Sergey Andreev, Evgeny Zhukov
Chinese clone “Sea Launch”
In 2020, China has already conducted the first launches from an offshore spaceport, built to save the money and time needed for national space projects. Then the case burned out – rockets of their own design were successfully launched from the floating cosmodrome, but this was not enough for the Chinese. The new “sea launch”, which the PRC promises to complete by 2022, will fulfill more ambitious tasks. The vessel, measuring 162.5 × 40 meters, will be based near the new cosmodrome in the city of Haiyan. The new site will be designed for the launch of Changzheng-11 missiles and heavier Zelong-1 missiles from the water, and in the future – for more advanced liquid-fueled launch vehicles.
But the ship will also perform the role of a landing platform – now only SpaceX is landing rockets in the sea, but Falcon 9s take off from a ground launcher. Having realized its “sea launch”, the PRC will receive a large number of options for launching rockets into space, and the load on the existing Chinese cosmodromes will significantly decrease. The Chinese are not inventing anything new in this sense – the launch will become safer, because at first the steps will fall into the water. But in the future, the PRC will switch to fully reusable missiles, and this is very disturbing news not only for the United States – the leader in the number of commercial launches, but also for Russia.
Sea Launch – No Time to Die
But it was not in the PRC, of course, invented to launch lighter rockets into orbit in this way and at the same time increase the payload by 25-30%. This is what the Italians did in the 60s. And in the 90s, the American corporation Boeing and RSC Energia cooperated in the construction of the Sea Launch international cosmodrome. Norwegians and Ukrainians have also invested in the project. The latter, represented by the Yuzhnoye Design Bureau, took up the development of Zenit missiles. The initial cost of the project was $ 3.65 billion.
They managed to launch 36 rockets from the cosmodrome, and then a series of troubles began. In 2009, Sea Launch filed for bankruptcy, and five years later, the joint project was ordered to live a long time. As a result of tiresome litigation, Energia bought out Sea Launch from Boeing and then resold it to S7 Space. The total amount of the transaction was 11 billion rubles. Several tens of millions more were spent on transportation. Since its arrival in Russia, Sea Launch has been at the Slavyanka seaside port awaiting orders. But there are no positive shifts in this story yet. There are no rockets, no orders, and there is no complete clarity of what to do with the unique complex, which in the long term could “nullify” all the good proposals of Elon Musk and SpaceX, both in terms of price and launch speed.
What is the essence of launching a rocket from the sea?
Testing of rocket launches from water began for two main reasons. Territorial issues and withdrawal costs. Initially, the launch from the water was supposed to be 30–40% cheaper than the ground launch. Savings are achieved not only by switching to reusable rockets, but also by refusing to lease land for spaceports, as well as compensating for the fall of steps – after all, even that which does not return to the ship simply falls into the sea and sinks to the bottom. Recently, Elon Musk took seriously the topic of “sea launch” – in January 2021 he purchased two oil platforms, and soon they will be converted into launchers for the new Super Heavy rocket. The naval spaceport will allow him to save up to 165 million dollars a year through savings on land leases.
This, as well as the switch to cheaper materials in the manufacture of missiles, will help him to make launches even cheaper. But the Chinese can get ahead of Musk – they plan to finish their spaceport-launch site by 2022, and then China, and not the United States, may turn out to be home to the cheapest launch services in the world, and the cost of launching one rocket, according to various estimates, could be negligible 20 million dollars. If this happens, then SpaceX will have virtually nothing to cover.
Will the market decide?
The completion of the construction of the Chinese spaceport-launch site will be bad news for Russia as well – the Americans will not risk imposing serious sanctions against China for the very fact of cooperation, which means that potential customers will be able to choose the launch operator with their heart and wallet. The only thing the Chinese will have to deal with is the reliability of their own missiles. So far, Chinese missile technologies are at the level of the 80s of the last century, however, in another five to seven years, the PRC will be equal to the manufacturability of Russian launch vehicles.
According to data from open sources, in parallel, the PRC is developing three new missiles at once – two reusable and one “classic” for scientific programs that do not require serious expenses. At the same time, the PRC immediately took into account the role of private capital in the space program, and since 2014 large corporations have been actively investing in the country’s space programs, earning money and a credit of trust from government agencies.
After the first naval spaceport is completed, China can sell off the former ground-based spaceports and abandon the use of land-based space systems.
The plans of the missilemen from the Celestial Empire are ambitious – they plan to “bring down” the launch price to 10-15 million dollars. If this happens, then other players in this market may simply not stay.
Sergey Andreev, Evgeny Zhukov