If Isaac Asimov, Jules Verne, and Tom Clancy got together to write a novel, it might read something like this: Cold-war-era military-industrial rivals get together, put commercial satellites atop ballistic missiles, and launch them into space from a gigantic floating oil platform towed to the middle of the Pacific.
Sometime next month, that's exactly what's scheduled to happen. Sea Launch Limited Partnership, a joint venture between Boeing and companies in Russia, Ukraine, and Norway, will begin launching satellites from a converted oil rig, some 500 miles from the easternmost islands of the Pacific nation of Kiribati.
By launching from the middle of nowhere - far outside national borders - the venture reduces infrastructure and labor costs, ducks regulatory bodies, and minimizes the risk of liability in the event one of the Sea Launch rockets crashes back to earth.
But the unprecedented venture has actually attracted scrutiny not only from Kiribati and its South Pacific neighbors but also from an international labor union and the US State Department, which last year levied a $10-million fine for export control violations.
"Sea Launch is a wake-up call that we need to address the international regulatory environment," says Pat Dasch, executive director of the Washington- based National Space Society, which promotes space exploration. "Space is a global business involving multinational companies that can launch from almost anywhere, so there's a need for international agreements to clarify liability, safety, and regulatory issues."
The information revolution is fueling demand for telecommunications satellites, which handle everything from cell phones and pagers to television and the Internet. And commercial satellite makers will launch nearly 900 craft over the next decade, according to the Teal Group, an aerospace consulting firm in Fairfax, Va. That has aerospace companies scrambling to open new launch facilities to handle the demand, which is expected to strain traditional government launch sites like the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Companies that can launch satellites cheaper and more reliably than their competitors stand to earn big profits.
That was the idea behind Sea Launch, a venture licensed in the Cayman Islands that uses Rus- sian and Ukrainian boosters to launch Boeing-procured payloads in international waters from Liberian-flagged, Norwegian-controlled ships based in California and crewed by Filipinos. It's a combination that Sea Launch touts as a more affordable and reliable way to put your satellite into orbit.
As in so many businesses, in space launching, location is important. The closer you are to the equator, the less fuel you need to place an object in geostationary orbit. The US and the former Soviet Union located their launch facilities in the southern parts of their countries, while the Europeans launch their satellites from South America.
Sea Launch gains a competitive edge by placing its launch platform - a converted North Sea oil rig - right on the equator. A purpose-built command ship accompanies the self-propelled platform on its 11-day trip from Long Beach, Calif., and houses personnel and a floating control room. The result: a 10 to 15 percent fuel savings when compared with Cape Canaveral, which is 28 degrees farther north.
"Launching directly from the equator allows us to lift a heavier payload, or place a satellite into a higher orbit where it will have an extended lifetime," says Sea Launch spokesman Terrance Scott in Long Beach. "We have reduced infrastructure costs and a high degree of launch flexibility."
While industry sources say the company probably thought at first that they'd avoid national regulations, in the end they found themselves beholden to regulations in several countries simultaneously, including the United States. Mr. Scott says the project's winning combination of technology and know-how represents "post-peristroika cooperation at its best."
The launch vehicle - the Zenit-3G - is a Ukrainian two-stage ICBM fitted with a third rocket stage built in Russia. Originally designed for nuclear warfare, Zenit is highly automated and can be transported and serviced horizontally - ideal for marine-based launching.
John Pike, director of space policy for the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists, says the US government should be pleased that Zenit has found a peaceful and profitable role. Its manufacturer, the cash-strapped Yuzhmash of Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, stands to make millions from its 15 percent stake in Sea Launch. Boeing owns 40 percent and coordinates the project; Russia's Energia supplies the third stage for the Zenita and has a 25 percent stake; troubled Norwegian shipbuilder Kvaerner owns 20 percent.
"The US has been concerned that if the Yuzhmash people aren't able to earn enough to eat, they might sell their products to Iran, Iraq, or Libya," Mr. Pike says. "Meanwhile Boeing needs a [former Soviet] partner, because if you don't use cheap Russian labor you're leaving money on the table."
A successful test launch in March is to be followed by the first commercial liftoff next month. "It's sort of odd to have one project solve so many people's problems."
But Sea Launch has run into as many problems as it's solved. Kiribati, a poor, sparsely populated nation made up of 33 island groups spread over 5 million square miles of the Central Pacific, is concerned the project may present environmental and safety risks to citizens living on Kiritimati (Christmas) Atoll, 500 miles away.
"The Kiribati livelihood depends on fish, not just economically but for basic sustenance, so we're very concerned," says Reteta Nikuata, a Foreign Ministry official in the Kiribati capital, Tarawa.
Last year Kiribati asked the South Pacific Regional Environmental Program, based in Apia, Samoa, to carry out an independent environmental study of Sea Launch. SPREP cited numerous ambiguities in safety and accident planning, and said that after every launch 4.5 tons of unused fuel from discarded stages would create a kerosene slick "several square kilometers wide."
Scott said Sea Launch takes South Pacific nations' concerns seriously, but that his company's launch system has "significantly less impact to the environment than launch providers on land near populated areas." He said that since the SPREP study was released, Sea Launch agreed to conduct water monitoring before and after each launch.
And last year the State Department suspended the project for two months and slapped a $10-million fine on Boeing for allegedly sharing sensitive technology with their foreign partners. Boeing paid the fine, adjusted some of its practices.
In June the project came under fire from the International Transport Workers Federation, a London-based alliance of labor unions that has waged a 50-year campaign against flags of convenience - the practice of registering ships in countries that offer big tax breaks and little oversight. Sea Launch's command ship and self-propelled launch platform are registered in war-torn Liberia, which hasn't had a functioning government for many years.
Ms. Dasch says that as the industry expands, these sorts of legal and regulatory problems will continue to hamper private multinational space launches. "There are going to be more launch sites and more things going up and coming down," she says. "The commercial space industry is going to quickly start to look like the commercial aviation industry, but the international regulations aren't yet in place to deal with that."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society