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A Rocket-Powered Career

Stephen Thelin

Stephen Thelin

By Todd Michaelis, ’90

On a converted oil rig in the Pacific Ocean stands a 200-foot-high modified Russian rocket with an 11,000 pound, multimillion-dollar satellite ready for launch. Making sure all systems are “go” is Sea Launch mission director Stephen M. Thelin, ’81, of Huntington Beach, Calif. “When I was the age of a Cub Scout, my father and I worked on science projects together. One in particular was about space. I saw pictures of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. I was enthralled,” Thelin says.

He joined the Air Force to become a fighter pilot and ultimately an astronaut, but air sickness diverted his career path into rocket launches. Eventually, he became the lead integrator for the Titan launch program at Cape Canaveral and later the mission director for Sea Launch, a company created by American, Russian, Ukrainian, and Norwegian corporate partners.

The company’s launch facilities include the self-propelled converted oil rig that serves as a launch pad and a mission control ship that directs the launch from three miles away. Using a mobile floating platform enables the company to propel commercial satellites into space from the equator, thus taking full advantage of the Earth’s rotational force and the most direct route into orbit. The floating launch pad also reduces launch infrastructure.

With such a multinational group come interesting challenges, Thelin says. “We went over to Moscow to negotiate the countdown procedure. After four hours of discussions, the Russians were perplexed. In the countdown procedure the word Roger was used to confirm tasks and procedures. A Russian raised his hand and asked, ‘Who’s Roger?'”

—Todd Michaelis, ’90