Converting an oil drilling platform to launch rockets from the equator.
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 (see Rigs to Reefs). Two historic jack-up drilling rigs have been converted into museums and energy education centers in Texas and Louisiana. And one retired, self-propelled petroleum platform has launched satellites into orbit.
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. 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 when it was launched in 1953 (see Mr. Charlie, First Mobile Offshore Drilling Rig).
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.
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.”
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).
Thanks to Ocean Odyssey, a new industry was “launched.”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.
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.
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, were moored at Long Beach, California.
SpaceX buys Semi-Submersible Rigs
Relocated to Russia, the future of the aging Ocean Odyssey rocket platform remained uncertain at the end of 2020. Meanwhile, Elon Musk of SpaceX in January 2021 announced plans to build “floating, superheavy-class spaceports for Mars, moon & hypersonic travel around Earth,” according to a CNBC article.
SpaceX subsidiary Lone Star Mineral Development reportedly purchased two deep-water rigs for $7 million from Valaris as the offshore drilling contractor filed for bankruptcy. The semi-submersible platforms, part of a series built by ENSCO between 2005 and 2012, have been renamed Deimos and Phobos (the moons of Mars). They have relocated to the Port of Brownsville, a short distance from the SpaceX Starship development facility in Boca Chica, Texas.
“The ENSCO 8500 series are semi-submersible rigs. What this means is that they don’t sit on the bottom of the ocean like a drilling platform (which sits atop a tower) or a “jack up” (which has extendable legs to sit on the sea floor). They differ from drilling ships in that they sit on pontoons that are pushed under the water, below the waves, which gives them greater stability,” explained a January 2021 article of CleanTechnica.
Recommended Reading: Offshore Pioneers: Brown & Root and the History of Offshore Oil and Gas (1997); ; Oil and Gas Pipeline Fundamentals (1993); Natural Gas: Fuel for the 21st Century (2015). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright © 2021 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.
Citation Information: Article Title: “Offshore Rocket Launcher.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/technology/offshore-rocket-launcher. Last Updated: October 3, 2021. Original Published Date: January 2, 2015.