August, 1999

Equatorial Launch to the Stars

By George Takei

LONG BEACH, Calif.--As Lt. Uhura, the communications officer of the starship Enterprise, so regularly announced, "Hailing frequencies open." They are indeed open even in our 20th century in countless frequencies, modes and systems. Radios, telephones, beepers, computers and other devices link us globally via satellite. The crucial connection for all this is in the satellites. More than 1,000 communication satellites are set to be launched into orbit in the next decade to link this space age network. Yesterday, on a visit to the Port of Long Beach, I saw one of the most innovative programs for the launching of these satellites. It is called Sea Launch. The idea is to launch the rocket carrying the satellite from a sea-going platform at the equator. This positioning takes advantage of the earth's rotation to maximize the launch's propulsion without having to use additional fuel. Thus, the rocket can carry a heavier payload or save on fuel and extend the orbit life of the satellite. Literally, more bang for the buck.

The innovations here however, go beyond the launch technique. The project is multi-national -- just like on the U.S.S. Enterprise. The Zenith launch vehicle is made by Energia of Russia using their rocketry technology. Norwegian ship builder Kvairner Maritime builds the launch platform, a converted oil platform, as well as the command ship. Overall project integration and management is by Boeing Commercial Space Co., a subsidiary of U.S. aerospace giant Boeing. The project's base of operation is in the Port of Long Beach in California. Sea Launch is demonstrating not only innovative launch technology and the imaginative use of the earth's rotational force, but also pioneering a prototype for multi-national, cooperative commercial development of space as well.

The once idealistic vision of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry -- of building an international team working in concert with the best of our global diversity -- seems closer to reality with this project. Thirty-four years and a Cold War had to pass into history for his science fiction to begin merging into fact. And the fascinating linkage between the fact and the fiction, it turns out, is Star Trek. Many of the personnel involved with the project are Star Trek fans. Sea Launch Vice President Richard Williams' family is three generations of Trekkers and Governmental Affairs Manager Del Roosevelt, grandson of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, told me he has been a fan since his college days. The Norwegian skipper of the command ship, Captain Hansen, was a fan growing up in Europe. He was a cruise ship captain prior to this engagement and he told me that he envied other captains who had Star Trek fan cruises book their ship. Gene Roddenberry's idealism linked us globally back during the Cold War, and, today, his vision still inspires these contemporary pioneers. The first payload launch of Sea Launch is set for late August. Let's keep reaching for the highest star.



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