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Sea Launch evokes optimism despite troubled February

Posted: February 13, 2013

Sea Launch says it is committed to returning to operations despite a rocket failure and a lawsuit filed against the firm's owners and suppliers by Boeing, a minority shareholder and builder of the company's payload fairings.

File photo of a Zenit 3SL rocket on Sea Launch's Odyssey platform at the company's home port in Long Beach, Calif. Credit: Sea Launch
The Russian-owned launch provider, which has spent the last few years in third-place in the global commercial communications satellite launch market, says it will evaluate ways to improve its reliability and viability in the wake of a Feb. 1 launch failure.

In a pair of statements issued last week by Sea Launch and RSC Energia, its Moscow-based majority owner, officials said they were committed to returning to flight.

Sea Launch's Zenit 3SL rocket flew off course and fell into the Pacific Ocean moments after liftoff Feb. 1. The Intelsat 27 communications satellite was destroyed in the botched launch.

Sea Launch conducts launches from a mobile platform positioned on the equator in the Pacific Ocean about 1,400 miles south of Hawaii. The company assembles its Zenit rockets and satellite payloads together at a port in Long Beach, Calif., then sails its command ship and launch platform to the Pacific launch site to take advantage of the higher speed of Earth's spin at the equator, raising the performance of the Zenit rocket to carry heavier satellites into orbit.

Boeing Co. filed a lawsuit against Energia and its Ukrainian suppliers, which provide Zenit rocket hardware to the Sea Launch program, the same day as the launch failure.

The aerospace giant filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

Court filings claim Energia and Yuzhnoye, chief designer of the Zenit rocket system, did not pay more than $350 million owed to Boeing after Sea Launch filed for bankruptcy in 2009.

Boeing owned 40 percent of the Sea Launch venture but gave up its most of its stake during bankruptcy proceedings, retaining 5 percent of the company's shares in partnership with Aker Maritime Finance, a Norwegian shipbuilder which provides Sea Launch's marine vessels.

The Russian and Ukrainian governments are principal owners of Energia and Yuzhnoye, respectively.

Boeing repaid Sea Launch's creditors $449 million during the launch provider's bankruptcy, and the aerospace company is seeking approximately $222 million from Energia and approximately $133 million from Yuzhnoye, according to court documents. Boeing says Energia and Yuzhnoye owe the sum to cover their share of Sea Launch's payment to creditors in 2009.

Boeing claims the Russian and Ukrainian companies owe the money under agreements signed when the partners established Sea Launch in 1995. Documents filed by Boeing's attorneys also accuse Energia of creating two subsidiaries, Energia Overseas Ltd. and Energia Logistics Ltd., as shell companies to control Sea Launch operations while concealing assets to escape liability to Boeing.

Boeing's complaint says Yuzhnoye considers Sea Launch its most important customer worldwide, and Sea Launch ranks among Energia's top two global customers.

The court referred the case to mediation.

Sea Launch, which has not addressed the lawsuit, said it is committed to returning to operations.

Kjell Karlsen, Sea Launch's president and general manager, said last year the company would be profitable with four launches per year. But Sea Launch has no firm launch contracts in its backlog.

Sea Launch has agreements and contract options for up to three satellite launches for U.S.-based EchoStar Corp. and a single mission for AsiaSat of Hong Kong.

A Sea Launch spokesperson did not respond to a question on the status of the EchoStar and AsiaSat agreements following the Feb. 1 launch failure.

In a statement issued Feb. 6, Vitaly Lopota, general designer and president of RSC Energia, vowed investigators would find the cause of the Feb. 1 launch mishap and resume launching satellites.

Footage from Sea Launch's live webcast of the failed launch was posted on YouTube.
"In conjunction with the participants of this program and various interested parties from the business community, we are in the process of creating a strategy that will ensure the long-term viability of the Sea Launch system as well as provide for evolutionary improvements to its performance," Lopota said in a statement. "We remain confident that the Sea Launch program will continue to remain a key launch service provider to the world's spacecraft operator community for years to come."

The Feb. 1 failure marked the fourth problematic launch in 35 flights from Sea Launch's ocean pad, and it was the first anomaly since the company emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.

"I urge all current and potential customers of Sea Launch to be patient, recognizing the strategic importance of launch vehicle diversity to their own business," Lopota said. "We can assure you that Sea Launch will continue to launch our customer's spacecraft on schedule, reliably and with a high level of injection accuracy."

The Russian and Ukrainian governments assumed control of the investigation into the Feb. 1 launch failure. Engineers are focusing their inquiry on the thrust vector control system of the Zenit rocket's RD-171 first stage engine.

The thrust vector control system pivots the engine in flight, directing its thrust to help steer the rocket through the atmosphere on the proper trajectory.

The steering system failed soon after launch, causing the rocket to veer from its planned flight path.

The Zenit rocket's flight computer detected the booster exceeded a programmed roll limit and initiated an engine shutdown sequence, which is designed to safely terminate the flight in the event of a problem.

The RD-171 engine, built in Russia by NPO Energomash, switched off about 20 seconds after liftoff, and the rocket crashed into the Pacific a few miles from the launch platform.