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Sea Launch To Seek NASA Space-Missions Contracts

By | January 28, 2008

      Sea Launch Co. LLC, until now providing launch services for non-governmental or dual-use customers, will seek contracts from NASA to provide cargo re-supply missions to the International Space Station, according to Rob Peckham, Sea Launch president and general manager.

      NASA faces a half-decade gap, from the end of space shuttle missions in 2010 until the next-generation Orion-Ares U.S. space transport system begins manned missions in 2015, a time when NASA will need to obtain space transport services from other nations such as Russia or from commercial firms.

      Peckham also said he is seeing launch prices in the industry rising to levels not seen since the late 1990s. And, he said, business in the industry has stabilized, leaving behind the volatile peaks-and-valleys cycles of earlier years.

      On globalization, he said he is content with current U.S. sensitive-technology export rules, and doesn’t seek changes there, unlike some industry firms and groups. President Bush, however, is pressing ahead with more relaxed rules such as expedited export licensing processes. (Please see full story in this issue.)

      "Sure, I’d like to see a relaxation" of technology and goods export rules, but "we haven’t had any export issues of late," so Sea Launch is proud to abide by the rules, he said. "I’m happy with that."

      Peckham, speaking before a luncheon meeting of the Washington Space Business Roundtable at the University Club in Washington, said he welcomes competition from launch service providers such as China, using its Long March rocket, and India.

      "I really don’t think it is" a bad omen for Sea Launch to have to compete against space entities that receive government funding, he said. "It is what it’s going to be."

      However, he noted, Sea Launch is a private company with private funding from customers, and he would be concerned if other providers begin using their government subsidies to under-price Sea Launch, a global concern with offices in Long Beach, Calif.

      "Unlike anybody else that I compete with, I get no money from the government."

      The Chinese and Indian programs "are institutional" and operate with government funding, and thus will be in business whether or not they obtain commercial contracts, he said. The Indians, he said, have "a very aggressive space program.

      "If they come in and want to sell [space launch services] for 50 cents on the dollar," that would be a problem for Sea Launch, he said.

      Finally, Peckham was ebullient that Sea Launch rallied from a disastrous rocket explosion on its sea-going mobile maritime launch platform a year ago to launch a satellite for Thuraya earlier this month. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, Monday, Jan. 21, 2008.)

      He said Sea Launch plans another five missions from its sea-going launch platform, and three land launches (Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan) for a total of nine launches this year; another six ocean and three land launches next year; and a total of 10 launches in 2010.

      The launch accident last year, apparently caused by metallic objects becoming lodged in an engine pump and then igniting from friction heat, imperiled the reliability of the Sea Launch missions schedule. Peckham indicated he wishes to avoid any further incidents. But asked whether he is sure that a review panel of experts is correct that the metal- object contamination likely caused the explosion, so that the problem won’t recur, Peckham responded cautiously.

      "Anybody who says ‘never’ will be proved wrong," Peckham said. "To say ‘never’ would be pompous."

      However, he added that he is satisfied with the review of the disaster, and with the review panel’s recommendations to fix the problem. "Will this happen again? I certainly hope not," he said.

      Peckham also said Sea Launch is working to develop tactics and platform improvements to counter very powerful ocean currents that can, unhelpfully, arise just when the company wishes to have the platform still and stable at launch time.

      Currents have accelerated to as much as 2 meters (6.5 feet) per second, he noted.

      "Our job is to increase the robustness of our platform, which we are doing," he said.

      He also said he sees no near-term impact on Sea Launch liftoffs from land, if Russia, which leases Baikonur, builds or improves land spaceports on Russian soil. "There has been a lot of talk about that," he said, "but that’s decades down the road." (Please see separate story in this issue.)

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