In my 2021 annual report on the global launch industry, I noted that while 2021 was a banner year for the global launch industry:
Not all is sweetness and light of course. Competition and freedom always includes risk. Some of these new companies will certainly fail. The demand for launch services might not be enough to sustain them all. And factors outside the control of anyone, such as war and further panics like the Wuhan panic, could shut them all down.
In 2022 the launch industry not only topped 2021, setting a new record for successful launches in a single year, the industry was reshaped and changed by the very factors I warned about one year ago. The Russian invasion of the Ukraine resulted in Russia losing its one remaining satellite customer from the west, OneWeb, while the challenges of rocketry caused one already successful launch company, Astra, to suspend its launch services in order to develop a more competitive rocket.
Nonetheless, 2022 remained the most successful year ever in rocketry, smashing the record for successful launches in a single year, set the previous year, by more than 33%. The graph below illustrates well the unprecedented success of 2022.
Not only has the pace of launches been steadily rising throughout the first two decades of the 21st century, based on the activity in 2022 that rise appears to be accelerating with time.
To understand why there has such growth, the following graph breaks down the launch rate by nation and American private company during the 21st century.
First, the rise of private enterprise has continued, mostly because of the relatively new players, SpaceX and Rocket Lab. Rocket Lab established itself as a reliable rocket company capable of launching at least once per month. In 2023 it will initiate launches from its U.S. launchpad at Wallops Island, giving it three pads, with two in New Zealand. Expect this company to break its 2022 launch record again in 2023.
SpaceX meanwhile smashed its previous annual launch record, almost doubling it. Its achievement of 61 successful launches in 2022, almost all of which relied on previously launched first stages and fairings, exceeded the entire annual launch totals of the entire United States since Sputnik for every year except two, as shown in the graph below.
Elon Musk has said that SpaceX is now targeting 100 launches in 2023, and based on its track record it will not be a surprise if it succeeds.
Beyond SpaceX, the launch record set in 2022 was achieved almost entirely by private companies selling their products to customers, whether those customers were commercial satellite companies or government entities. Though NASA finally launched its SLS rocket in 2022, that rocket took eighteen years to create, cost about $60 billion, and was about seven years late. And it won’t launch again for another two to three years.
The launch record in 2022 was thus the result of Americans building private rockets competitively for profit, not a government space program dictating what everyone will do. Because of the chaotic freedom that competition engenders, combined with profits and actual achievement, expect that growth to continue.
For example, five new rocket startups (Firefly, Blue Origin, Relativity, ABL, and Aevum) had planned to complete their first launch in 2022. Only one succeeded, Firefly. Yet, the U.S. still had a record-breaking year.
Of the four companies that did not fly in 2022, three almost succeeded, but had to scrub or delay for technical reasons. The odds that all four will successfully launch in 2023 is quite high. Add these companies to the mix and in the coming years the American launch industry can only continue to be remarkably vibrant and competitive.
This American success is fueling similar private commercial efforts in Europe and India. If the new companies in these nations succeed, acting to replace the moribund government launch services that have done little in the past decade, than the growth in launches worldwide shall be stunning. Not only will American companies be competing against each other, they will be competing against new companies in Germany, India, and the United Kingdom.
Won’t that be exciting?
Meanwhile, competition between private companies has been further fueled by competition between nations. China, as illustrated by the graph below, continued its aggressive and ambitious space program, setting a new launch record while completing its own space station and a variety of challenging unmanned planetary missions to the Moon and Mars.
While China very clearly uses its space program for international prestige, it is also using it to train its politicians. A large number of the most important high level officials in China’s government started out as managers on various space projects. Those individuals now hold great power, and since they began as space cadets, expect them to support future Chinese space achievements whole-heartedly.
Moreover, with the space station Tiangong-3 fully assembled and in orbit, it is likely that China’s launch rate will remain steady or climb even higher in the coming years. China’s intends to occupy it continuously, which will require many launches. It is also negotiating with both Russia and Europe to team up to expand it.
Thus, assuming its economy does not collapse, China is going to be a major player in space, even leader, for many years to come.
Russia meanwhile has recovered surprisingly well from the loss of its international launch business, as shown in this graph:
If Russia had not invaded the Ukraine, it probably would have completed almost 30 launches in 2022, bringing its numbers back in the range seen from the mid-1990s to the mid-2010s. Still, it managed to maintain the same approximate launch rate seen in the past few years, rather than seeing a major drop off. Whether it can maintain this launch rate however is unknown. The Putin government says it wants to build its own independent space station to replace ISS, but there is no indication it has the funds or wherewithal to do so.
The competition between China, Russia, and the west, however, shall continue, and it will feed both their efforts as well as everyone else’s. As with last year, the signs now all point to a very bright future for space.
And as I also noted last year, other factors, such as economic collapse or unexpected war, could squelch this bright future in an instant. As Elon Musk himself said at a presentation in Boca Chica in February 2022,
“The window of opportunity [to build human settlements on other worlds] may be open for a long time, and I hope it is, but it may also be open for a short time. And this is the first point in the four and half billion history of Earth that it is possible.”
He added, “To be frank, civilization is feeling a little fragile these days.”
Based on the bad and irresponsible governance we have seen in the past three years, civilization appears more than a little fragile, it feels downright broken. And without a prosperous, hi-tech, and educated society, something that has existed for the past five hundred years, it will become quickly impossible to conquer the stars.
Instead, we will find it difficult to feed ourselves.
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