WASHINGTON — The largest U.S., Russian and Ukrainian aerospace companies plan to enter the crowded commercial launch market with an upgraded Zenit rocket. The proposed partnership would be led by Boeing Co. of Seattle and include NPO Yushnoye of Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, and NPO Energia of Moscow.

The rocket would be built in Ukraine and Russia, shipped to the United States for assembly and testing and launched from a mobile platform towed into international waters, according to Elliot Pulham, a Boeing Defense and Space Co. spokesman. “We’re a space company looking for space business, and we think there is room for a vehicle such as this,” he said.

Under U.S. law, the Seattle company needs government approval in the form of a technical assistance agreement to discuss detailed data with foreign companies like Yushnoye and Energia. Boeing representatives met with White House and State Department officials last week to outline the proposal and request the agreement, administration sources said.

General talks have been going on for a year and a half, and Pulham said the company will decide within a year whether to proceed with the venture. “This is just a study,” he added. Requesting license, however, shows serious intent, U.S. government officials said.

Administration officials declined to say whether they would approve the request. 

The U.S. government did approve a joint venture in 1992 among Lockheed Missiles and Space Co. of Sunnyvale, Calif., NPO Energia and Khrunichev Enterprise of Moscow to market the Russian-built Proton rocket. The rocket is launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and Lockheed officials primarily assist with marketing and financing the venture. An agreement with Boeing would give NPO Energia close ties to two of the largest Western space companies.  

The current Zenit is a two-stage liquid-fueled rocket that can place l5 tons into low Earth orbit. The launcher is assembled in the massive Yushnoye plant in Dnepropetrovsk in Ukraine. There are two Zenit launch pads at Baikonur; most Zenit missions have been devoted to launching electronic surveillance satellites.

Boeing’s plan is to add a Block DM upper stage — built by NPO Energia as the fourth stage of the Proton — to the Zenit, said Pulham. This upgrade, which has been proposed in the past by Ukrainian and Russian space officials, would allow the launcher to place 17.5-ton payloads into low Earth orbit, or 6.5 tons into geostationary transfer orbit. From that position, communications satellites can be injected into a circular 22,000-mile-high orbit.

The Zenit’s main competition would be the Ariane 4 and 5 launch vehicles, according to Pulham. The Ariane 4 can place 4.9 tons into the transfer orbit; the plarmed Ariane 5 could place 7.5 tons into that orbit. The U.S. Atlas, by contrast, can put 4.1 tons into such an orbit. 

Boeing would assemble the rocket and mate the satellite payload to the launcher in the United States. “We’re taking about U.S. jobs — in payload processing, the merchant marine and avionics,” said Pulham. The main work site likely would be in California or Florida, he added.

A Norwegian company that specializes in major maritime engineering projects, the Kraevner Group, is working with Boeing on the mobile launch pad design, said Pulham.

This approach to launch operations would allow the venture to avoid strict U.S. export rules and mute criticism from other U.S. launch companies, industry officials said.

The proposed venture nevertheless faces significant political hurdles. “It is our general policy not to help other countries develop their launch capabilities” unless they are members of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), one administration official said. That international accord limits missile sales abroad. Other U.S. officials, however, said Washington might favor the venture, since it would bind Ukraine’s aerospace complex closer to the United States and discourage missile proliferation.

“There is no encouragement or discouragement on the part of the U.S. government on Boeing’s plan or that of any other company,” one administration official said.

Ukraine and Russia are not MTCR members, but Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Valeriy Shmarov signed an agreement in May that assures the United States that Ukraine will abide by the accord. Russia signed a similar agreement in 1992, paving the way for the venture with Lockheed.

While the U.S. government has an agreement with Russia that specifies limits on Russian launch prices and U.S.-built satellite launches, there is no such agreement with Ukraine. Boeing’s proposal would circumvent this problem because the rocket would be considered a U.S. vehicle, Pulham said.

The Zenit was developed in the 1980s using advanced technology that automates much of its construction. After 14 straight successes starting in 1985, there were three consecutive failures between October 1990 and February 1992. One was due to debris in the first stage RD-170 engine built by Moscow’s NPO Energomash, while the others were due to failures of the RD-120 engines, also built by Energomash. Since then, however, there have been 5 successful missions. In addition, the Zenit served as a booster for two heavy-lift Energia rocket launches in the late 1980s. Each mission included four Zenits.

“The Zenit seems to be recovering” from the string of failures, said Marcia Smith, an analyst at the Congressional Research Service in Washington. “But Yushnoye still has something to prove when it comes to quality control. It could be a good thing if Boeing oversees it.”