Thursday, March 25, 1999

All systems go
for Sea Launch
satellite test

The liftoff 1,400 miles south
of Hawaii is considered the
next step in the space race

Associated Press


LOS ANGELES -- If all goes as planned, a rocket carrying a five-ton dummy satellite will lift off from a floating launch pad in the middle of the Pacific Ocean this weekend as the commercial space race heads to sea.

The test from a converted oil drilling platform represents a critical challenge for an international consortium seeking lucrative contracts to launch the next generation of communications satellites.

The launch site at the equator about 1,400 miles south of Hawaii provides a key advantage over land-based liftoffs: The Earth spins faster at the equator, giving rockets a boost in reaching orbit that allows them to carry heavier payloads.

The concept of a commercial launch pad at sea is not new, but no one has done it before. If successful, the Sea Launch Co. project will pay off for American aerospace giant Boeing Co. and international partners from Russia, Ukraine and Norway.

"It is a bold but risky venture," said Jon Kutler, president of the aerospace investment bank Quarterdeck Investment Partners. He said Boeing might consider pulling out of the program if Saturday's test fails.

Sea Launch has contracts for 16 launches and expects to conduct its first commercial launch in August or September. Officials hope for six to 12 liftoffs a year.

Satellite launches cost up to $60 million, said Paul Nisbet, an aerospace analyst with JSA Research.

The $500 million project is huge: a drilling platform was converted into the Odyssey launch pad and loaded with 3,000 tons of automated rocket handling equipment; a 650-foot-long ship, Sea Launch Commander, was built to serve as a floating rocket assembly plant and mission control; and Boeing built a port that includes a satellite processing facility at Long Beach.

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