, it is an odd sight.

At the tip of the former Long Beach Naval Station, a brawny rocket built in Russia and Ukraine stands atop Odyssey, the world’s only oceangoing spaceport, bearing a 12,125-pound payload.

The Zenit-3SL rocket looks sort of like a Soviet-era ballistic missile. But its milky white nose cone shelters a communications satellite that Sea Launch will send into orbit June 23 to provide phone, television and Internet service to customers in North and South America, the Caribbean, Alaska and Hawaii.

At least that was the hope as the grasshopperlike Odyssey sailed out of Long Beach Harbor on Wednesday, bound for its launch site at the equator.

Most Read Stories

Cyber Sale! Save 90% on digital access.

A decade after it was founded, the consortium of American, Russian, Ukrainian and Norwegian rocketeers and mariners that make up Sea Launch — which is managed by lead investor Boeing — is trying to regain momentum and become a profitable player in a merciless business that includes such huge competitors as International Launch Services and Arianespace.

Sea Launch stumbled in June 2004 when the upper stage of its Zenit rocket shut down early while launching Telstar 18. The satellite was able to climb to its proper orbit. But the glitch slowed Sea Launch operations, preventing it from carrying out a business plan that calls for at least five liftoffs a year.

The privately held consortium sent payloads into space just three times in 2004. And it did so at heavily discounted prices.

Sea Launch is trying to maintain its niche in commercial launches, which have fallen by about 50 percent since the late 1990s because of a downturn in telecommunications.

Difficult industry

Sea Launch has some influential fans.

“We get as good a performance with Sea Launch as any [range] in the world,” says Bill Hayes, a mission manager at satellite-maker Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif., which built the payload that Sea Launch is preparing to loft.

Still, “there’s nothing tougher” than succeeding in the commercial launch industry, says Jim Maser, the former Boeing-Huntington Beach rocket engineer who serves as president of Sea Launch. “But we believe we ultimately can make money.”

Sea Launch markets itself as a unique alternative to land-based launch pads. The 26-story Odyssey can sail at the convenience of its customers, freeing them from having to wait for a launch date at multiuse spaceports like Cape Canaveral.

The company also boasts of having one of the business world’s greatest advantages: location, location, location.

“We go to zero degrees north, zero degrees south — the equator,” says Arnt Danielsen, captain of Odyssey’s mission control ship, Sea Launch Commander.

Most of the company’s customers want to send heavy communications satellites to a fixed point above the equator. So launching from “zero north, zero south” offers a direct route. And eastbound rockets benefit from the momentum of the Earth, which rotates faster at the equator than it does elsewhere.

There’s a much larger, land-based spaceport at Kourou, French Guiana, which is near, but not on, the equator. But Sea Launch doesn’t mind a bit of bragging, noting that a person can literally step across the equator by walking the deck of Odyssey when the converted oil rig is positioned for launch.

Sea Launch also extols the reliability of its Zenit-3SL rocket, a claim that is generally true. Fifteen of the company’s 16 launches have been successful. The only serious failure came in March 2000, when a Zenit malfunctioned, sending a satellite into the ocean instead of space.

“The Zenit’s not bad — for a vehicle that launches so infrequently,” says Marco Caceres, an aerospace analyst for The Teal Group of Fairfax, Va.

Multinational team

Sea Launch is a fairly lean operation; roughly 300 workers travel aboard the command-and-control ship and on Odyssey. That’s about one-third the number of people involved in most land-based ranges. But the multinational makeup of the company complicates things, which was apparent during recent mission preparations.

On May 27, a team of Americans moved the Intelsat Americas-8 satellite from a payload bay to the cavernous interior of Sea Launch Commander. They then worked with the Russians, who are responsible for mating the satellite to the Zenit rocket’s upper stage.

Also present were the Ukrainians, who handle the Zenit’s first and second stages. Then there were the Norwegians, who went about their business of operating Odyssey and the control ship.

This mix of people requires help from language translators, who roam the vessels and dock, making sure the nuances of various discussions aren’t misinterpreted.

Although interaction is encouraged, the Americans are strictly prohibited from sharing information about certain technologies. To emphasize the point, the Pentagon places monitors in the launch control center of the command ship, an area that is divided in half and occupied by separate American and Russian/Ukrainian launch teams.

Violating the law can be costly. In 1998, the federal government fined Boeing $10 million for failing to properly handle technology information while dealing with its Russian and Ukrainian partners in Sea Launch.

The company can’t afford such hits. Sea Launch is currently charging customers about $10 million less than it would like to charge for most launches.

“Supply exceeds demand,” said Maser. “We don’t see any significant growth [in the market] between now and 2010.” But Maser says the company should be able to climb into the black next year if it begins to launch five to six payloads a year.