Analysis: Sea Launch loses leader as Energia plots launch provider’s non-commercial future

by | Feb 26, 2014 | commercial launch services, Russia | 0 comments

The troubled Sea Launch operation had some more bad news in February.  Kjell Karlsen, its long time President, has resigned from the firm and leaves at the end of February after 14 years’ service. He  is reported to be leaving the launch industry to join a movie/film licensing business.

The departure of Karlsen comes at a difficult time for Sea Launch.  Having emerged from bankruptcy, triggered by a launch explosion in January 2007 (damaging the pad and destroying the NSS-8 communications satellite), the firm’s recovery plans suffered another blow when it had a launch failure in February 2013 (destroying the Intelsat 27 communications satellite).

Not only does Sea Launch have its own reliability issues to contend with, it now finds itself having to fight both its long time rivals, Arianespace and ILS, and the new low-cost launch interloper SpaceX.  This new contender threatens Sea Launches traditional position as the alternative choice to the big two – a position supported by satellite operators Intelsat and Eutelsat, which want to promote competition in the launch market.

Sea Launch’s order book and launch schedule are hardly full.  The next commercial launch of the Zenit 3-SL is to carry the Eutelsat 3B communications satellite.  This is planned for April with no officially named commercial launches booked after that. Some satellite operators, such as Asiasat and Echostar, do retain options for launches, however, and some payloads may yet be announced.

Now relocated to Bern in Switzerland from its original Long Beach, California, base, the firm is currently majority owned (95%) by the Russian spacecraft manufacturer, RSC Energia.  The industry journal Space News reports that the Russian Government now want to take sole ownership of the firm. The intention would be to use Sea Launch for Russian-sponsored non-commercial launches, rather than open-market commercial ones. A sign of this change came in the announcement of a dual-launch Sea Launch mission arranged for Angolasat (for Angola) and Energia 100 – both Russian-built spacecraft.

In order to bid for such non-commercial and government business, the firm would need to move its converted oil rig launch platform to a Russian-friendly port rather than staying in Long Beach.  Like Long Beach, an alternative port would have to be within sailing distance of the equator (probably in the Pacific from where it currently launches).  An equatorial launch location gets maximum benefit from the Earth’s spin boost and does not need inclination removal for communications satellites heading for Geostationary Earth Orbit.

Critics note that, quality control issues aside, the Zenit rocket family operated by Sea Launch is basically well designed, but the shipping costs and delays associated with its ocean-bound operation have proved its downfall.

The Zenit rocket family is also launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome near Tyuratam, Kazakhstan, on flights operated by its sibling “Land Launch”.   While such land-launched Zenits cannot operate with as high payloads as Sea Launch, they are much less costly to operate and are thus more competitive.

About Seradata

Seradata produce the renowned SpaceTrak Launch & Satellite Database. Trusted by 100 of the world’s leading Space organisations, SpaceTrak is a fully queryable database used for market analysis, failure/risk assessment, spectrum analysis and space situational awareness (SSA).

For more information go to

Related Articles

Soyuz MS-23 to replace leak-damaged Soyuz MS-22 for crew return

Following a radiator leak on 15 December, Roscosmos, in agreement with NASA and other International Space Station (ISS) partners, have Read more

What’s Next for Space Exploration in 2023 and Beyond

Much changed on Earth and in space during 2022. In July the James Webb Telescope, the largest optical telescope in Read more

Soyuz 2-1B rocket puts suspected signals intelligence sat Cosmos 2565 into orbit

A Russian Soyuz-2.1b rocket has put the Cosmos 2564 (Kosmos 2565) satellite into orbit.  The codename indicates a military launch Read more

Arianespace wins orders for five Vega-C missions to carry Copernicus satellites and a dual Ariane 6 launch for Intelsat

Rounding off November with an impressive haul, European launch provider Arianespace has announced seven orders for its launch vehicles. The Read more

SpaceRyde to launch multiple flights with ISILaunch from 2024

Canadian launch startup SpaceRyde has secured multiple launch agreements with ISILaunch, a launch services subsidiary of Netherlands based Innovative Solutions Read more

Three spacewalks from two space stations in just two days…but a fourth one is called off

During the period 15-17 November, astronauts, cosmonauts and taikonauts (Chinese astronauts) all took part in extra vehicular activity (EVA) on Read more

Russia launches sixth Tundra missile early warning satellite

Russia launched a missile early warning satellite from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, Northern Russia, on 2 November. The Soyuz 2-1b rocket Read more

Russian Progress MS-21 resupply freighter launched to ISS (Updated)

At 0020 GMT on 26 October, Russia launched the third Progress re-supply mission of the year to the International Space Read more