After nearly two years of failed commercial launches, a Ukrainian rocket has finally put a paying cargo in space.
The white Dnipro booster rocket lifted off from Kazakhstan's Baikonur cosmodrome on April 21. Belching gray smoke and orange flame, the converted nuclear missile carried the British Uosat-12 satellite into orbit 650 kilometers above Earth.
Recent successful launches have gone a long way toward repairing Ukraine's image as a source of dependable rockets for the commercial satellite market.
On March 27, a three-stage Zenit-3 rocket hurled a test satellite into orbit from a floating launch pad built by the Norwegian company Kvaerner. U.S. aerospace giant Boeing provided much of the technology for the joint venture, called Sea Launch. Designed to take advantage of the Earth's gravity by launching its rockets near the equator, the project's first paying mission is scheduled for this summer.
The previous successful commercial flight of a rocket of even partial Ukrainian origin took place in July 1997. In May 1998, a Zenit-2 rocket carrying a Russian satellite exploded. And again in August 1998, another Zenit-2 exploded, this time taking $190 million worth of Globalstar satellites down with it.
The choice of the Dnipro rocket for the successful April 21 commercial launch was no accident.
Zenit-2s have failed eight times in 31 shots, according to Western industry observers.
After the two 1998 explosions, SPACE, Ukraine space agency officials remained loyal to the Zenit-2 rocket, but the international satellite market did not. Globalstar, a subsidiary of Loral, is now launching its satellites on American Delta and Russian Proton rockets.
Tellingly, the next flight of a Zenit-2 will carry not a dollar-generating payload, but a Russian Okean communications satellite. The Baikonur launch, delayed three times over the last six months, is currently scheduled for May.
'All you can do is check things and check things again,' said Yury Smetanin, Zenit rocket designer. 'Rockets are very complicated, and any one small glitch can cause failure of the entire assembly.'
While Smetanin has been double-checking his Zenit-2s, others have been pushing an alternative, the Dnipro.
Unlike the Zenit-2, a rocket designed and built only to launch satellites, the Dnipro is effectively a Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile reprogrammed to deploy satellites instead of than nuclear devices.
'All you really have to do is paint it white,' Smetanin joked.
Known as SS-18s to NATO and Satans to the men who made them, the missiles number about 200 across Russia and Ukraine. Scheduled to be scrapped under the terms of the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks treaty, the civilian conversion of the missile – the Dnipro – is being touted as the latest in an expanding range of products available to satellite-launch customers.
'A Dnipro has less throw-weight [than a Zenit],' said Yury Alekseyenko, spokesman for Yuzhmash Design Bureau. 'But it's cheaper … In a competitive market we must offer our clients a choice.'
A Zenit-2 launch costs $32-40 million, industry analysts claim. Alekseyenko described the cost of a Dnipro mission as 'significantly less,' but he declined to give a precise figure.
The Dnipro rocket used in the April 21 launch came from Russian army stocks, he confirmed.
Five more Dnipro launches from Baikonur are scheduled by the end of the year, Alekseyenko said.
In somewhat of a turnaround, on the other side of the world in Cape Canaveral, the Americans were having their problems in April.
A popped circuit breaker forced Boeing to nix its third attempt to launch its new Delta III rocket, The Associated Press reported on April 21.
Boeing failed twice this month to launch the rocket with an Orion communications satellite, once because of high wind and again because of technical problems.
The Delta III has yet to be launched successfully. Its inaugural mission last August exploded because of a computer fault, according to Boeing.
Its predecessors, the Delta I and Delta II, have failed about one shot in 20. That track record is almost seven times better than that of the Zenit-2. However, at an estimated $50 million a mission, a Delta costs twice what a Zenit-2 launch does and four times as much as a Dnipro.
With their cheaper product, recent successful launches and problems on the side of the competition, Ukrainian and Russian space specialists are trotting out cosmic plans both old and new.
Their latest brainchild is an internationally financed Ukrainian launch pad anchored in the Black Sea, according to an April 21 announcement by Oleksandr Nehoda, Ukraine space agency director.
Ukraine will soon announce a tender to evaluate the viability of the project, which would provide a local alternative to Kazakhstan's Baikonur cosmodrome, Nehoda said in a Zerkalo Nedeli report.
Nehoda also touted the Mirya heavy-lift airplane. Still on the drawing boards, the massive cargo jet would carry a rocket close to the stratosphere before launch, reducing the effect of gravity and therefore cutting launch costs.
Black Jack bombers, which, like Satan missiles, were decommissioned under the START treaty, might also do the job. A team of Russian experts is looking to acquire 11 aircraft, Oleksandr Kuzmuk, Ukraine's defense minister, told Interfax on April 21.
Also in the works is an arrangement between the Russians and the Ukrainians, who together make the rockets, and the Kazakhs, who own Baikonur.
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev has signed a letter of intent for the creation of a space joint venture by the year 2000, Nazarbayev spokesman Tokhtar Aubakirov told Interfax-Kazakhstan on April 2. Russia will be the largest shareholder in the project, Aubakirov said.