The U.S. Navy: Satellites from the Sea

By Norman Polmar

There were several delays, however, in beginning launch operations. The most significant came in mid-1998, when the U.S. State Department suspended Boeing's license for work at the Sea Launch home port of Long Beach, California, because of concerns over the transfer of technology information. Subsequently, Boeing was fined $10 million for the violation of U.S. arms control laws related to the Sea Launch program. Reportedly, the company committed more than 200 violations as it worked with the Russian and Ukraine firms.

Another problem was the recent failure of two Ukraine/Russian-built Zenit booster rockets of the type to be used in the Sea Launch program. Last September's unsuccessful launch of a Zenit booster—which failed shortly after launching from the Baikonur Cosmodrome—was to have been the largest payload of multiple, heavy spacecraft ever carried aloft by a single booster. The rocket bore 12 Loral Globalstar satellites, each valued at $15.5 million and weighing 980 pounds.

Nevertheless, Sea Launch has firm contracts for 18 satellite launches—13 from Hughes Space & Communications and 5 from Space Systems/Loral, both U.S. firms. And once operations are in full swing, there should be a rapid increase in contracts, with a goal of six or seven launches per year with the existing system. Allen B. Ashby, president and general manager of Sea Launch, said that with refinements of the existing system, the number of launches could be increased to eight or more per year. Modifications could boost that rate even higher.

The Sea Launch system has four major components: the assembly and command ship, Sea Launch Commander ; the self-propelled, semisubmersible launch platform Odyssey; multistage Zenit-3SL launch rockets; and the home port at Long Beach. The built-for-the-purpose Sea Launch Commander was constructed at the Kvaerner yard in Glasgow, Scotland, and fitted out as a floating rocket assembly plant and mission control center at the Kanonersk Shipyard in Vyborg, Russia. Based on a roll-on/roll-off cargo ship design, she will transport and assemble the rockets and satellites and transfer them to the launch platform at the remote ocean locations. The Sea Launch Commander will take on board all personnel from the launch platform prior to blast off, and will serve as the launch control facility.

The ship displaces approximately 34,000 tons full load, is 650 feet long, and has accommodations for 240 men and women. She arrived at her home port of Long Beach on 13 July 1998, after a month-long transit from St. Petersburg, Russia, via the Panama Canal.

The launch platform Odyssey was built as an ocean-drilling platform and converted to her new role at the Kvaerner yard in Stavanger, Norway. Subsequently, she was fitted with automated rocket handling, fueling, and launch equipment at Vyborg.

The Odyssey is 436 feet long, 220 feet wide, and has a surface displacement of 30,000 tons. Built with twin underwater hulls, similar to a SWATH configuration, the platform submerges to a keel depth of some 75 feet, which adds stability to the launch process.4 At that depth, water ballast increases the ship's submerged displacement to 50,600 tons. Accommodations are provided for 68 personnel—ship's crew and, in the future, spacecraft crewmen. Both ships have helicopter landing pads forward. Too wide to transit the Panama Canal, the Odyssey arrived at Long Beach on 5 October 1998.

In launch operations, the Sea Launch Commander will marry stern-to-stern with the Odyssey to transfer the three-stage rockets. When assembled, these rockets are approximately 200 feet long, with a maximum diameter of 14 feet. Burning kerosene and liquid oxygen, they can place payloads of some 11,000 pounds into a geostationary transfer orbit.

Long Beach has pier facilities for the two ships as well as fuel storage and other support features.

The use of surface ships to launch large rockets dates to the immediate post-World War II era. On 6 September 1947, the Navy successfully launched a German V-2 ballistic missile from the aircraft carrier Midway (CVB-41) in Operation Sandy. This was the only launch of a German-built V-2 from a moving platform.

The Navy subsequently considered various seagoing launch platforms for research rockets, including the conversion of floating dry docks as well as specialized ships. The primary rationale for such a program was to gain more flexibility in attaining specific orbits, but other benefits would have included reducing hazards from accidents and launch failures, lower cost than expanding land-launch facilities, and increased secrecy. The Navy even established a designation for an "astronautics ship"—AGSL, although the concept was not pursued.

The Navy also looked into strategic missile-launching ships, with studies continuing into the 1970s. One concept was for a large ballistic missile ship (BMS) to carry batteries of strategic missiles, part of the STRAT-X study of future strategic systems that was carried out in the late 1960s.

Although research rockets were launched from a U.S. escort carrier and dock landing ship, the gunnery/missile test ship Norton Sound (AVM-1) was responsible for most of the Navy's sea-launched research rockets. These included the 6 September 1958 launch of a rocket with a nuclear warhead to an altitude of 300 miles.

The notion of launching commercial payloads from ships periodically was considered along with the firing of research rockets. In 1993, Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote of the "bottleneck" of using the federal space launch facilities at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and Cape Kennedy, Florida. He proposed a system of "floating missile" launches, which the Navy had looked at some years earlier. But the floating system was too complex for commercial payloads; the ship-launch system appeared more feasible.

Boeing and its partners began studies in the spring of 1994 that led to the formation of the Sea Launch venture a year later. The advantages and feasibility of the Sea Launch system were such that the first order from Hughes was made in December 1995. Thus, despite the delays, the Sea Launch promises to open a new era in the use and exploration of space . . . from the sea.


Norman Polmar is an analyst, consultant, and author specializing in naval, aviation, and science and technology issues. He has been a consultant or advisor on naval-related issues to three U.S. senators, the Speaker of the House, and the Deputy Counselor to the President, as well as to the Director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He has written or coauthored more than fifty published books and numerous articles on naval, aviation, technology, and intelligence subjects.

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