Several events brought to mind the forgotten problem of the Sea Launch, a unique floating cosmodrome, which was unclaimed and stuck in the base port of Long Beach in California for several reasons.
March 30 head of the Russian Federal Space Agency Igor Komarov announced the upcoming sale of the project "Sea Launch". He added that companies from the USA, Europe, China and Australia wanted to acquire the project.
“The available capacities of Russian launch vehicles are no longer enough to solve tasks in the interests of the Ministry of Defense”
17 May was followed by a statement by RSC Energia Vladimir Solntsev, according to which the tender for the sale of the Sea Launch will be completed by mid-June. And on May 20, the consistent advocate of using the Sea Launch project in the interests of Russia, the former president and general designer of RSC Energia Vitaly Lopota, was released from under the house arrest that lasted for two years. The period of its isolation strangely coincided with the time of preparing the draft of the Federal Space Program (FKP) before 2025, the fierce and consistent criticism of which in its present form was and is. It was this circumstance that played a decisive role in the fact that after the RKK he had briefly been in the position of vice-president of the United Rocket and Space Corporation.
Sad finish "Sea Launch"
Information about the attempts of the new leadership of RKK to sell the Sea Launch, either to Israel or to China, have been received before. But as it became known, they were frustrated by those who saw in this act an operation capable of causing enormous damage to Russia.
"The main interest of potential buyers was the most advanced and still not repeated technology of a fully automatic start, implemented on the launching floating platform Odyssey," one of the experts polled by VPK said. He has no doubt that it is for this reason that the Sea Launch cannot be sold, it can and should serve Russia.
Australia could be a new end customer for a floating space center. Given the impossibility of a direct transaction (sanctions, etc.), an indirect acquisition scheme through S7 was chosen, to which it was given for an amount equivalent to the Energy debt to Boeing (that is, five times cheaper than the real cost of the sea and land segments). consulting company Northern Sky Researh of two billion dollars). However, the deal turned out to be in fact disrupted - Komarov’s statement noted above sounded like an attempt to prevent the sale. Immediately after this, the American participant in the Boeing project blocked the deal through the court, explaining that it would violate the technology protection clause existing in the statutory documents of the consortium.
An amazing thing: as the "MIC" became known, according to unconfirmed official data, it was exactly the same amount that the industry leadership asked the government to solve the problems of the sea launch site. So, it will still be saved for our country?
The Sea Launch project was created jointly by companies from Russia, USA, Ukraine and Norway in 1998. The launches began with 1999, 36 starts were all, of which 33 was successful. More than a billion dollars of borrowed funds, including 200 million, were secured by the World Bank and the counter-guarantees of the governments of the Russian Federation and Ukraine for the creation of the cosmodrome.
The tacit task of the project was to consolidate Russia in the launch services market, as well as create a backup system that would ensure the launch into geostationary orbit when the Baikonur cosmodrome was under the jurisdiction of Kazakhstan and ambiguities with the creation of the Angara heavy class missile system.
She flew for the first time in 2014, and this seems to have been the verdict on Sea Launch with its Baikonur analogue Land Launch, as well as some of those who supported these projects. It seems to have been carried out by people involved in one way or another in the "proton-Angara" financial scheme.
Now few people remember that due to the first revenues from the Sea Launch, RKK was able to extend the life of the Mir orbital station by two years, ensure technological stability and load the industry’s strategically important industries. In the period from 1996 to 2014, Russian enterprises received orders for more than a billion dollars for this project, and more than 50 enterprises in the industry were retained with jobs for a total of about thousands of people. In other words, if it were not for the Sea Launch, much that is being done now by the state defense order would simply have no one to implement.
By 2010, problems in relations between the participants of the consortium related to the actions of western partners had matured. Initially, Russia's share (RSC Energia) in the company's authorized capital (25%) did not allow it to be effectively controlled, since the management was carried out by the Boeing group (40%). As a result, Western partners made a twofold excess of the approved estimates, servicing an excessive amount of borrowed funds - to pay for these overruns, Sea Launch had to attract bank loans against guarantees from Western partners, which led to significant financial problems of the project.
Invest to return money
In September, 2007, Vitaly Lopota initiated a financial and economic audit of the Sea Launch business. The audit was conducted in October-November by JPMorgan Bank, which confirmed all signs of the company's crisis and the mistakes made by management and managers. The Board of Directors made a decision providing for attracting investments to provide working capital required for advanced manufacturing of launch vehicles when servicing orders. Before attracting investments, RSC demanded to change the Sea Launch management, to develop and implement a business restructuring program. By that time, total debts amounted to about 2,5 billion dollars, including RKK’s liabilities - about 700 million dollars.
In 2009, the American partner attempted to turn the operation to recognize the Sea Launch as bankrupt and buy out the cosmodrome at the price of a non-core asset or scrap metal.
In the 2010 year, in order not to allow the Sea Launch to collapse, which became a hindrance to US launch service providers, the RKK leadership was forced to go to the reorganization already mentioned above, which resulted in the transfer of the RKK-based cosmodrome and ground infrastructure to Porto Long Beach. It is noteworthy that customers of the launch services contributed even before 2009-th 248 millions of advances made to perform 14-launches. Their implementation guaranteed the break-even operation of the spaceport for more than three years.
After the reorganization of 2010 in 95, the company’s shares are owned by Energia Overseas Limited (EOL) - RKK’s “granddaughter”, three percent by Boeing, and two percent by Norwegian company Aker Solutions. The headquarters of the consortium is in Nyon, Switzerland.
After the reorganization, six successful launches were performed. However, the financial position of the consortium did not improve: according to knowledgeable people, the dumping was largely prevented by the ILS.
It is known that the reason for the investigation, which began in 2014, was the “verification” data initiated by the former leadership of Roscosmos. It was conducted by a commission headed by the former first deputy head of the agency, Oleg Frolov. She was charged for a negative result - despite the fact that at about the same time, the RCC checked the commissions of the three most competent control bodies, including the Accounts Chamber, which did not find any serious violations in the activities of the previous management of the corporation. The results of these inspections are approved by the shareholders of the enterprise and in the government. As for the “Frolov Commission,” she found that when lending funds to subsidiaries involved in the project, some damage was caused, the amount of which the prosecution still does not have consent. And was he really? The termination of the house arrest regime of Lopota is quite eloquent. “Damage” was revealed in the form of lost profits on the basis of specially modified data from the “Frolov Commission”, which was not confirmed and not proven, ”said the source of the“ MIC ”, familiar with the situation.
It was about RKK’s “daughters” and “granddaughters”, the funds largely remained in the corporation. Her right is to dispose of them as she sees fit. In any case, the previous leadership of "Energy" was trying not to get rid of the "Sea Launch", which makes the present, but to fight for it. However, as noted by the former leadership of the RKK, despite repeated promises to objectively deal with the materials of all the checks and decide to support the marine cosmodrome, in various instances, until recently, only the work of the “Frolov commission” was taken into account.
In 2014, Sea Launch preserved the floating launch platform Odyssey and the assembly and command ship Sea Launch Commander, and also fired some of the staff.
What has already given Russia the Sea Launch? He retained and gave a powerful impetus to the development of the school and technologies for the production of high-performance powerful oxygen-kerosene rocket engines RD-170 / 171 with 800 tons, which is Russia's main competitive advantage with the possible creation of super-heavy class launch vehicles exceeding in their performance characteristics developed in the USA SLS super heavy media.
High-speed digital control systems of the upper stages and the launch vehicle were created at the technological level.
High-precision technologies for rocket launches from a non-stationary launch have been developed and obtained flight qualifications that provide the best precision in the world for launching spacecraft into geostationary and geo-transition orbits with the obvious possibility of using them for certain military purposes.
Promising technologies for the fully automated preparation and launch of launch vehicles with remote control and, if necessary, with radio control of the launch complex, have been created. The latter is still not in Russia on any other.
The Sea Launch, along with the Land Launch, can become a real base for the creation and testing in the shortest possible time of reliable and competitive LV of medium, heavy and extra heavy classes Energy-1K at one of the Russian enterprises, especially since Ukrainian Zenit in fact, was on our 90 percent.
And here the fun begins.
As is well known, in the new PCF, in terms of launch vehicles, emphasis was placed on the development of the LV line on the basis of the “Angara”, the base for which is URM with the 200-ton RD-190 engine. In particular, it is planned to develop a manned variant, the Angara-A5P, as well as a heavy increased-capacity rocket, the Angara-A5B, which will be capable of launching a payload of 35 tons into low orbit. Her first flight is scheduled for the 2026 year.
However, many experts doubt the feasibility of these plans. Skeptics were even in the team that created the "Angara". In particular, the ex-head of Salyut Design Bureau (part of the GKNPTs), Yuri Bakhvalov, argued that the modernization of the Angara-5 to the Angara-A5В option was not feasible, which cost him his position.
It seems that these fears are secretly shared by those who, for a number of reasons, have relied on Angara. Otherwise, how to explain that at the last moment an item on the development of the Phoenix LV got into the draft PCF?
With him, too, everything is not clear. At first it was about the fact that this carrier will be developing Progress Rocket and Space Center (RCC). As stated by the head of the RCC, Alexander Kirilin, the ROC was supposed to open in 2018 year. However, in the end it turned out that Khrunichev’s firm (Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center), the developer and manufacturer of Proton and Angara launch vehicles, will take care of the project. An amazing thing, the GKNPT received a tasty order without any tender, although other companies could also claim it. Everyone somehow forgotten that quite recently, the NTS of Roskosmos determined the project of the Energiya-K launch vehicle line as the most promising.
Meanwhile, the head institute of Roskosmos - TsNIIMash has ripened to that which Vitaly Lopota has repeatedly said earlier, pointing to the futility of using the "Angara" in the lunar version. A short expedition to the Earth satellite will require at least four launches of the Angara-A5B launch vehicle, for a long-term expedition, eight launches with a corresponding loss in reliability and in the price of the question about which the Angara supporters were so concerned about. In TsNImash, they confirmed the need to develop a truly super-heavy carrier with a carrying capacity of at least 80 tons for solving single-launch missions of a manned spacecraft weighing about 20 tons to the orbit of an artificial satellite of the Moon. They want to start solving this problem there from the year 2035, arguing that earlier there is no need for such a carrier. At the same time, at the head institute they forgot that there are not only civil payloads: the military already now cannot let what they would like. A good example is that the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation is forced to order four additional Meridian communication satellites due to the fact that the planned Sfera-V spacecraft planned to replace them turned out to be too heavy for existing RNs. Earlier, the head of the NTS of Roscosmos, Yuri Koptev, acknowledged that the available capacities of Russian launch vehicles are no longer enough to solve tasks in the interests of the Ministry of Defense.
And the emphasis is again placed on “Phoenix” in the GKNPT version, and it is forgotten that the existing technologies associated with the RD-170 / 171-based rocket unit allow us to make a competitive super-heavy carrier in five to seven years, that is, years on 15 before as planned at TsNIImash. And then RKK specialists will not have to make their plans considering the possible use of the American SLS carrier, and vice versa - the Americans will have to buy launch services from Russia.
If Roscosmos is really concerned about the fate of the Sea Launch, you can only support this initiative. It will allow to get a new version of truly independent access to orbit for Russia, and it is very effective.