Roscosmos and Rosatom saving cripple? | Latest news The Moscow Post
01 December 2023

Roscosmos and Rosatom saving "cripple"?

Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov made an unexpected statement: it was decided to restore the Sea Launch floating spaceport, which they put an "end" to earlier.

As they say, everybody's business is nobody's business: in March this year, the floating spaceport from the coast of California arrived in the Primorsky territory and anchored in the port of Slavyanka. Head of Roscosmos Dmitry Rogozin promised to restore the floating spaceport in order to launch rockets quickly. But, having found out in what shabby condition Sea Launch approached the shores of the Russian Federation, Rogozin wilted. Then this miracle of the 20th century drew the attention of the Rosatom state сorporation. Promises were made again, but in the end the nuclear company quietly retreated.

President of the United Shipbuilding Corporation (USC) Mr. Rakhmanov, whose new nuclear-powered icebreakers are being failed now, was circling around Sea Launch too. He also promised repairs, restoration, and modernization. Then he disappeared with his promises. And then Head of the Institute of Space Policy Ivan Moiseyev gave his verdict. He stated publicly that the Sea Launch floating spaceport should be cut for scrap due to irrelevance.

It seems that USC, Rosatom, and Roscosmos all exhaled in unison… But then General Borisov intervened. He did not only declare that the floating spaceport would be restored. Yuri Borisov outlined the amount that it was decided to pump into the half-dead spaceport - it is about 35 billion rubles. And General Borisov clearly announced the performers in a military manner: Roscosmos, Rosatom, and Vladislav Filev's S7 company, which had unfortunately acted as the purchaser of the floating spaceport a few years ago.

But this overseas "cripple" does not have even on the horizon the most important thing to function - a rocket. And in the coming years, the appearance of this rocket is not expected.

So why is it decided to restore something that will only bring the country a severe headache and crazy expenses? Is it really necessary only for the prestige of Russia?

A correspondent of The Moscow Post tried to understand this.

It will not go for "needles"

Let us recall that the Sea Launch project is a brilliant idea of specialists of the S. P. Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation (RSC) Energia. This project started in 1993. In 1995, the international consortium Sea Launch Company (SLC) was formed. It included the Boeing Commercial Space Company (a subsidiary of the Boeing aerospace corporation, 40% of the capital), RSC Energia (25%), Ukrainian Yuzhnoye design office (5%) and Yuzhmash (10%), as well as the Aker Kvaerner shipbuilding company (Norway, 20%).

The launch site was chosen in the Pacific ocean near Christmas island.

The complex has been in operation since 1998. During this time, 36 launches were made. 32 of them were successful.

Since 2014, the activity of the floating spaceport has been frozen.

So, according to the promises of Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov, the Sea Launch floating spaceport will be saved from being cut for scrap by state corporations and Filev, but to do this, almost 35 billion rubles must be invested in the restoration of the spaceport.

"Sea Launch will certainly be restored," - General Borisov told reporters. "I had a conversation with the President about this." A new company will be created to manage the complex. Rosatom, Roscosmos, and S7 Group can take part in it. This is reported by Interfax.

"Sea Launch should make up to 5 launches a year in order to achieve commercial success," - Yuri Borisov said. "The platform is able to make 6 launches per year, since it needs to float from the home port to the equator. At the same time, launches from the floating platform will not leave the Vostochny Space Center without orders."

General Borisov is sure of this, too. It is reported by AiF.

Sea Launch floating spaceport

General Borisov noted that 7 days ago he returned from Vladivostok and personally walked on Sea Launch. And on this occasion he stated the following:

"There are various rumors that the Americans have removed the equipment... Yes, they have dismantled the equipment, but it is mainly equipment that provides positioning related to GPS technology. We can replace them with GLONASS technology. But the launch system itself is present, loading and placing the rocket, refueling the rocket in automatic mode - these are all Russian technologies." RBC writes about this in detail.

But General Borisov has serious opponents.

Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov

"In the current configuration, Russia does not need Sea Launch from a commercial point of view," says Vitaly Egorov, the founder of the Otkryty Kosmos (Open Space) project - It will really compete with the Vostochny spaceport. Domestic orders – both government and commercial ones - will not be enough for both projects, and it will be difficult for it to compete with Elon Musk's SpaceX on the world market. It is difficult both because of the sanctions and because a new expensive launch vehicle is being developed for the project! ". His words are quoted by Vedomosti.

The state saves Sea Launch, apparently, for reasons of prestige - Vitaly Egorov believes. "This is an interesting project from a technical point of view, the only floating platform."

But is it the only one?

Successful launch of Changzheng-11

It should be noted here that a year ago we had a competitor. China built its own floating spaceport. And the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) successfully launched the Changzheng-11 launch vehicle in the Yellow sea.

The launch took place on June 5, 2019. It was a test, but the launch vehicle put 7 satellites into orbit.

China also managed to become the leader in the number of space launches in the same year, 2019.

This was reported by MK.

Chinese floating platform

As for the sea launch site itself, it is a semi-submerged platform with a length of 110 m and a width of 80 m.  In the centre of the platform there is a rocket system, on which the rocket is fixed.

The Changzheng-11 rocket is capable of launching a cargo weighing up to 700 kg into low earth orbit.

China decided to use the marine type of rocket launch in 2018.

Russian expert, corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Cosmonautics named after Tsiolkovsky, Andrey Ionin believes that the launch was made in order to show that the PRC owns this technology.

Russia does not have such technology yet. And, apparently, now we have to outrun China with its own launch vehicle.

But how?

Beijing wanted to buy Sea Launch

There is a suspicion that the Chinese simply openly copied the Sea Launch floating spaceport, if we recall the events of five years ago. Beijing was interested in purchasing the Sea launch floating spaceport back in 2015. However, the deal was not possible without settling a lawsuit with Boeing. And this lawsuit lasted for several years.

But the operator company Sea Launch AG, which provides services for launching spacecraft from a floating spaceport using Zenit-SL rockets, was still negotiating with the Chinese government about the sale of the floating spaceport.

Changzheng-11 launch vehicle

In order to sell Sea Launch to China, at that time it would have been necessary to overcome the "minefield" associated with the legal and political consequences of this transaction in Russia and the United States. And, in particular, with the regime for controlling the spread of rocket technologies.

It should be recalled that the Zenit launch vehicle, which was used in the Sea Launch program, was produced by Yuzhmash (Ukraine, Dnepropetrovsk) using Russian rocket engines. The Zenit-3SL launch vehicle was created on the basis of a two-stage Zenit-2 launch vehicles developed by Yuzhnoye state design Bureau (Ukraine).

And the DM-SL upper stage used for launching this rocket was developed at RSC Energia.

And Beijing was interested in acquiring Russian rocket engines developed and manufactured by JSC NPO Energomash.


The aircraft carrier Minsk was once sold for scrap

Back then, everything was done to ensure that the Sea Launch floating spaceport would not be sold "for needles", as happened with the aircraft carrier Minsk. This powerful vessel was sold for $2 million for scrap.

But after modernization, former Minsk became an entertainment centre in Shenzhen, China. AiF wrote about this in detail.

12 Zenit rockets

As a result, the owner of S7 Vladislav Filev was lucky.

S7 closed a deal to buy the complex, which included a marine launch platform, command ship, port infrastructure and warehouses in California. The complex was purchased for $ 150 million from the Swiss company Sea Launch, which was owned by RSC Energia.

It should be recalled that launches from Sea Launch stopped in 2014 due to events in Ukraine: the Yuzhmash plant in Dnepropetrovsk refused to supply the Zenit launch vehicle.

Vladislav Filev

And then Roscosmos found a private investor for the complex, with which Ukrainian state-owned enterprises were ready to work. It turned out to be Vladislav Filev. He agreed to continue the launches with the United States Government. He ordered 12 Zenit rockets from Yuzhmash. Then Filev said that the first commercial launch would take place at the end of 2019. General Director of S7 Space Sergey Sopov already called the project "an entrance ticket to space". This was reported by RBC.

But the Russian Government did not give permission to supply Russian RD-171 rocket engines for the Zenit rocket.

S7 Group had to give up launches and bet on the Soyuz-5 (Irtysh) rocket. This rocket is supposed to appear in 2023. The rocket has been developed by Dmitry Rogozin's Department for several years. And it is still unclear whether it will appear at least in 2023.

This, as they say, is still in the air.

Head of Roscosmos Dmitry Rogozin

And since it is impossible to launch a Russian rocket from the US territory, the entire complex had to be driven across the Pacific ocean to the port of Slavyanka in Primorye. For transportation, all the "extra" equipment of the Boeing company and the launch equipment of Ukraine for the Zenit rocket were removed from the platform. As a result, the emptied platform and a fairly lightweight ship were driven to the Russian Far East.

Driven home.

In April 2020, Vladislav Filev announced the freezing of the Sea Launch project in Russia. Mr. Filev admitted that the placement of a complex for launching space rockets in the Russian Federation was unprofitable.

5 scenarios from Rosatom

But in the spring of this year, Rosatom took a serious approach to the issue of restoring the floating spaceport. The Department of Investment Management of the state corporation immediately announced that the Sea Launch floating spaceport will not be self-sustaining without state support.

Rosatom GC has considered 5 scenarios for the use of the floating spaceport. Three scenarios do not provide state support and are unprofitable.

The pessimistic option assumes one launch per 2 years from the platform, the basic one - one launch per year, and the optimistic one - 6 launches per year.

In the other two cases, the project may become self-sustaining. The first option requires state support in the amount of 11.8 billion rubles (13% of the necessary investment to resume work), the second - 72 billion (79% of the necessary investment).

And Rosatom stepped aside. But today, the state corporation is again called to the company that should put the floating spaceport "on its feet".

President of the USC Alexey Rakhmanov wanted to put his "2 cents" in. Some days ago he said that the United Shipbuilding Corporation was thinking about creating a Russian floating spaceport. Mr. Rakhmanov said that he was considering options for creating his own platform for launching rockets as a replacement for Sea Launch, which was recognized as unprofitable. This is reported by RBC.

Alexey Rakhmanov noted that USC has a set of technological solutions that make such a complex more effective than it was 25-30 years ago. It seems that Mr. Rakhmanov was not heard, since the order to restore the overseas "alien" was given.

The fuss about the rocket

What to do with a rocket that doesn't exist? And won't exist soon?

Let us remind that the Zenit rocket was created by the Energia-Buran program. Zenit is a two-stage rocket. And to put the cargo into geostationary orbit, the third stage – the DM upper stages, manufactured at RSC Energia under the Lunar program of Sergey Korolev was used.

In 2009, the company declared bankruptcy and financial reorganization. In early April 2010, the Board of Directors of the international consortium Sea Launch Company (SLC) decided to give RSC Energia a leading role in the project: 95% of the shares.

Head of RSC Energia (at that time) Vitaly Lopota tried to save Sea Launch by maneuvering with the means that manned cosmonautics brought. Until 2014 RSC Energy has organized 5 successful launches. But Lopota ended up under investigation. This was reported by RBC.

Even then, Roscosmos said that the maintenance of the Sea Launch floating spaceport cost a lot of money, which meant that this was a yoke on the neck of Roscosmos. They began to decide on which company the yoke should be put on. As a result, Filev came along with his company S7.

What kind of rocket would be able to replace Zenit?

Apparently, Filev's company was promised certain preferences by the state. But before Vladislav Filev decided to buy Sea Launch, he put forward strict conditions to Roscosmos: to give permission to supply components to Dnepropetrovsk. And allow the launch of 12 Zenit rockets.

Consent was obtained. However, in the end, Filev received nothing. Remained, as they say, holding a bag.

The main problem remains: the Sea Launch floating spaceport is constructed for the Zenit launch vehicle. And this cannot be misunderstood by Deputy Prime Minister Borisov.

But is it possible to take another launch vehicle? They have already tried to replace Zenit with Feniks and Sunkar rockets (a joint project with Kazakhstan). The Angara rocket was adjusted to the floating spaceport: but it does not fit the size.

As a result, the floating spaceport was still brought from the United States. Initially, it was assumed that Sea Launch will undergo reconstruction at the Slavyansk Shipyard. And it will work for the next 15 years. But after a long argument, Sea Launch was offered to be preserved. And let "for needles".

But today a new program has been announced: the "cripple" from the coast of California was ordered to be resuscitated. But at what cost? What effort? And is it really just to raise the prestige of Russia, since China is already making its space launches in the Yellow sea?

Goodbye to new hospitals, clinics, schools, kindergartens, swimming pools, high-speed highways? Has Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov already calculated these losses as well?

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