Launch Gap Drives Sea Launch To Cut Staff, Sideline Vessels

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UPDATED at 1:50 p.m. EDT

PONTE VEDRA, Florida — Commercial launch provider Sea Launch on Aug. 22 said it has begun a broad cost-cutting initiative to carry it through a gap in launches that the company hopes will end sometime in 2015 or 2016.

Nyon, Switzerland-based Sea Launch said it will cut staff at its headquarters and at the Long Beach, California, seaport operational facility where the Sea Launch command ship and the launch platform are based.

Sea Launch’s Russian-Ukrainian Zenit-3SL rocket specializes in launching heavy commercial telecommunications satellites from a converted oil platform that travels to a point on the equator in the Pacific Ocean for each launch.

Sea Launch has suffered from the fact that, operating in international waters, it is not viewed as a Russian government service and thus does not have access to Russian government launches. It relies wholly on the global commercial market for heavy telecommunications satellites and has been on the sidelines in the past year as the market has shifted, at least temporarily, to smaller satellites.

International Launch Services of Reston, Virginia, which operates Russia’s Proton rocket, has recently cut its own staff, part in response to the same shift in the market. But unlike the Zenit-3SL, Russia’s Proton rocket launches many Russian government missions.

In addition to the staff cuts, Sea Launch is exploring how to reduce the operating costs associated with the Sea Launch Commander control ship and the Odyssey launch platform.

Both will be taken out of service to cut costs. The company said it has done this previously and that it poses no special problem when launch activity returns.

“Sea Launch will be using this time to improve certain operational efficiencies, upgrade its launch and support systems including evaluating shore-based power for the vessels while in port and finalize internal trade studies relative to available vehicle configuration changes,” Sea Launch said in a statement.

Sea Launch Chief Executive Serguei Gugkaev said the company would “pursue all prudent business solutions to realize significant cost savings in labor, maintenance and fuel while maintaining the capability to call-up the vessels as needed. Sea Launch continues to aggressively market all available launch opportunities beginning in mid-2015 and will maintain a short launch call-up readiness state. … Sea Launch will retain key personnel across all corporate and technical functions, allowing the company to ramp-up to meet its next/future launch commitments.”

In response to SpaceNews inquiries, Sea Launch said the staff reductions would be 25-30 percent of the total workforce at Sea Launch in Switzerland and at prime contractor Energia Logistics in California.

The company said that maintaining the two vessels in operational mode at their home port means running their diesel engines. A switch to shore power alternatives, now being evaluated, would permit a reduction in fuel costs while the vessels are at port.

Sea Launch said it is “studying fairing modifications, including a wider diameter and/or an elongated four-meter [diameter fairing], and available performance modifications to lift capability to 6,700 kilograms.”

Sea Launch is scheduled to make its next launch, of the Angosat-1 and Energia-100 satellites, in 2016, the company said.