Russia’s Energia To Own 95 Percent of New Sea Launch

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PARIS — Commercial launch-service provider Sea Launch Co. expects to receive final U.S. government approval of its post-bankruptcy reorganization plan by September, an event that will trigger the investment by its new Russian owner of $140 million in operating capital and $15 million for a creditors’ trust account, Sea Launch President Kjell Karlsen said July 28.

The Delaware Bankruptcy Court managing the Long Beach, Calif.-based company’s Chapter 11 reorganization July 27 approved the company’s proposed debt restructuring and return to operations.

The new Sea Launch will be 95 percent owned by affiliates of RSC Energia of Korolev, Russia, a large space-system manufacturer that already had been a Sea Launch shareholder and provides the upper stage for Sea Launch’s Zenit-3SL rocket.

Energia will replace Boeing Co. as Sea Launch’s general contractor, a shift that will require the approval of the interagency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which reviews acquisitions that may have national security implications.

Karlsen said CFIUS representatives have been kept informed of Sea Launch’s status and plans throughout the 13-month bankruptcy proceedings. He said he anticipated no serious obstacles that would delay CFIUS approval of the new Sea Launch ownership structure.

Energia has secured $140 million in cash to be invested in Sea Launch as the company refurbishes its sea-based operation after being idle since April 2009. As part of the agreement with the Delaware Bankruptcy Court, Energia also will be setting aside $15 million for Sea Launch’s creditors, including Boeing.

In a July 28 interview as he was preparing to leave Wilmington, Del., for what he said he assumed was the last time, Karlsen said Sea Launch’s operating expenses are less than $2 million a month. “The Energia investment will last us for quite some time,” he said, adding that once it returns to full operation, the company’s operating costs will total less than $50 million per year.

Karlsen said Sea Launch, now freed of the substantial debt as a result of the Chapter 11 reorganization, will be profitable with as few as two launches per year, although it expects to ramp up activity to perform four launches in 2012 and five in 2013.

The Sea Launch system includes a command ship and a converted semi-submersible oil platform that has been converted into a launch pad. The company launches heavy telecommunications satellites from a site on the equator in the Pacific Ocean.

Operating from international waters, Sea Launch has been unable to qualify as a U.S. rocket, meaning it cannot bid to launch U.S. government satellites. It also has never launched a Russian government satellite.

The lack of a government regulatory home has made Sea Launch entirely dependent on the state of the commercial satellite industry.

Karlsen said the commercial satellite market follows regular cycles and that it is currently at the top of a cycle that is likely to turn down, perhaps sharply, in the next couple of years.

But with a business model that enables it to remain profitable even at two launches per year, Sea Launch is well-positioned to survive the coming downturn, he said.

Several commercial satellite operators have voiced support for Sea Launch, and four — Intelsat of Luxembourg and Washington; Eutelsat of Paris; AsiaSat of Hong Kong; and EchoStar of Englewood, Colo. — have signed various commitments to use Sea Launch in the next few years.

Karlsen said the company’s first post-bankruptcy mission will not be by the sea-based operation, but by Land Launch of Moscow, for which Sea Launch acts as a marketing agent. Land Launch uses the same Sea Launch rocket hardware, but operates from the Russian-run Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Land Launch specializes in lighter telecommunications satellites.

Land Launch’s next mission, scheduled for early 2011, is set to carry the Intelsat 18 satellite.