Russia abandons Sea Launch

Running from competition: The Russian space agency Roskosmos has decided not to spend the money necessary to buy Sea Launch and make it part of its consolidated United Rocket and Space Corporation (URSC).

Part of the reason the Russians are abandoning Sea Launch is that the rocket the ocean-going platform uses is the Ukrainian-built Zenit rocket, and Russia wants URSC to a wholly Russian operation. Rather than partner with Ukraine for profit, they will let the business die.

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10 comments

  • DK Williams

    This is a shame.

  • Kelly Starks

    Russia not wanting to invest in a joint project with Ukraine now, I wonder why?

    Likely no one else will buy into it now either for fear of Russia cutting supplies.

  • Pzatchok

    I find it more disturbing that Russia could not find a replacement engine of its own in its design inventory already.

    • Kelly Starks

      >.. I find it more disturbing that Russia could not find a replacement engine of its own in its design inventory already.

      Their aerospace capabilities are unraveling as the staffs grow old and retire or die without replacements, or clear records of what they did. Add in Putins political games…. they might be losing more and more capacity. As I’ve said, I wonder if their talking about pulling out of the ISS program and cutting RD-180 supplies, might in part be because they won’t have the capability to deliver them soon?

      • Dick Eagleson

        The Russians have certainly had some high-profile quality control problems in parts of their space industrial base recently. The Soyuzes used for ISS access have had several wonky incidents both going to and coming from the ISS in recent years. Then there are the two Proton failures – one due to 1st-stage problems, the other due to upper stage problems – that have occurred in the last year. I know of no evidence that the undeniably prevalent rot has spread to RD-180 fabrication, but it can hardly be ruled out either. If you happen to be right about this, it would just be one more reason to write off the Atlas V and get on with securing our ability to continue vital national security satellite launches on other vehicles.

        • Kelly Starks

          Either way I think the US will either do their own hydrocarbon engine (sadly the push seems to be to do something more exotic, but less practical then Kerosene), or switch over to the Delta-IV’s.

          • Dick Eagleson

            As the number of future Atlas V’s looks decidedly finite, Delta IV can hardly avoid being depended upon more in the near term, Further out, though, Falcon 9 will replace Atlas V as the most numerous launcher for Nat-Sec payloads. When Orbital-ATK get their re-engineered Antares 2.0 configuration certified for low-end EELV work, and Stratolaunch does likewise for Thunderbolt, that will poison off the Delta. It’s just too expensive.

          • Kelly Starks

            Farther out you cold have the Mil finally get to field a RLV like they wanted. Given SpaceX Quality and cert issues I doubt it will ever get to launch critical high value birds, much les many gov cargo where heavy oversight is such a priority. ( Actually, I’d be surprised if they were still in business long run given their fundamentals.) as for the rest, hard to say, but certainly D-4 and A-V’s costs aren’t going to be a big issue for them.

          • Dick Eagleson

            If wishes were fishes at least you’d never starve.

            Farther out you cold have the Mil finally get to field a RLV like they wanted.

            The military already has a reusable spaceplane, the X-37. If they want a completely reusable system to launch it, they can get that by putting it on Falcon Heavies, starting in maybe two more years. Not so very much farther out at all. QED.

            Given SpaceX Quality and cert issues I doubt it will ever get to launch critical high value birds, much les many gov cargo where heavy oversight is such a priority.

            SpaceX has no quality or certification issues. They use the same machine tools as the legacy contractors and their machinists are cherry-picked from the large pool of idled former employees of the legacy aerospace companies that currently exists in the South Bay area of greater Los Angeles. The EELV new entrant certification process continues to grind on as USAF spends nearly as much money to “certify” the Falcon 9 as SpaceX spent to develop it in the first place. But both the Aerospace Corp. exec in charge of the “certification” and his counterparts at SpaceX say the process is moving forward smoothly and should be complete by year’s end or earlier. No showstoppers.

            ( Actually, I’d be surprised if they were still in business long run given their fundamentals.)

            SpaceX will be fine, long-term. Bigelow appears to have shifted out of hibernation mode a couple days ago. Launching his station components and providing crew transfer services should be a gold mine for SpaceX in addition to all the commercial satellite launch business they’re already sucking up and EELV payloads to come.

            ULA, on the other hand, has rotten fundamentals going forward. Their premier vehicle is now engineless and it’ll take five years or more to replace. Their other vehicle is too expensive. Them, I’d worry about.

            as for the rest, hard to say, but certainly D-4 and A-V’s costs aren’t going to be a big issue for them.

            You seem to be the only one who thinks so. Costs are the issue going forward. ULA’s are completely out of line and there really isn’t much they can do about it given their structure of massive reliance on subcontractors. If ULA picks up much more battle damage, they could be gone in as little as another year or two.

  • Dick Eagleson

    This is not an unexpected decision. I don’t think the Zenit-Ukraine connection had much to do with it though. The new all-Russian Angara rocket is said to be pad-compatible with the Zenit, at least in its lower-end configurations. Any evaluation of Sea Launch’s future in Russian hands was likely done assuming its launch vehicle would be Angara. After that, the key questions would be:

    1) What does Sea Launch offer that launching Angara from land in Russia doesn’t?

    2) Is the value of Sea Launch’s unique capabilities greater than its increased operational costs compared to on-land launches?

    The main thing Sea Launch offers is any-latitude, any-azimuth launch. For GTO/GEO launches the ability to launch on the equator allows maximum advantage to be taken of Earth’s rotational velocity and the lack of required orbital plane changes to maximize lift capacity.

    But the trend line in comsat design is toward lighter vehicles that use electric propulsion. This makes Sea Launch’s former advantages less compelling and less valuable.

    Thus, the answer to question two likely worked out to “No” when all was said and done. It is at least faintly possible that the Russian green-eyeshade-niks might also have looked ahead a few years to when Stratolaunch goes operational. If so, they likely concluded that an any-latitude, any-azimuth launch platform that can reach launch point from base in a matter of hours with a crew of two was going to be impossible to compete against for a sea-going vessel that requires a much larger crew and which takes days or even weeks to reach its launch point after departure from its base.

    Sea Launch was an interesting idea and deserves credit for being one of the first real private commercial space companies to actually conduct launches. But its checkered launch history and the changing nature of payloads in its targeted market – not to mention serious competition now a-building – make it a poor investment going forward. I think the Russians came to the same conclusion. Time to retire Sea Launch’s platform to the ranks of museum ships or send her to the breakers.

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