10 Who Made a Difference in Space: Kjell Karlsen, President and General Manager Sea Launch Co.

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One year ago, Sea Launch, the international joint venture that launches commercial satellites from an ocean-going platform that began life as an oil-drilling rig, was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, run aground by rising costs, a crushing debt load and the lack of a government sponsor and anchor customer.

Today, much to the puzzlement — if not outright disbelief — of competitors who have long questioned its financial viability, Sea Launch is back in business. The company emerged from bankruptcy reorganization last October under the ownership of RSC Energia, the Russian government-owned space hardware manufacturer that builds the upper stage of Sea Launch’s Zenit 3SL rocket.

The seeds of bankruptcy were sown well before July 2008, when Kjell Karlsen became Sea Launch’s first president not to hail from Boeing, which founded the venture along with Energia, Yuzhnoye of Ukraine, and Aker Marine of Norway. Sea Launch was created at a time of anticipated growth in the commercial satellite industry that never met expectations. Seeking to establish itself in a collapsing market, Sea Launch signed up customers at prices that critics contend were not high enough to cover the company’s costs. In January 2007 Sea Launch suffered a failure that damaged its launch platform and halted operations for a year, prompting customers to cancel launch contracts. The company ultimately was forced into bankruptcy by its creditors, including Boeing, general contractor for the Sea Launch system, who were owed some $2 billion collectively.

Karlsen survived the bankruptcy proceedings to engineer the company’s return to operations. He also managed to navigate, for now, a running dispute between Sea Launch, the Russian government and Space International Services — operator of the Land Launch venture that uses the same rocket as Sea Launch but launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan — over the disposition of rocket hardware.

Sea Launch expects to resume launches from its ocean-going platform in September. Although its future is far from assured, its return to operations brings the number of primary players in the global market for launching large geostationary-orbiting communications satellites from two back to three. In the view of its main competitors, Europe’s Arianespace consortium and International Launch Services, which markets the Russian-built Proton vehicle, that’s one too many for the market to sustain.