Setback for oceangoing launch system as commercial liftoff fails

Posted: Monday, March 13, 2000

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The Boeing-led venture Sea Launch suffered a major setback Sunday when a Russian-Ukrainian rocket carrying a British communications company's $100 million satellite apparently fell into the Pacific after liftoff from a floating platform.

The failure occurred on the unusual system's third launch, which followed successes with an initial dummy satellite a year ago and a DirecTV satellite in October.

The Zenit-3SL rocket carrying a satellite for London-based ICO Global Communications lifted off at 6:49 a.m. PST from a self-propelled platform in the equatorial Pacific Ocean about 1,400 miles southeast of Hawaii.

Launch controllers on an accompanying command ship lost contact with the rocket several minutes later. The rocket was believed to have fallen into the ocean about 2,600 miles from the launch site, according to Long Beach, Calif.-based Sea Launch Co.

Sea Launch President Will Trafton said there was intermittent telemetry from the rocket's second stage and then third-stage telemetry showed it was off course.

''We have no damage to the command ship or the launch platform, no injuries to anyone, thank God,'' Trafton said, expressing regret to ICO and the satellite's builder.

''We got a good rocket and we got a great team and, as someone once said, this business is not for the faint of heart. So these things do happen unfortunately,'' he said.

ICO said the $100 milllion satellite was fully insured. The cost of the launch was withheld for competitive reasons. However, a commercial communications satellite and launch combined typically costs about $250 million.

It was not known if there would be an impact on any scheduled launches.

''We are going to determine the cause of the failure and what corrective actions need to be taken,'' said Anne Eisele, a Boeing spokeswoman.

Sea Launch is a venture by Boeing Commercial Space Co. of Seattle, Russia's RSC Energia, Ukraine's KB Yuzhnoye/PO Yuzhmash, and the Anglo-Norwegian Kvaerner Group of Oslo.

The 6,050-pound ICO F-1 satellite built by Hughes Space and Communications of El Segundo, Calif., was designed to test ICO's system for global mobile communications, which will eventually include 10 operational satellites.

ICO, which was founded in January 1995, filed for bankruptcy protection last August and says it is working towards emerging from Chapter 11 in May.

ICO Chief Executive Officer Richard Greco acknowledged disappointment but asserted that launch failures are a well-known risk in the industry and the company's planning had taken the possibility into account from the outset.

''We expect no significant adverse impact on our business moving forward,'' Greco said in a statement issued in London.

Although Sea Launch operates as a separate company, the failure marked a new problem for Boeing, which is a 40 percent partner in the venture. Boeing had already had back-to-back failures with the first two launches of the new Boeing Delta III rockets and has been working toward trying the new booster again this year.

The Sea Launch system is designed to take advantage of the physics of Earth's rotation. Earth moves faster at the equator, rockets launched there can more easily loft heavy payloads into so-called geosynchronous orbits, ones in which the satellite stays over the same area of the planet.

The platform is a converted oil rig. The rocket is assembled on the accompanying ship and transferred to the platform, which is evacuated after the rocket is raised to an upright position and fueled. The vessels were expected to immediately return to their homeport at Long Beach.


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