Sea Launch mission fails; rocket, Intelsat satellite crash in ocean

A 20-story rocket carrying a massive communications satellite failed to reach orbit and fell into the ocean after being launched from a floating platform near the equator.

The failed launch is a potentially huge setback for the rocket venture Sea Launch, which exited bankruptcy protection in late 2010 and has major operations in Long Beach.

Late Thursday, Sea Launch said that about 40 seconds after liftoff all telemetry was lost, indicating a loss of mission. The company said it will establish a board to determine the root cause of the incident.

“We are very disappointed with the outcome of the launch and offer our sincere regrets to our customer, Intelsat, and their spacecraft provider,” Kjell Karlsen, company president said in a statement. “The cause of the failure is unknown, but we are evaluating it.... We will do everything reasonably possible to recover from this unexpected and unfortunate event.”

The satellite was built in El Segundo by Boeing Co. for communications giant Intelsat to transmit signals in the U.S. and Europe. The company has been expanding its cellular networks and broadband access.


“Intelsat is committed to working with its customers to identify the most appropriate solutions for service continuity,” the company said. “The satellite and launch were fully insured.”

The satellite, which was built for 15 or more years of service, had been fixed atop Sea Launch’s stark white rocket, the Zenit-3SL. The rocket is largely made in Ukraine and shipped to the Port of Long Beach. That’s where Sea Launch docks its specially designed ship and the launch platform, made from a modified oil rig.

The vessels head to an isolated spot about 3,300 miles southwest of Long Beach and 1,400 miles south of the Hawaiian Islands to launch.

Sea Launch was formed as a joint venture in 1995, and was seen by Boeing as an alternative to launching its satellites -- many of them built in El Segundo -- from land. Under the initial plan, the aerospace giant held a 40% stake, with the remaining shares held by RSC Energia, a Norwegian shipbuilder, and two Ukrainian rocket firms.

All told, the consortium poured about $1 billion into the project, most of it to build the ship and the floating platform.

But just as the venture was launching its first rockets in 1999, demand for satellites fell when the dot-com bubble began to burst. By 2002, Sea Launch had sent up only one satellite.

The company was able to stay alive, with DirecTV Inc. and satellite services provider Intelsat as customers.

But it gained worldwide notoriety in 2007 after dramatic video images of a failed launch went viral on the Internet.

Launch cancellations mounted and in 2009, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after it could not pay a $52-million judgment it lost in connection with a terminated launch contract.

It emerged in late 2010, when an affiliate of Russian aerospace giant Rocket & Space Corp. Energia announced it would invest $155 million for a 95% stake in the company. The company then moved Sea Launch headquarters from Long Beach to Bern, Switzerland.


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