Long Shot

Defying the odds, even before the recent loss of the space shuttle Columbia, an eccentric company called Sea Launch has become the first private enterprise to send large rockets into space—from an enormous floating launch pad that sails to the equator for blast-off. Has the era of private space travel begun? 

Everybody knows about the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida, from which the space shuttle flies. Many people know about Vandenberg Air Force Base, in central California, from which the military launches spy satellites aboard big Titan rockets originally designed to hurl nuclear bombs at the Soviet Union. But hardly anybody knows about a third spaceport in the United States, which can be found adjoining a bird sanctuary at one end of the isthmus on which the Port of Long Beach sits, just outside Los Angeles.

No government agency or military organization owns this new facility. Its heart is an enormous, otherworldly-looking vessel called the Odyssey—a floating launch pad, twenty stories high, built atop the same kind of floodable pillars as an oil platform. When viewed from a distance, the ship suggests the alien-designed teleportation tower in the sci-fi movie Contact. Intended to sail to the Equator and send into orbit an unmanned rocket that can carry as much as the space shuttle, the Odyssey is the operational part of the first entirely private effort to put into space entirely private large rockets carrying entirely private payloads. The ship is so large that when it came through the Suez Canal, in 1998, its owners, a company called Sea Launch, had to rent both lanes. Moored near the Odyssey at Long Beach is a large companion ship, the Sea Launch Commander. Built in Glasgow, the Sea Launch Commander scraped the sides of the Panama Canal on its passage from Scotland to California.

Sea Launch's core idea is a novel one; neither the National Aeronautics and Space Administration nor anybody else has tried the ocean approach to space. And it works: Sea Launch can send rockets into space more cheaply per payload pound than anything the government can offer, and those rockets place satellites exactly where they are supposed to go. Since its debut, in 1999, the Odyssey has launched seven large satellites, including the orbital broadcast towers for the new XM Satellite Radio subscription network—two multi-ton techno-marvels dubbed Rock and Roll.

Is Sea Launch an oddity or a harbinger of a new space age? With the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, the nation has been reminded that space flight is hazardous; and even when all goes well, NASA's current systems are absurdly expensive. Each space-shuttle launch costs some $640 million—meaning, among other things, that just the bottled water that astronauts drink on the new International Space Station costs around $400,000 a day. And good luck explaining what purpose the space station serves, other than as a jobs program for aerospace contractors and a destination to justify space-shuttle funding. Space also seems a hopelessly impractical destination, except for scientific exploration, military use, and telecommunications satellites. Most commercial ideas for space—microgravity manufacturing, for example—haven't really panned out. And history's first space tourists, two rich men who bought rides on old Soviet rockets launched from Kazakhstan in 2001 and 2002, paid about $20 million each to be crammed into a tiny capsule and subjected to agonizing G-forces at blast-off, to eat freeze-dried food and bump into floating Russians in orbit, and, finally, to come home motion sick. There's a limit to that market.

From the archives:

"Freedom of the Skies" (June 2001)

Inventors, entrepreneurs, and government visionaries have teamed up to create new kinds of small planes that can take off from and land almost anywhere. By James Fallows

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "The Soul of a New Flying Machine" (May 25, 2001)

James Fallows, the author of Free Flight, argues that the next generation of small planes could usher in a new age of travel.