Sea Launch vessels: Odyssey (left) and the Sea Launch commander during the transfer of the Zenit rocket from the ship to the platform. Image credit: Sea Launch

Aug 12, 2015 Sea Launch - the ultimate mission

Sen—In assessing all the options for staying in business, the cash-strapped Sea Launch company is yet to find a feasible alternative to the Zenit rocket it depends on for launches from its platform. At the same time, the fate of the Ukrainian-built Zenit in the city of Dnepropetrovsk is caught up in a political web stemming from the conflict between the two former republics of the USSR.

The Yuzhmash factory, which builds rocket hardware for several international ventures including Sea Launch, has been at a virtual stand still since last year, when the war in Ukraine broke out. In the intervening months, the factory struggled to pay the salaries of as many as 10,000 workers, who apparently still remain on its payroll.

Last week, the Ukrainian news agency Ukrinform quoted Deputy Director at Yuzhmash, Vladimir Tkachenko, as saying that the company had operated on a three-day work week and would be forced to switch to a one-day schedule in the fourth quarter of this year. Due to a lack of electricity and water, even toilets on the premises were not functioning, Tkachenko said. Ironically, the situation resembles the state of the Russian space industry following the Soviet collapse in 1991.

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The main assembly hall at Yuzhmash production plant in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. Image credit: KB Yuzhnoe

According to Sergei Gugkaev, the CEO at Sea Launch, four Zenit rockets are currently in various stages of production in the Ukraine, including one in final assembly, waiting for its engines from Moscow.

Beyond their suspended role in the Sea Launch program, at least two Zenit rockets are also scheduled to fly from Baikonur within the next 12 months with the Ukrainian Lybid (Swan) communications satellite and the Russian Elektro-L weather watcher. Yet another Zenit is scheduled to launch the Russian-German Spektr-RG astrophysics observatory in 2017. Unless Russia decides to scrap these satellites or re-tailor them for other launchers, which would be costly and could take years, Moscow and Kiev would have to get past their current hostility and cooperate on at least these three missions. In turn, it could signal to potential clients that the Zenit can fly commercial missions again.

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A Zenit rocket arrives at its launch pad in Baikonur. Image credit: Roscosmos

"If there is a continuation of the Sea Launch project, Ukraine is ready to participate in it," Natalya Borotkanich, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian space agency, NKAU, told Sen, "...anything that requires our involvement in this project, we will produce." According to Borotkanich, there has been no word from Russia so far on the fate of the Sea Launch project, besides signals that Moscow had been looking for a buyer for the venture. Just in case the Kremlin would decide to end the limbo, NKAU got a blessing from Kiev to cooperate with Russia on Sea Launch's future, Borotkanich said. She stressed that as an international commercial enterprise, Sea Launch had been exempt from the current ban by the Ukrainian government on military cooperation with Russia.

If Moscow finally attempts to revive Sea Launch, there could be a glimmer of hope on the commercial front as well. In the past, Intelsat, one of the major providers of satellite communications, expressed strong interest in keeping Sea Launch in business as a leverage against price hikes by too few launch providers. The company was among several clients who stuck with Sea Launch as it was emerging from bankruptcy in 2009 and 2010.

Although the current Sea Launch crisis is more severe than the previous one, the same consideration might still be at work if not more so among potential satellite operators.

These days, in addition to the grounding of Sea Launch, another key player in the commercial launch business—the Proton rocket—also ended up in danger of losing market share due to a recent string of failures. Without the Proton, the European Ariane and the American SpaceX Falcon rockets would remain the "only game in town."

Ironically, one of the most difficult obstacles on the road to recovery for Sea Launch, according to Gugkaev, was a perception of the Western satellite operators, insurance companies and investors that it is too dangerous to get involved with the Ukrainian hardware due to the political situation in the country. "They (customers) don't see the difference between Donetsk (the region of the current conflict with Russia) and Dnepropetrovsk (where the situation is relatively stable). They just see a huge risk in the whole of Ukraine." That perception obviously stems from unclear Russian intentions in the current slow-burning conflict in the Eastern Ukraine.

Several sources familiar with the situation agreed that although the Yuzhmash production plant is dire straits, the adjacent Yuzhnoe design bureau, which holds much of the experience on the Zenit rocket is not in danger of collapse thanks to its diverse portfolio of commercial projects. The manufacturing plant also made an effort to preserve the most experienced core of its team during the crisis. "I think the production (of the Zenit) still can be resumed with minimal losses (of the personnel)," Gugkaev said.

Conditional on the political will in Moscow and Kiev, plus some new investment, Sea Launch could return to flight at the end of 2016 or beginning of 2017. According to Gugkaev, the company still has agreements in principle with a number of companies, such as Intelsat or EchoStar, though without specific satellites assigned to Sea Launch.

Sea Launch has laid off the bulk of its workforce and its vessels have been mothballed at their home port of Long Beach on the Californian coast, south of Los Angeles. The Odyssey platform is in the "cold mothball", meaning that only limited power is available onboard and its main power generator turned off. It would take from four to six months to hire personnel and to put it back in business after sea trails, if it is ever to be revived. However Sea Launch had already performed a similar jumpstart during its previous hiatus.

Across the same pier in Long Beach, the Sea Launch Commander ship remains in "hot mothball" with its power running. A skeleton team of around 22 people is permanently housed on the ship to maintain all the hardware and equipment in good condition, as well as to keep an eye on the Odyssey platform, Gugkaev said.

Ideally, Sea Launch would prefer to relocate its vessels to a new home port, even if for a temporary storage, since "California is not the cheapest place to be," as Gugkaev put it. Moreover, a 5,000-kilometer distance from the home port to the Equator makes the traverse of a bulky and slow-moving Odyssey platform for each launch campaign very lengthy and expensive, especially at the time of high oil prices. Therefore, if Sea Launch has any hope of competing for commercial customers it has to move as close to the Equator as possible, Gugkaev said.

At the same time, any plans to move, for example to Russia's Pacific port of Vladivostok, would require considerable investments to accommodate two vessels. (Not to mention that Vladivostok is itself nowhere near the Equator.)

It seems there is no cheap solution for Sea Launch. Still, in the hope for Zenit's re-birth, Sea Launch studied various options for making the rocket more competitive. In particular, designs had been drawn to enlarge the cargo area under the rocket's payload fairing, so that a pair a standard communications satellites recently developed by Boeing could share a ride to orbit.

In another cost-cutting measure, engineers are considering a single flight control computer for the Block-DM upper stage (which serves as the third stage at the top of the Zenit), which would guide the entire Sea Launch mission. It would replace two flight control systems historically inherited from the two-stage Zenit and the Block DM stage, when they were "married" in the 1990s for the sake of the Sea Launch venture. However all of this has to wait until the fate of the venture is resolved.

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