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Sea Launch looking up again with new rocket mission

The company, with major operations in Long Beach, is out of bankruptcy and banking on success with its latest ocean satellite launch, set for Friday.

September 22, 2011|By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times
  • Sea Launch's mobile launch platform, seen in Long Beach, is a modified oil rig. It's moved to the equator when a rocket is to be launched.
Sea Launch's mobile launch platform, seen in Long Beach, is a modified… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

Hundreds of technicians are busy preparing to launch a 20-story rocket from an ocean platform near the equator by Sea Launch, the rocket venture that's fresh out of bankruptcy protection and has major operations in Long Beach.

Preparations for Friday's launch are a long-awaited reversal of fortunes for the company, which hasn't launched a rocket from sea in more than two years. This is due in large part to a drawn-out bankruptcy process that resulted in a headquarters move and a new majority stakeholder in the company — once a major part of Boeing Co.'s rocket launch ambitions.

Late last year, an affiliate of Russian aerospace giant Rocket & Space Corp. Energia announced it would invest $155 million for a 95% stake in the company, which helped boost it out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The company then moved Sea Launch headquarters from Long Beach to Bern, Switzerland.

Though Long Beach may no longer serve as headquarters, there are still about 90 employees there. The number is a far cry from the peak of 176, but it is about double the number last year.

"There are new owners and renewed hopes here at Sea Launch," said Peter Stier, a company vice president of sales and marketing. "This, being the first launch since restructuring, is very important."

The company is set to send a 10,141-pound telecommunications satellite into orbit Friday at 1:18 Pacific time for Paris-based communications giant Eutelsat.

The satellite has been fixed atop Sea Launch's stark white rocket, the Zenit-3SL, which was largely made in Ukraine and shipped to the Port of Long Beach. That's where Sea Launch docks its specially designed ship and the launch platform, made from a modified oil rig.

The vessels head to an isolated spot about 3,300 miles southwest of Long Beach and 1,400 miles south of the Hawaiian Islands to launch. The site allows the rockets to reach orbit faster while burning less fuel as they use the Earth's rotation for momentum.

The company also launches rockets from a land-based facility in Kazakhstan.

Currently, Sea Launch has a team of more than 300 engineers and technicians on the platform in the Pacific putting the final touches on the rocket and working out any glitches that might hinder success.

"It's a huge launch for Sea Launch," said Marco A. Caceres, analyst for aerospace research firm Teal Group of Fairfax, Va. "There will be a high amount of exposure in Europe and everywhere else to see how they perform."

Caceres estimates the satellite's cost at more than $250 million.

"If they get two or three launches under their belt, they'll regain their standing in the industry," he said.

Sea Launch was formed as a joint venture in 1995, and seen by Boeing as an alternative to launching its satellites from land, many of them built in El Segundo. Under the initial plan, the aerospace giant held a 40% stake, with the remaining shares held by RSC Energia, a Norwegian shipbuilder and two Ukrainian rocket firms.

All told, the consortium poured about $1 billion into the project, most of it to build the ship and the floating platform.

But just as the venture was launching its first rockets in 1999, demand for satellites fell when the dot-com bubble began to burst. By 2002, Sea Launch had sent up only one satellite.

The company was able to stay afloat, counting DirecTV Inc. and satellite services provider Intelsat as customers. But it gained worldwide notoriety in 2007 after dramatic video images of a failed launch went viral on the Internet.

Launch cancellations mounted and in 2009, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after it could not pay a $52-million judgment it lost in connection with a terminated launch contract. At least four other launches have been canceled since it entered Chapter 11.

Sea Launch, now out of bankruptcy with RSC Energia's investment, has a backlog of six launches.

The launch Friday will mark the 31st sea launch in the firm's history. The event will be webcast starting at 1 p.m. Pacific time at http://www.sea-launch.com.

william.hennigan@latimes.com

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