Please consider donating to Behind the Black, by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar to the right or below. Your support will allow me to continue covering science and culture as I have for the past twenty years, independent and free from any outside influence.
The worldwide competition to launch the most rockets each year, first noted by Doug Messier about the 2016 race that was won by a squeak by the U.S., and then augmented by my own post about the various predictions by different nations and companies about what they hope to achieve in 2017, got me to thinking. How do these numbers compare with the past? What are the launch trends? Who has been moving up and who has been moving down? And most important, what would a close look at the trends for the past two decades tell us about the future?
In order to answer these questions, I decided to compile a table of all worldwide launches since 1998.
This table reveals some very interesting trends and facts that I had not recognized previously.
First, 2016 was the worst year for the Russian rocket industry in decades. In fact, their launch total of only 18 might be the fewest Russian launches in a year since the beginnings of the space race.
Second, China has been aggressively ramping up its launch rate, and in 2016 moved clearly into the top tier of space-faring nations. Their prediction that they are aiming for 30 launches in 2017 is further evidence that this effort is not a temporary thing.
Third, the United States is clearly transitioning away from a government owned and operated rocket industry to one owned and operated by the private sector. Since the retirement of the space shuttle, the federal government has not launched a single rocket that it designed, built, and owns. Instead, every payload put in space by the U.S. has been put there by a private sector rocket.
Fourth, India continues to show very slow but steady growth. Moreover, not only have they maintained a steady effort now for more than a decade, their launch numbers improved significantly in the past two years.
Fifth, the overall trends suggest that a boom is about to happen. In the late 1990s there was a short burst of commercial launch activity, centered on the efforts of several companies (Iridium, Globalstar, Orbcomm) to put up large satellite constellations for providing worldwide phone communications. When this industry collapsed in 2000, the launch numbers plunged. Beginning in 2009, however, launch numbers begin to rise again. Had there not been launch failures for both SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Russia’s Proton in 2016 we easily could have seen another two dozen launches, bringing the total above 100 for the year, the first time that would have happened since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Based on the known outstanding launch contracts, as well as the apparent rise of new rocket companies aimed at capturing a smallsat market that appears primed to erupt, it seems likely that in the next half decade the number of launches will rise precipitously.
None of this is guaranteed. In 1999 every industry prediction said that the rise of a new communications satellite industry was going to require thousands of rocket launches. Instead, that industry collapsed, and the number of launches dropped. The same could happen now. Similarly, outside events having nothing to do with space (war, economic collapse, etc) could force the industry to shut down.
My sense of the trends now however tells me that the coming boom will be a real one, and will last for a considerably long time. The need for cheap and reliable access to space has grown considerably in the past decade. Not only do more governments want that access, so do many more private companies and individuals. Furthermore, the technology is making it possible to gain that access for less cost, which in turn is making that market available to a wider customer base.
And most important, the shift in the U.S. from a government-controlled space program to a wildly competitive and chaotic private sector launch industry is fueling this boom. There is now money to be made in space, and there is freedom to pursue those profits without waiting for NASA and the government to lay out a program.
We don’t need “a space program” any longer. There are too many free people with better and more interesting and competitive ideas, pushing to build their own individual space programs. And while it is difficult to predict the specific achievements that will come from that chaos, it is very easy to predict that its success will quickly outpace anything the government has attempted in the past half century.