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IRIDIUM: WHAT GOES UP...HAS TO GET THERE FIRST

With more than 1,700 satellite launches planned or proposed in the next 10 years, one of the thorniest problems the industry faces may simply be getting all its birds up in the sky.

Indeed, as the global satellite boom fuels a surge of launches, the existing services just don't have enough capacity. In 1996, 22 rockets placed 29 satellites into orbit. This year will see 45 launches carrying 76 satellites, followed by 61 launches carrying 121 satellites in 1998, predicts Teal Group, an aerospace consulting firm in Fairfax, Va. To make things worse, launch reliability is almost as bad as it was at the dawn of the Space Age. With roughly 1 in 10 launches failing, insurance premiums are skyrocketing.

Small wonder that John B. Perkins, vice-president of launch-services acquisition for Hughes Communications Inc., is worried. ''We're encouraging strong companies and countries to enter the launch business,'' he says. But demand is so strong ''that we're no better off from a supply standpoint than we were.''

TOO COSTLY. The crunch is most acute for the huge geostationary satellites that circle the earth's equator to beam TV signals and track weather. Only a half-dozen sites in the world can launch these big birds. Roughly 60% of that business now belongs to Europe's Ariane space consortium, which satellite makers fault for high prices and limited capacity. Around 30% of the work falls to McDonnell Douglas Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp., which loft Delta and Atlas rockets from Cape Canaveral and California's Vandenberg Air Force Base. The balance goes to Russian, Ukrainian, and Chinese programs. New ventures in Brazil, India, Israel, and Italy could gain business in future years, while Hughes recently signed a $1 billion deal with a Mistubishi-led consortium for 10 launches.

But the newer ''low earth orbit'' satellites used by Motorola Inc.'s Iridium project or the proposed Teledesic network don't need powerful, Ariane-style rockets, since they're smaller and orbit closer to earth. Instead, satellite makers in this fast-growing segment are looking to startups with unconventional launch schemes. Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., saves fuel and avoids the wait for ground launch openings by firing its Pegasus rockets from under the wings of a jumbo jet 40,000 feet up, for example.

Sea Launch group, an audacious joint venture by Boeing Co. and Norwegian, Russian, and Ukrainian partners, is taking an even more radical approach: Starting in mid-1998, it plans to loft rockets from a floating oil rig in the Pacific Ocean. By using the converted platform as a mobile launch site, Sea Launch can move from its home port in Long Beach, Calif., to the equator for the most efficient geosynchronous launches--or steam a few hundred miles off the California coast for quick-turnaround launches of low-earth-orbit satellites. Sea Launch is sold out for its first three years of operation. That's not a bad launch of its own.

By Andy Reinhardt in San Francisco, with Seanna Browder in Seattle


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Updated June 15, 1997 by bwwebmaster
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