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Obscure prospects of Russian Sea Launch

In spring, 2020, Russia transported the Sea Launch maritime platform from the Port of Long Beach, California, to the Port of Slavyanka, in the Russian Far East. The Kremlin accounts to restore the platform as soon as possible and use it to launch commercial satellites with a help of launch-vehicles. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov claimed that the project would have commercial success if the platform performed at least five launches per year.

The Sea Launch platform was established in 1995 and belonged to a consortium of four shareholders: the US, represented by the Boeing Company, owned 40% of the share, Norwegian Aker Solutions had 20%, Russian state corporation Energia – 25%, and Ukrainian Yuzhnoye SDO/PA Yuzhmash -€“ 15%. Boeing was responsible for a high tech navigation systems, Norway constructed the launch platform Odyssey and a command center Sea Launch Commander. Ukraine manufactured Zenit rockets and supplied the platform with them, these rockets were completed with Russian upper stage Blocks DM-SL.

From 1999 to 2014, 36 launches were performed from the platform. However, in 2009, considerable financial losses led the consortium to a bankruptcy. Boeing had paid the debt and thereafter brought a claim against Russian Energia and Ukrainian Yuzhmash over the non-payment of their obligations. In 2010 Russian Energia purchased a controlling interest of the Sea Launch of 95%. In 2014, over the annexation of Crimea and military conflict on the east of the country, fuelled by the Kremlin, Ukraine refused to cooperate with Russia and ceased rockets’ supply. As a result, since 2014, not a single launch has taken place on the platform. In 2018 the platform changes its owner once again: now the project belongs to the Russian company S7 Space. In March 2020, it was transported to Russia. And at the end of April a chairman of the board of directors of S7 Vyacheslav Filev claimed that Sea Launch would be frozen for better days.

It turned out that the revival of the successful work of the platform is expected to be wasteful. If the exploitation of the platform takes place, Sea Launch is ought to be reequipped, because the Boeing Company and Yuzhmash removed its navigation systems before the platform was transported to Russia. As Yury Borisov said, the recovery of the Sea launch is estimated at $470 million -€“ which is $370 million more than S7 paid for a purchase! Since the cooperation with Ukraine was broken, for obvious reasons, the Kremlin has faced with the necessity to resolve the crisis by its own means. Russia has to design a new rocket, to replace Ukrainian Zenit. Dmitry Rogozin, a head of Roskosmos, promised that modification of Soyuz to be fulfilled within tree years, which means it will be completed in 2023. In addition, a costly onshore infrastructure should also be built. The fact that S7 pays $20 million per year for the maintenance of the Sea Launch should be taken into account -€“ considering the expanses, the assumption that the restart of launches from the maritime platform will be possible by 2024 seems more than optimistic.

Russia will unlikely manage to compete with US’€™s commercial company SpaceX, which designed the first partially reusable space rocket, its two major pieces can be recovered – the “first stage”€ boosters and the rocket’s nosecone (known as “€œfairing”€). The boosters is 60% of the total rocket’€™s cost, fairings -€“ 10%. For a customer it means that there is no need to “buy”€ a new rocket each time which results in reducing the cost of launching by tens of millions dollars(!). Undoubtedly, the considerable price decrease on launch will influence the development of global space industry in general. However, it is an alarming prospect for Russia, which is aimed at high income by setting up high prices. Considering the time, needed for the design of new rockets, annual expanses for the reequipment of the platform, the promise of the head of Roskosmos is hardly to be fulfilled. Since 2024, Sea Launch will not be able to perform not five, nor even one launch per year.

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