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Pad still intact after blast, says Sea Launch

The rocket company is assessing the extent of the damage after a dramatic explosion in the Pacific Ocean.

February 02, 2007|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

Dramatic video images captured Sea Launch Co.'s oceangoing platform being engulfed in a massive fireball when a rocket being launched from it exploded. But the Long Beach-based company said Thursday that the damage appeared to be limited.

In a preliminary assessment, the commercial launch operator said the platform, an oil rig converted to an oceangoing vessel with a launch pad, seemed to have retained its structural integrity after Tuesday's explosion in the Pacific and was operating under its own power. Engineers went aboard the platform Thursday to assess the damage.

"It's amazing," said Sea Launch spokeswoman Paula Korn, who was narrating the launch for the company's webcast when the explosion left her momentarily speechless. "There was some damage to the pad, but the bridge is fine and the light bulbs in the hangar are still on and working."

Sea Launch, a joint venture of Chicago-based Boeing Co. and Russian rocket makers, disputed the assessment of industry analyst Steve Mather of Sanders Morris Harris, who told Bloomberg News that the explosion caused extensive damage and could delay launches 10 months or more. Tuesday's launch was the first of six scheduled this year.

"We're still taking inventory, so we just don't know yet," Korn said. "It's too premature to say what kind of delay there might be."

A rocket failure in 2000 caused a four-month delay.

In the video, which was pulled from the company's website but has since been widely circulated on the Internet, the pad is seen being engulfed in flames moments after the rocket disappears in a cloud of smoke. On Thursday, the video was the second-most-viewed on YouTube.com's website.

The blast destroyed an NSS-8 telecommunications satellite built by Boeing in El Segundo for The Hague, Netherlands-based SES New Skies, the world's largest satellite broadcaster. The satellite -- at 13,000 pounds, one of the largest in the world -- cost more than $150 million. Sea Launch charges about $90 million to send up such satellites.

The venture, which started in 1995, is unusual in that it launches rockets at sea along the equator, about 3,300 miles southwest of Long Beach. Most rockets are launched from sites on land.

Sea Launch rockets are processed in Long Beach and taken to sea aboard the launch platform. A second ship follows the platform to the launch site, where it serves as the launch command center.

The advantages of equatorial sea launches include remoteness from populated areas, little or no competing air or boat traffic and the ability to reach orbit faster while burning less fuel as the rockets use the Earth's rotation for momentum.

After Tuesday's explosion, satellite operators were scrambling to find alternatives in case of a prolonged delay. Since the telecommunications bust of the 1990s, the number of rocket launch companies has dwindled to a handful. But with a recent upturn in demand for replacement satellites, launch manifests have filled quickly.

Marco A. Caceras, a senior space analyst with research firm Teal Group Corp., said the incident could represent a major setback for Sea Launch.

"They're probably going to lose one or two customers, they're going to have to spend a lot of money fixing this thing, and it breaks their wonderful momentum," he said, referring to the company's 20 straight previous successful launches.

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peter.pae@latimes.com

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