Countdown to commercial space odyssey

Test launch tomorrow from sea may clear path for private customerstrying to make it to space.

The launch platform is from Norway, the engines are from Ukraine, the nose cone is from the US, and the rocket is from Russia. When (and if) the satellite goes up, a new era in the private commercialization of space could be launched as well.

If all goes as planned, consumer rates on satellite-related services - faxes, cell phones, satellite TV - could begin to come down.

After years of preparation and testing, the world's first commercial rocket launch from a platform at sea is set for tomorrow from a site on the equator. By putting a test satellite into orbit, this international partnership is trying to clear a decade-long bottleneck of private customers trying to launch satellites into space.

"This test launch is a highly significant turning point in the commercialization of space," says Frank Sietzen, editor of Ad Astra, a magazine that covers space technology. With satellite-based telecommunications becoming more prevalent - $50 billion in manufacturing and launching is projected through 2001 - he notes that a growing number of private companies have had to line up behind a handful of government-sponsored launch sites.

Those currently include just five countries: US, Russia, France, China, and Japan. Delays are commonplace and costly, and the waiting list is long (two to three years currently). The new mobile, sea-top site offers a laundry list of selling points from flexibility, additional capacity, and convenience.

"If this works, it will be another place for the communication satellite industry to get a safe, affordable, reliable launch," says Mr. Sietzen. By lifting off at the equator, the launch gets a significant boost as well - call it the slingshot effect - from the earth's gravitational spin. This lowers the cost of the launch and can lengthen the usable life of the satellite in space, by preserving the fuel that keeps it in place.

"If this doesn't work, the bottleneck will continue to constrict and every service that relates to satellites will be backlogged," Sietzen says.

Known as Sea Launch Co., the international consortium was formed in April 1995 in response to growing market demand for more affordable, reliable, and versatile launching services. The United States, once a worldwide satellite launch leader, fell behind from the beginning of NASA's Space Shuttle Program, which prohibited development of commercial launch sites.

WHEN the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, government restrictions were lifted, but half the world's launch market had since gravitated to France's ArianeSpace. Sea Launch, with its lion's share owned by the US Boeing Co. is expected to loosen ArianeSpace's grip on the market.

"ArianeSpace has had a relative monopoly for a long time, and customers can't help but wonder if they've been getting the right product for the right price," says John Perkins, vice president of launch services acquisitions for Hughes Corp., one of the world's leading builders of telecommunication satellites. "It simply will feel much more comfortable to have more sources of access to space - sort of like knowing you have more than one airline to choose from."

Mr. Perkins, Sietzen, and others say they will be watching the Sea Launch for one key reason: Will it successfully get its 8,000-pound dummy satellite into the correct orbit? "The accuracy and performance of this test will be under the microscope because it will establish whether or not this consortium's claims of service are marketable," says Charlene Anderson, associate director of the Planetary Society, a nonprofit space interest group. "It is a pivotal point in building a viable industry."

Other things to watch for, say observers, are how wind and sea conditions affect the launch's success. The launch has riled some scientists and environmentalists, who warn of possible mishaps from the spillage of lethal rocket fuel to petroleum fires and possible explosions.

False starts, as happened in the first two flights by French ArianeSpace - one which blew up, one which did not make it to sufficient altitude - could also set back the consortium's plans. Eighteen launches are already scheduled through 2001.

Some worry that the venture's multinational partnership is a drawback because of political concerns, as well as the need to provide a wide range of launch components over extended periods. But Murray says such consortiums create needed competition and other advantages.

"The use of multinational assets is undoubtedly the way of the future. It is more efficient in a global, economic sense, creates economic incentives between competing nations, and builds in political incentives to avoid crisis."

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