Offshore Rocket Launcher

Beginning in 1999, Russian-built rockets launched satellites from the Ocean Odyssey, a repurposed self-propelled, semi-submersible drilling platform. Photo courtesy Sea Launch.

Many offshore oil and natural gas platforms have found use after retirement. Hundreds of former platforms today serve as aquatic habitats in the Gulf of Mexico. Two historic jack-up drilling rigs are museums and energy education centers in Texas and Louisiana. One retired self-propelled platform once launched rockets.

Ten percent (about 450) of decommissioned production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico have been converted to permanent reefs, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Learn more in Rigs to Reefs.

A retired jack-up drilling rig in Galveston Bay, Texas, the Ocean Star, opened as a petroleum museum in 1997 after drilling more than 200 wells. Another offshore museum, Mr. Charlie of Morgan City, Louisiana, was the first submersible drilling rig in 1953.

The Ocean Odyssey, a self-propelled, semi-submersible drilling platform designed to endure 110 foot North Atlantic waves, became a floating equatorial launch pad.

In March 1999, a Russian Zenit-3SL rocket – fueled by kerosene and liquid oxygen – placed a demonstration satellite into geostationary orbit from the Ocean Odyssey’s remote Pacific Ocean launch site (Latitude 0° North, Longitude 154° West).

Sea Launch, a Boeing-led consortium of companies from the United States, Russia, Ukraine and Norway, began commercial launches on October 9, 1999, using a Russian Zenit-3SL rocket with a DirecTV satellite payload. By 2014 the Ocean Odyssey had made 36 such launches for XM Satellite Radio, Echo Star and communication companies.

offshore rocket launher

Constructed in Japan in 1982, the Ocean Odyssey was designed to endure 110 foot North Atlantic waves before it became a floating equatorial launch pad. Photo courtesy Sea Launch.

Originally to have been named Ocean Ranger II, the $110 million platform was under construction in Yokosuka, Japan, on February 15, 1982, when its namesake and predecessor tragically capsized in a North Atlantic storm off Newfoundland, killing all 84 men aboard. Renamed Ocean Odyssey, the new offshore drilling platform went to work that same year.

Between April 1983 and September 1985 the platform drilled off the coasts of Alaska and California before a two-year hiatus. In early 1988, the Ocean Odyssey was contracted to Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) for North Sea explorations. All was well until September 1988 when a blow-out and fire ended the rig’s career in oilfields.

After spending the several years as a rusting hulk in the docks of Dundee, Scotland, advancing aerospace technologies came to the rescue of the self-propelled platform, 436 feet long and about 220 feet wide.

The advantages of space launches from the equator – and the availability of the Ocean Odyssey – prompted Boeing to convert the rig into a launch platform. According to experts, the speed of earth’s rotation is greatest at the equator, providing a minor extra launch “boost.”

offshore rocket launcher

Led by a Boeing, the Sea Launch consortium of international companies used Russian Zenit-3SL rockets to carry communications satellites into geosynchronous orbits. Photo courtesy Sea Launch.

By April 1995, Boeing (with 40 percent ownership) led a four-country joint partnership, Sea Launch LLC. The venture included: Russia (25 percent), Norway (20 percent), and Ukraine (15 percent).

The consortium established its U.S. home port in Long Beach, California, near satellite, aerospace and maritime supply companies. Before the end of 1995, Hughes Space and Communications had contracted for 10 launches.

Thanks to Ocean Odyssey, a new industry was “launched.”

However, economic and legal troubles emerged. After almost 40 launches (with three failures), operating costs and a declining world economy led to Sea Launch’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy and reorganization in 2009. Russia emerged with 95 percent ownership.

offshore rocket launcher

Ocean Odyssey’s last launch on May 26, 2014, came as civil war broke out in Ukraine. Bankruptcy and years of litigation followed. Photo courtesy Steve Jurvetson.

Another decomissioned offshore platform, the Ocean Star, opened as a museum in 1997 in Galveston Bay.

Another decomissioned offshore platform, the Ocean Star, opened as a museum in 1997 in Galveston Bay.

Then began litigation, claims and counter-claims within the Sea Launch consortium. Ocean Odyssey’s last launch in May 2014 came as civil war broke out in Ukraine.

According to financial reports, the company’s debt when it filed for bankruptcy was estimated at $1 billion, with assets of $100 million to $500 million. The cost per launch was more than $80 million. Boeing sued to recoup $356 million of a reported $978 million loss in loans, trade debt and partner liabilities.

At the end of 2014, the Ocean Odyssey and its command ship, Sea Launch Commander, remained at port in Long Beach.

In July 2015, Spacenews reported the struggling commercial launch-service provider  and its owner, Energia of Russia, were in talks with the Chinese government on selling the command ship and launch platform “to Chinese interests that would station the system in international waters offshore China.”

Learn about America’s Offshore Petroleum History and visit the Ocean Star Offshore Energy Center in Galveston and Mr. Charlie in Morgan City.

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