Around the globe, the commercial space race is accelerating like a Saturn V rocket trying to escape the tug of Earth's gravity.
Private companies and government partnerships in Japan, Russia, Europe, China and the United States all have their civilian rocket programs, and analysts say that in the next decade more than 1,000 new communications satellites are scheduled to be put into orbit by for-profit ventures.
Now comes the latest entry, Sea Launch. Based at the Port of Long Beach in Southern California, it represents a radical, Jules Verne-like departure from the traditional approach used by its competitors.
Instead of launching commercial payloads from land-based sites, the international consortium of Russian, Ukrainian, Norwegian, and American interests has built an oceangoing space port that will send rockets into the heavens from the vast expanses of the South Pacific.
In a space-age first planned for early next year, the team's Zenit rocket will blast off from an enormous floating platform at the equator and carry a communications satellite into orbit.
Though the prospect has raised some environmental concerns among South Pacific nations, it has attracted widespread interest from scientists, government officials and industrialists, who argue that it holds promise for a variety of fields.
"A lot is at stake," said Amy L. Buhrig, vice president of marketing for Sea Launch. "Many people are waiting to watch our first launch."
The venture combines inexpensive but reliable Russian and Ukrainian rocket technology, Norwegian shipbuilding skills and American talent for integrating complicated aerospace systems.
Members of the consortium include Energia, the Russian rocket maker that helped launch Sputnik in 1957 and land the first national flag on the moon. Kvaerner Maritime, Europe's largest shipbuilder, is a partner, as is the Boeing Co., the Seattle-based aerospace giant.
If successful, Sea Launch will give communications and space companies greater speed and flexibility in launching satellites by eliminating the months, even years, of waiting to use government facilities. And by blasting off at the equator, Sea Launch rockets will be able to carry heavier payloads and use less fuel to get a satellite into orbit.
"For a variety of reasons, the program makes a lot of sense," said Molly Macauley, a senior fellow at Washington-based Resources for the Future, which studies economic issues related to outer space.
The Russians and Ukrainians, at odds since the breakup of the Soviet Union, are now working together on a significant project in the post-Cold War period. Boeing has gained access to a reliable rocket, which could greatly enhance its position in the commercial space field.
"Sea Launch does so many things for so many people," said John E. Pike, head of space policy for the Federation of American Scientists, a think tank based in Washington. "It seems like a good technological fix to some tricky domestic and foreign problems."
It does that without creating a new threat of its own. Sea Launch is allowed to operate only for commercial purposes.
The consortium, which has invested $500 million, is now marshaling its technology at Sea Launch headquarters at the old Long Beach Naval Base. There, "big" is the operative word.
The command ship, named Sea Launch Commander, is 660 feet long and carries 240 people. The self-propelled launch platform is 20 stories high and longer than a football field -- the world's largest semisubmersible structure. The launch vehicles are 200 feet tall.
Sea Launch's Zenit rocket is made by the Yuzhnoye design bureau and Yuzhmash production plant in the Ukraine. Both facilities used to make the dreaded SS-18 missile, capable of accurately delivering 10 or more nuclear warheads halfway around the globe.
Regularly used by the former Soviet Union to launch spy satellites, the Zenit has a reported reliability of 93 percent, a respectable success rate.
"We believe we have captured the strengths of each partner," said Bo Bejmuk, general manager for Sea Launch. "Everyone has brought their strong suit to the program."
Once the main pieces of technology arrive in Long Beach, final preparations and assembly of the satellite package will begin. The finished payload will be loaded onto the command ship, where it will be fitted to the Zenit rocket.
Sea Launch's inaugural mission is set for early next year. The client, Hughes Space and Communications International of Los Angeles, has signed up for 13 launches. What Hughes paid has not been disclosed.
The maiden flight will loft a 5-ton package that is expected to improve communications between Brazil, Mexico and the United States. Its journey will begin on the equator, 1,400 miles southeast of Hawaii in international waters near Kiribati's Christmas Island.
Before liftoff, the entire rocket assembly will be carried to the launch site by the floating platform, which uses propellers to stay in position for liftoff. If necessary, the rig can partially submerge 60 feet to stabilize itself.
By starting the route into space at or near the equator, rockets can carry significantly larger payloads -- up to 30 percent by some estimates -- than if they were launched at land-based sites in Russia or the United States.
The improved performance is possible because of Earth's eastward spin. At the north and south poles, the rotational speed is zero. As the distance from each pole increases, the rotational speed increases until, at the equator, the surface of the Earth is moving at more than 1,000 mph.
In addition, space vehicles fired from the equator travel shorter distances into orbit, so less fuel is required.
So far, all systems are go, but there are concerns. Representatives from 22 island nations are worried about the environmental impacts of repeated launches in their part of the Pacific.
The commercial space division of the Federal Aviation Administration has concluded that Sea Launch presents no significant environmental problems for the area.
Officials of the South Pacific Regional Environmental Program disagree. They say the initial impact assessment is inadequate and that more time is needed to thoroughly address potential problems, such as a disaster during launch.
The group, based in Western Samoa, contends that a potential six launches a year over 20 years could harm migratory birds and marine life by polluting the air and water with slicks of rocket fuel and tons of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.
Sea Launch officials met with representatives from the island nations in late July. Buhrig said the program's launch schedule has not been delayed because of environmental questions.
[nf] The idea of launching large, powerful rockets from platforms at sea is not new. Shortly after World War II, the U.S. Navy experimented with a German V-2 rocket that was sent aloft from the deck of an aircraft carrier. In the 1960s, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration studied the idea again.
Interest diminished, however, until after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which substantially increased Western access to Russian rockets and space vehicles.
In April 1995 the joint venture was formed in the Cayman Islands. The World Bank provided loan guarantees of $100 million each for the Russian and Ukrainian partners, giving investors some protection against military and political turmoil.
Already, Sea Launch has sold 18 launch dates over the next three years. In addition to Hughes, Loral Space and Communications has signed up for five missions.
"We are looking at demands that exceed capabilities," said Bejmuk, the general manager of Sea Launch. "It is a very good business to be in right now."