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An article written about the Sealaunch Commander for a marine magazine in 1998 while it was under construction in Govan. If you just want to look at the pictures scroll to the end of article or click here


Older readers of this magazine may remember the American comedian Bob Newhart whose speciality was a monologue where he was apparently talking to some-one, usually over the telephone, or sometimes to some-one who would not be expected to answer because they would be engaged in some particularly onerous task. In one of these monologues he portrayed an American entrepreneur receiving a call from Sir Walter Raleigh who has just discovered the wonders of tobacco.

"Hey guys" says Bob "Its nutty Walt again."

You imagine the entrepreneur in a busy office waving for silence. He addressed himself to the telephone once more.

"OK, Walt, what have we got this time? You don’t say - tobacco! And what’s tobacco Walt? What’s that. A leaf. And what do you do with this leaf..... You roll it up. No don’t tell me, you stick in you’re ear! No. OK Walt I was only kidding. What do you do with it Walt?

You what? You stick it in your mouth......and then you light it!!"

Put like that tobacco really does sound like a joke, and it would seem that Bob would have an ideal subject for the twenty-first century in Sea launch, because, crazy as it seems now there is little doubt that in years to come it will be regarded as a perfectly normal marine activity.

This marine activity is the launching of satellite carrying rockets from a former oilrig, now called the Odyssey, formerly the ill fated Ocean Odyssey. The Odyssey will be based in Long Beach California and will travel from there to the equator in the region of Christmas Island and then launch the rocket. It will be supported by the Sea Launch Commander, a substantial and unique vessel which has been built to collect the rockets in pieces from Russia, assemble them on the way to Long Beach, load them onto the rig and then accompany it out to the location and act as the launch control.

The ship has, therefore to be a particularly versatile craft. It has to act as a cargo ship to carry the rockets, an area for their maintenance, a testing area for the associated satellites and an assembly hanger. Once all this has been done it has to be able to transfer the completed rocket, it stages connected and its satellite in place, to the launch platform, act as a support unit connected to the launch platform by a bridge, and then finally take on board all the staff from the Odyssey and move off to carry out the launch process.

With this basic concept Kvaernar Consultants were given the task of designing the ship, and Kvaernar Govan were given the task of construction. Probably it would take the Americans to think of it, the Norwegians to design it and the British to build it. There is no doubt that considering that it is an entirely unique vessel, it is a wonderful craft.

It has its strengths and weaknesses. It can be seen that the spaces provided for storing and servicing the rockets are spacious well designed and appropriate. The spaces provided for the servicing of the satellites, including the offices conference rooms and support areas are spacious are airy, and are positioned at upper deck level. They are assigned to the clients, and the clients in the satellite launching business are very important. Of course clients are always important, but in this business they are right behind those doing the carrying of the satellites all the time. In the shipping world it would be like having the owner of the cargo on board all the time.

Commensurate with their importance the clients get special spacious cabins just under the bridge. This gives them a chance of seeing out round the numerous structures in the foredeck. The Captain is displaced to a position two decks down and has no chance of seeing anything out of his windows.

An important area of the ship is the means of transferring the rocket to the rig, which from now on will be described as the "launch platform". When seen on Tomorrow’s World a computer simulation showed a sort of platform extending from the stern to a point underneath the enormous gantry on the forward end of the launch platform. It is not quite like this, but not too far away.

The reality is an extending ramp not unlike that fitted to transatlantic ro-ro vessels but with an additional length so that fully extended it is 60 meters long. It is so long that the multiple pulleys connecting it to the upper deck of the ship cannot actually support the weight of the ramp and the rocket and so the ends have to be supported from the rig. Getting the ship into position alongside on Long Beach is going to be a challenge, and the ambition to do the whole thing on location is something of a dream, no matter what the advantages.

The ship is enormous. It first seemed to be a suitable subject for an article in this magazine because it appeared to be supporting an oil rig, or at least a former oil rig. The reality is that the oil rig will be supporting the ship. Dimensionally the ship is 600 feet long and 100 feet wide and the rig is 400 feet long and 200 feet wide. This seems to make the ship somewhat bigger than the rig, which is a curious situation for a support vessel.

The rig really is nothing more than a launch platform. Its purpose is similar to the vast concrete bowl with the gantry sticking up above it from which the space shuttle is launched, and it is equally re-usable. In reality the vast crawling device which carries the shuttle to it is somewhat more important than the shuttle itself.

Why, one might ask, would anyone want to do this. To find the reason one has to deviate a little from the ship talk and get into the world of satellites.

There are many more people queuing up to launch satellites than there are means of carrying out the launch. Apparently there is at least one major conglomerate wishing to launch seven hundred satellites into low orbit to facilitate internet communications. And there are other conglomerates wishing to do the same thing. Additionally there are more people wishing to launch satellites into higher orbit than there are rockets able to carry out the task. So at least the Odyssey provides an additional launch pad.

In addition it is not just an additional pad. The equator is the best position from which to launch a rocket. \it can achieve orbit with the least expenditure of fuel. or else it can lift a bigger payload. This alone makes the systems worth operating.

This written in 1998 for Ship and Boat International but not used, but has some interest as a bit of history, since I wrote the piece after looking round the ship under construction in the yard. Since then Sealaunch has gone into service and there have been rumours of both successes and failures. I have ceased to follow its progress closely but the Sealaunch website offers the information that there have been seven launches. The pictures on the site indicate that the original ambition of transferring the rockets at sea has been abandoned – its nice to be professionally predictive!

This is the Sealaunch Commander alongside at Govan. It takes up a lot of space, and was something of a success for the yard. Now in 2001 apparently to no avail.

This is a model of the ship showing the ramp at the stern. It is impossible to imagine this ramp connected to an oil rig with 60 tonnes of rocket stuck on it - well at sea anyway. 

The bridge under construction. It is evident that designers like the bridge to look great from the outside without being concerned about how the outside looks from the inside.  

This is the main construction area. You can see that it was designed by ferry people. There is quite a bit of free surface here. It is one of several spaces underdeck.  

Looking over the stern of the ship over Govan. The top of the after raml in the folded position can be seen. It is quire impossible to see astern from the bridge.

On the right is a small workboat built for the project. This is a fine piece of work built by a boat-builder in Northumberland. I would think it is used more than the telescopic gangway.

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Deepwater Horizon -The President's Report
Deepwater Horizon - The Progess of the Event

The KULLUK Grounding
The Costa Concordia Report
The Costa Concordia Grounding
The Elgin Gas Leak
The Loss of the Normand Rough
The Bourbon Dolphin Accident
The Loss of the Stevns Power
Another Marine Disaster
Something About the P36
The Cormorant Alpha Accident
The Ocean Ranger Disaster
The Loss of the Ocean Express

The Life of the Oil Mariner
Offshore Technology and the Kursk
The Sovereign Explorer and the Black Marlin

Safety Case and SEMS
Practical Safety Case Development
Preventing Fires and Explosions Offshore
The ALARP Demonstration
PFEER, DCR and Verification
PFEER and the Dacon Scoop
Human Error and Heavy Weather Damage
Lifeboats & Offshore Installations
More about PFEER
The Offshore Safety Regime - Fit for the Next Decade
The Safety Case and its Future
Collision Risk Management
Shuttle Tanker Collisions
A Good Prospect of Recovery

The History of the UT 704
The Peterhead Connection
Goodbye Kiss
Uses for New Ships
Supporting Deepwater Drilling
Jack-up Moving - An Overview
Seismic Surveying
Breaking the Ice
Tank Cleaning and the Environment
More about Mud Tank Cleaning
Tank Cleaning in 2004
Glossary of Terms

An Unusual Investigation
Gaia and Oil Pollution
The True Price of Oil
Icebergs and Anchor-Handlers
Atlantic SOS
The Greatest Influence
How It Used to Be
Homemade Pizza
Goodbye Far Turbot
The Ship Manager
Running Aground
A Cook's Tale
Navigating the Channel
The Captain's Letter

The Sealaunch Project
Ghost Ships of Hartlepool
Beam Him Up Scotty
The Bilbao OSV Conference