PARIS – Sea Launch President Rob Peckham said Feb. 2 that the Jan. 30 launch-pad explosion of the company’s Zenit 3 SL vehicle, which destroyed the large NSS-8 satellite built for SES New Skies, caused far less damage to the floating launch platform than might be expected from the video of the event.


The Hague, Netherlands-based SES New Skies, a division of satellite-fleet operator SES Global of Luxembourg, minimized the impact of the incident, saying its current and expected in-orbit capacity will still allow the company to serve its customers despite the loss the additional transponders NSS-8 would have provided.


The loss of NSS-8, SES New Skies said, “is thus not expected to have an impact on existing customers or revenues.” But NSS-8 had been expected to capture new customers, including direct-broadcast television customers, that cannot easily be accommodated by the spacecraft SES New Skies currently has available for the 57 degrees east longitude orbital slot intended for NSS-8.


Other satellites, including the Insat 4B spacecraft owned by the Indian Space Research Organisation and scheduled for launch in March and the Eutelsat Atlantic Bird 3 and Intelsat 901 spacecraft, are likely to take part of this business as a result.


The failure comes at a particularly busy time for the world’s commercial launch operators, including Sea Launch, which had planned to attempt a record six launch campaigns this year.


Peckham said a mutual-backup agreement with
‘s Arianespace launch consortium and
‘s H-2A rocket managers had not been discussed since the failure.


Arianespace Chief Executive Jean-Yves Le Gall said Jan. 31 that the backup arrangement may come into play but that it is too early to determine whether customers will be able to migrate from Sea Launch to Arianespace. Arianespace itself has a largely full manifest for 2007 and 2008.


United Launch Alliance (ULA) of
, which now manages launches of the Lockheed Martin-built Atlas 5 rocket, is monitoring the Sea Launch failure investigation closely because of the similarities between the Atlas 5 RD-180 first-stage engine and the RD-171M engine used on Sea Launch’s first stage. Both are built by Energomash of Russia.


ULA spokeswoman Julie C. Andrews said Feb. 2 that Atlas 5 managers will follow the Sea Launch failure review closely, but had not suspended the next Atlas 5 mission, the launch of the U.S. Air Force’s Space Test Program-1 satellites. Preparations for that launch, scheduled for Feb. 22, are continuing, Andrews said.


Long Beach, Calif.-based Sea Launch interrupted the live transmission of the NSS-8 liftoff several seconds after the rocket’s ignition and immediate collapse onto the Odyssey floating platform, located on the equator in the
Pacific Ocean
at 154 degrees west longitude.


Stationed more than 6 kilometers away on the Sea Launch Commander, none of the launch crew was injured. Peckham said a launch team boarded the platform less than two hours after the event to begin a damage-assessment effort that was continuing as of Feb. 2.


The Sea Launch video, made available on Web sites including, gave the impression that the entire launch platform was consumed by flame and must have sustained major damage.


But Peckham said in a Feb. 2 interview that this is not the case. “The platform is in very good shape. Of course there is some scorching and there will be repairs needed. We don’t yet know the extent, but the platform is operating on its own power and the major systems appear intact.”


The launch platform is expected to begin the return journey to its home port at
Long Beach
within several days, but Peckham said it was too early to say exactly when.


Sea Launch’s ownership includes Boeing Co., RSC Energia of Russia, Aker ASA of
and SDO Yuzhnoye/PO Yuzhmash of Ukraine, all of which provide hardware for the Zenit-3 SL vehicle or its ocean-going launch installations.


Because of the multinational partnership, Sea Launch needs U.S. State Department approval to permit the partners to exchange technical data. That will be true for the inquiry board created to analyze the failure and headed by Kirk Pysher, Sea Launch vice president and chief systems engineer.


Peckham said Sea Launch’s first requests for
government authorization to proceed with the investigation “have been dealt with in an extremely positive way. They are interested in helping us get through this,” Peckham said.


The destruction of NSS-8 ends a chapter in the history of Boeing Satellite Systems International that the satellite manufacturer would rather forget.


The large satellite, using Boeing’s 702 frame, fell seriously behind its contract schedule and, following a change in New Skies ownership, led to a confrontation between the satellite builder and the customer.


Facing a threat by New Skies that the contract would be terminated for default on the satellite delivery schedule, Boeing agreed to refund to New Skies its entire $168 million in advance payments made to build the satellite and reserve the Sea Launch slot.


As part of the 2005 agreement, Boeing agreed to complete the satellite and launch it without receiving any payment from New Skies until the satellite was working in orbit. (New Skies was subsequently purchased by SES and renamed SES New Skies).


Once the satellite was operational New Skies would begin making annual $16.7 million payments to Boeing over 15 years. Because of the unusual terms of the contract, it is Boeing, not New Skies, that owned NSS-8 and will collect an insurance payment for the launch failure.


“We had made no investment in this satellite, and it was not ours to insure,” SES Global spokesman Yves Feltes said Jan. 31. “It was quite an interesting launch contract.”