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Russia/Ukraine: Sea Launch Venture To Aid Dying Aerospace Companies

Washington, 5 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - World Bank officials say the Sea Launch commercial joint space venture involving Russian and Ukrainian aerospace companies is exactly the kind of project that could make a long-term difference in the viability of their economies.

The bank last week approved $200 million worth of partial risk guarantees to insure against Ukrainian or Russian government political interference in the project.

The Sea Launch project is a ground-breaking joint venture between the U.S. Boeing Commercial Space Company, Russia's RSC Energia, Ukraine's KV Yuzhnoye (Pivdeniye) and UMZ Yuzhmash, and Norway's Kvaerner Maritime, to launch commercial satellites from a converted oil platform.

The Ukrainian companies will manufacture a modified version of the two-stage Zenit rocket to provide the basic launching rocket for the enterprise. The Russian firm will make the upper stage using the Block DM rocket and avionics unit that has a long history as the fourth stage of the Soviet Proton launch vehicle.

The Russian and Ukrainian rockets will then be shipped to the United States where they will be put together by the Boeing company with the satellite payload.

The assembled rocket and payload will then be taken to a remote area of the Pacific on the equator where it will be launched into space from a specially-modified, partially submerged platform.

It will be a highly automated system using a new assembly and command ship just being outfitted now in Norway to control the launches.

The Sea Launch company expects to fire its first rocket into orbit next summer and already has orders for 18 satellite launches in coming years. The World Bank's manager on the project, Alfred Watkins, says the global market for commercial satellite launches into geo-syncranis orbit (staying directly above one spot on the equator) is expected to triple from current levels to at least 30 such launches within the next few years.

It is precisely this strong and rapidly growing market that Russian and Ukrainian companies needed to be getting into, says World Bank Vice President Johannes Linn. Russia and Ukraine have a competitive advantage in aerospace, but the general lack of competitiveness in these countries left them unable to find a way to get into the global market.

That is where the Sea Launch joint venture became critical for companies like Energia and Yuzhnoye and Yuzhmash. With the World Bank guarantees, these firms can now come into the global market as part of a major international venture, drawing on their greatest strengths.

These are traditional economic sectors in both Russia and Ukraine, says Ukraine's Alternate Executive Director at the bank, Sergei Kulyk. But this "traditional industry was dying out," after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There were attempts to save it by switching to making baby carriages and trolley buses. But that was an expensive disaster which cost Ukraine huge sums of money, he says.

"You can imagine the price of a trolley bus produced by a factory for space boosters," he says.

Russia's Executive Director at the Bank, Andrei Bugrov, says Russia and Ukraine would have tried to launch commercial satellite businesses on their own, but this project offers a special competitive advantage -- launching from the calm, almost always placid waters of the south Pacific.

From the launching facilities in Russia and Kazkhstan, says Bugrov,he maximum payload is about 1,000 kilograms. But because of the sling-shot effect of launching from the equator, Sea Launch will be able to put payloads of around 5,000 kilograms into orbit.

Watkins says Russia and Ukraine also brought some highly technical advantages to the project, such as the ability of their rockets to be turned on and off, allowing a much more precise maneuvering of the satellite into its orbit.

Because of this feature alone, says Watkins, satellites will not have to carry large amounts of fuel to fire their own mini-rockets to fit into exact orbit.

Interestingly, a key element of the joint venture is that protection against the transfer of high-technology information had to be erected on both sides -- to prevent U.S. technological secrets from being passed to Russia or Ukraine, but as well to prevent Russian and Ukrainian technological secrets from going to the United States.

France was the only nation to vote against the World Bank guarantees to the project, expressing strong fears of possible military diversion of the rocket production, but also concern about competition to the European Union's Arianne commercial space launch program.That facility has heavy French involvement.

A commercial rocket launch license must still be issued by the U.S. government for the project, but bank officials say they are assured it will be approved.

And for Russia and Ukraine, says Linn, the most important thing is that the project is expected to create and maintain at least 30,000 high-paying jobs for several decades.