The Semisub Explanation for the Launch Off the California Coast

November 11, 2010

I’ve been largely unemployed, and arguably unemployable, these last few months.  I keep getting calls, and I keep hearing from friends working on new commercial space projects, but I rarely call them back, and when I do it’s either too late or the job would require more from me than I have to give.

About three months back I did have a series of interesting conversations which came to mind yesterday when I was reading about the alleged undisclosed missile launch off the California coast.  A former colleague had recommended me for a consulting opening managing software development for a company that was working on converting abandoned oil drilling platforms into launch pads for commercial satellites and rockets.  In the course of one of the last calls, with the president of the company, I realized that some of the oil rigs they were talking about modifying were semisubs, or floating, mobile oil rigs.  I asked why they’d outfit semisubs as launch platforms, given the added complexity and insecurity of a floating as opposed to rigidly anchored platform, and he never gave me a satisfactory answer, saying only that some of his customers were very keen on having flexible launch windows and being able to control their visibility.  The latter statement I took as meaning that the companies or governments who would buy these semisub platforms wanted to be able to go unmonitored by other companies or governments.  While I could see some legitimacy to private companies or governments not wanting their rivals overly aware of their activities, it (combined with the president’s peculiarly unsettling personality) made me uneasy, and I politely declined the job citing scheduling conflicts.

I should add that I don’t know to what degree a semisub platform could escape or avoid notice, this is all conjecture on my part.  Surely any launch would be detectable by rival governments or companies, and the launch would be tracked back to its source via commercial or government reconnaissance satellites.  Once spotted any traditional slow moving launch platform would have quite a job escaping the watchful eye of a roused satellite.  The possibility occurred to me that since these semisubs have built into their very design the ability to radically alter their buoyancy, perhaps a modified platform could be made to slip most of its bulk just below the waves, or at least right to the waves, where its remaining imprint could be hidden by the wake of the ships covertly tasked with tugging the platform to its new location.  Such a system might be able to escape notice post launch.

What the practical purpose of such a commercial or foreign launch off the California coast would be I don’t know, unless we consider the possibility that some entity was making the radical statement, “We can launch our benign or malignant payloads from anywhere we choose.  You cannot  stop us, you cannot even identify us.”

I’m not saying that’s what happened, of course, perhaps it was just a trick of perspective and high altitude winds toying with a contrail.  The company I talked to didn’t sound as though they were so close to having a viable mobile platform, and I’m not sure if there are any other competitors in that space. Still, it is an interesting possibility to consider, particularly given the rogue nations we all worry about (North Korea and Iran in particular).