Monday, 21 March 2016

The Summer Victoria Had a Launch Pad

The Ocean Odyssey at the Esquimalt Graving Dock, June 2007. Ken Walker photo via Wikimedia.

One of the notable characteristics of Canada’s space program is that it doesn’t have launch capability. Canada has developed the Black Brant sounding rocket, but Canada has no rocket capable of putting anything into orbit, nor has any satellite ever been orbited from Canadian soil.

Despite periodic calls from people inside Canada’s space industry for a Canadian orbital launch capability, including a proposal I wrote about in April 2014 in this space, it remains a distant prospect. 

But I was recently reminded of a time when a launch pad was temporarily located just a few kilometres from my home in Victoria BC on Vancouver Island. This was one of the more unusual chapters in Victoria’s marine and space history.

The story begins in 1995 when a consortium of companies from four countries - Russia, Ukraine, Norway and the United States - created Sea Launch, a partnership with the goal of launching Ukrainian-Russian Zenit rockets from a converted oil platform located on the Equator in the Pacific Ocean. The rockets were designed to launch communications satellites into geostationary orbits, and an equatorial location is the most efficient place to launch these satellites. 

Sea Launch used a specially-built ship, the Sea Launch Commander, based in Long Beach, California, where each rocket was assembled and mated with its payload. Then the rocket was transferred to the self-propelled platform Ocean Odyssey, from which it was launched. Starting in 1999, Sea Launch launched 29 rockets this way, with 26 successes, two failures, and one partial success. 

A major failure took place on January 30, 2007, when the Zenit rocket exploded on the pad just after ignition. Repairs were needed to the launch platform, and so the Ocean Odyssey was brought to the Esquimalt Graving Dock at Victoria Shipyards in June and July 2007 for this work. The repair job, which according to a Victoria Times Colonist article involved fixing hangar doors on the platform and many of the wires and light fixtures that were damaged in the explosion. About 30 tonnes of paint would be used, and the cost of the job was estimated at about $30 million.

After the Ocean Odyssey was repaired, it departed the Victoria area without any fanfare and then returned to service with the launch of a satellite in January 2008. Sea Launch continued to launch rockets and satellites until 2014, when the political problems resulting from the Russian seizure of Ukrainian territory that year caused Sea Launch to halt operations.

The graving dock is located at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt, the home of the Pacific Fleet of the Royal Canadian Navy. The history of the base goes back to 1848, when ships from the Royal Navy first came to Esquimalt, which is a suburb of Victoria. The first graving dock was built on the base in 1887, and moved to Canadian control in 1905. Another  larger graving dock was built  nearby in the 1920s and is now used by Victoria Shipyards under an arrangement with Public Works and Government Services Canada. 

The Esquimalt Graving Dock has been used by Victoria Shipyards to build and repair many navy ships, ferries, ocean liners and other craft, but only once has it been used to repair a launching pad.

Thanks to archivist Sherri Robinson of the Township of Esquimalt for her help with this article.

Ocean Odyssey on station with a Zenit Rocket. Sea Launch image

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