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The Mission

Rocket: Zenit 3SL
Payload: NSS 8
Date: Jan. 30, 2007
Window: 2322-2359 GMT (6:22-6:59 p.m. EST)
Site: Equator, 154° West, Pacific Ocean
Broadcast: AMC 5, Transponder 8, Ku-band, Digital, 79° West

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Sea Launch vessels set sail for port following explosion

Posted: February 5, 2007

Sea Launch's command ship and its slightly wounded rocket platform are sailing back to port, just days after the heart-stopping explosion that destroyed a Zenit 3SL booster and its communications satellite cargo at liftoff.

The Sea Launch vessels -- Odyssey in foreground and Commander in distance -- head for home. Credit: Sea Launch
The international company Monday released three photographs showing the vessels departing the equatorial launch site in the Pacific Ocean bound for the trip to Home Port in Long Beach, California.

The Sea Launch Commander, housing the control center and all personnel, was positioned a few miles uprange from the Odyssey launch platform when disaster struck the 20-story rocket. No one was hurt in the blast.

But the converted Norwegian oil-drilling platform that carries the rocket from California to the equator and serves as the floating launch pad felt the fury as the booster exploded in a fireball. Remarkably, the platform survived without sustaining major damage.

"We're very, very pleased to have the vessels underway," said Sea Launch spokeswoman Paula Korn. "To be able to see those vessels sailing is big for us."

The voyage typically takes a couple of weeks. The platform has been staffed with a crew of 55 to 60 for the journey home, Korn estimated.

The Odyssey platform escape the explosion without major damage. Credit: Sea Launch
The most significant injury to Odyssey was the loss of its rocket flame deflector, but officials have begun looking at options to repair the platform. Once back in port, teams will examine the vessel and determine what work is required, Korn said. Whether the repairs can be accomplished in Long Beach is yet to be determined.

The partner firms comprising the Sea Launch venture, including the Ukrainian Zenit rocket teams and Russian engine builders, are in the midst of investigating what went wrong as the vehicle was igniting for liftoff carrying the 13,000-pound NSS 8 communications spacecraft.

Sea Launch has established its Failure Review Oversight Board to study the partners' findings, conclusions and recommendations. Kirk Pysher, vice president and chief systems engineer for Sea Launch, will chair the board.

It could be a few weeks before the investigation is completed and the information is presented to the oversight commission, officials said.

Speculation is rampant on some Internet sites about what system should be blamed for the explosion. Sea Launch, however, isn't releasing any official information until the investigation runs its course.

This aerial view was shot in front of Odyssey. Credit: Sea Launch
The Zenit's first stage RD-171 engine shares noteworthy similarities with the RD-180 engine that powers the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket family. ULA officials said Monday they are watching the investigation, as is the case when any failure hits the space industry, to determine whether the problem that brought down the Zenit could impact Atlas 5.

The next Atlas 5 launch is scheduled for February 22 to deploy a cluster of research satellites into space for the U.S. military. The Sea Launch incident hasn't delayed preparations for the flight thus far.

Sea Launch had hoped to fly six commercial satellite deployment missions this year. When flights can resume will depend on the investigation findings and repairs to Odyssey.

"We've gotten just enormous support from our customers and the whole community. It is just an outpouring," Korn said.

"It's been incredibly supportive. It's hard to even describe it because it's so moving."