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Russia: Boeing Denies U.S. Probing Venture

  • Bruce Keppel

Bellingham, Washington; 4 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A major American aerospace firm involved in joint venture with Russia and Ukraine says there is no new U.S. government investigation of its Sea Launch project, despite published reports to the contrary.

Boeing Corporation spokesman Glenn Anderson told RFE/RL on Wednesday that the report is "old news." He said "everything's been settled," and that Sea Launch, based in Long Beach, California, still plans to make its first launch later this month, though no precise date has been set.

Anderson said: "It all depends on how the testing comes out, but we're planning on a launch in March."

On Monday, the "Seattle Times" newspaper reported that the U.S. attorney's office had launched a new investigation into allegations that Boeing had breached U.S. security laws in sharing sensitive technology with its partners, Russia's RSC-Energia and Ukraine's Yuzhnoye/Yuzhmash.

That story, based on unnamed sources, was picked up Tuesday by "The Washington Post." Neither the "Seattle Times" nor its competitor daily, "The Seattle Post-Intelligencer," carried additional articles on Sea Launch on Tuesday.

In Seattle, spokesman Tom Wales of the U.S. Attorney's office tells RFE/RL that the office does not comment on its activities.

Since last summer, the gigantic elements comprising Sea Launch have been docked in Long Beach, having arrived on schedule from the venture's partners in Ukraine, Russia and Norway.

"Sea Launch Commander," a vessel that will serve as Mission Control at sea, reached the Southern California port last July after a month-long journey from St. Petersburg. At the Russian port, it was fitted with 544 metric tons of electronic and mechanical equipment necessary for directing launch operations along the equator.

"Sea Launch Commander" brought with it the first two Ukraine-built Sea Launch rockets. Each is as tall as a 20-story building, taller than most buildings in Long Beach. The pair are special versions of the reliable Zenit rocket, modified for firing at sea.

The launch vessel, "Odyssey," arrived in Long Beach late last summer from Vyborg, Russia. This gigantic and unique vessel began life as a giant North Sea oil-drilling rig. After much reconditioning and transformation in Norway, "Odyssey" emerged as a self-propelled, semi-submersible launch platform.

Those are the key, oceangoing elements comprising Sea Launch, which Boeing heads with its 40 percent stake in the venture.

But since Sea Launch's parts came together at the venture's Home Port adjacent to Los Angeles, the project has faced delays due to U.S. government concerns about alleged breaches in national security stemming from sharing the necessary technology with its partners, including the two former Soviet republics.

Last September, Boeing was forced to halt work on the scheduled inaugural launch for several months after the government charged that the company had failed to get necessary permits from the State Department for sharing certain sensitive data with its foreign partners during the four years of work that successfully produced Sea Launch at the Port of Long Beach.

Boeing eventually agreed to pay $10 million to settle those allegations and get the project moving again. But the company settled without admitting to having knowingly broken any U.S. law. Still, that delay forced the anticipated 1998 inaugural launch to be rescheduled for this month. Then came this week's press reports alleging that a new grand jury investigation was underway by the U.S. attorney's office in Seattle. Citing unnamed sources, the "Seattle Times" said the U.S. Attorney is looking into further allegations of security breaches. These were said to include a charge that some of the Russians and Ukrainians that Boeing had briefed and allowed into sensitive sites during the course of creating Sea Launch were Russian and Ukrainian intelligence agents, not just technicians.

Sea Launch's first customer will be Hughes Space and Communications International, which is based in Los Angeles, adjacent to the Home Port in Long Beach. That proximity was a major reason why Boeing chose former U.S. Navy property there for Sea Launch.

In all, Hughes has contracted for 13 of Sea Launch's first 18 equatorial launches. The other five are under contract with Space Systems/Loral, a unit of Loral Space and Communications, which is creating a satellite-based global telecommunications network called Globalstar. Boeing last month said it will launch 28 Globalstar satellites, but all aboard seven Delta II rockets launched on land -- six this year and one next year.

On the Sea Launch inaugural liftoff, possibly later this month, "Sea Launch Commander" will lead "Odyssey," which can travel up to 13.5 knots, to the Equator. There, the towering platform will submerge more than 20 meters of itself in order to stabilize the floating launch vehicle. This partial submergibility is a key feature of "Odyssey," designed to allow it to withstand the most violent of storms.