With the year of 2020 coming to an end, it is time to look back to see how the world’s rocket industry fared in what was a truly difficult year for most. And with the 21st century now one fifth over, it is also time to take a wider view, to see what the trends have been for space exploration during this new century, and to see where those trends might lead.
Below is my annual updated table showing all successful orbital launches by every nation and company, beginning in 2000. While the table in my 2019 report last year had gone back to 1990, I decided to shorten the graph to just the 21st Century, in order to better focus on that century in particular.
First however we must focus in on 2020. Overall, the rocket industry actually did quite well this year, though not as well as it had hoped when the year dawned. The first thing to note is the number of actual launches, 104, in 2020. This number marks an increase from ’19 and is the second highest total this century. It is also only the second time the total successful launches exceeded one hundred since 1990, when the Soviet Union still existed and was still launching a large number of short term spy satellites.
At the same time, 104 launches is far less than the industry predicted. When I did my worldwide report last year, the industry predicted it would complete 156 launches in ’20, and the failure to meet that number can I think be blamed partly on the panic over the coronavirus. For example, India ceased all launches for almost the entire year, and thus completed just two launches instead of the dozen it had planned. Similarly, Europe’s Arianespace shut down for months, and was therefore only able to six of its planned fourteen launches.
At the same time, not everyone panicked. China for example had predicted 40 launches in ’20, and completed 35, a difference that is quite reasonable in any single year. Similarly, Northrop Grumman, Rocket Lab, and Japan also matched their predictions closely. Even Russia maintained a steady launch pace, though it as usual came far short of its predicted launches for ’20. (Russia routinely over-predicts, so falling short here is normal.)
SpaceX topped them all. It not only never paused its launch pace, in the end exceeded its prediction of 21 by four, completing a record 25 successful orbital launches, including its first two manned Dragon flights and a host of Starlink launches that has put its internet constellation on the verge of commercial operations. That launch record is also the most completed by a private company in a single year ever, and amazingly exceeds the number of launches by the entire United States in almost every year in the 21st century.
These numbers strongly suggest that the shutdowns imposed by India and Europe because of COVID-19 were likely unnecessary and an over-reaction. They could have continued to launch, had they not panicked.
SpaceX’s success in ’20 marks a rise in a new American launch industry. The graph below shows the country’s entire launch history since 1957, and provides some historical context on the transition in the past decade from a government-run launch industry to one run by private commercial interests.
It is very clear that as this transition has proceeded we have seen a steady growth overall. In the century’s first decade the American launch industry, then consisting of only few old big-space companies (Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital Sciences, and ULA), was struggling. These companies then made no effort to reduce their launch costs, and thus were unable to attract customers outside of the U.S. government.
Then SpaceX and Rocket Lab came along, and proved there was a better and cheaper way to do things. Not only did these new companies steal market share from the older companies, they actually infused new energy into the satellite industry. Suddenly it was cheaper to put a payload into orbit, which means more payloads could be launched. In the end, everyone has prospered.
The result in ’20 was the most American launches in a single year since 1968.
This new prosperity is also reflected in the table above by the six new companies hoping to complete their first orbital launches in ’21. Of these, five are smallsat launchers, aimed at grabbing market share from the burgeoning new market of nanosats and cubesats and the constellations that go with them.
At the same time, a look at what happened in ’20 shows us that it is unlikely that all six will succeed. At the start of ’20 four new companies — Virgin Orbit, Firefly, Astra, and Vector — all hoped to complete their first launches that year. None did so, with one, Vector, going out of business.
Two however, Virgin Orbit and Astra, did complete test launches, laying the groundwork for their first orbital launch in ’21. Of the six new companies listed, I rank them as the most likely to succeed in ’21.
I also remain very skeptical of Blue Origin. They list six launches on their manifest for ’21, but their track record of meeting their promises in the past five years has been abysmal. If they can manage one successful New Glenn orbital launch in ’21 it will be an achievement.
Next we look at how the U.S.’s shift from a Soviet-style model back to the American capitalist model has affected other countries, with Russia impacted the most.
The graph above shows the entire launch history of Russia since its launch of Sputnik in 1957. After the fall of the Soviet Union its launch rate plummeted, but most of that decline was actually a shift to more efficient operations. During the Soviet era the Russians would launch a lot of short term spy satellites, designed to do surveillance for only a month or so and then return a film capsule. This system however is very expensive, and not very efficient. The U.S. had abandoned it around 1966 (which explains the drop in U.S. launches at that time) to go instead to launching only a handful of large permanent high resolution surveillance satellites that beamed their data back to Earth.
When the U.S.S.R. fell, it no longer could afford this quick launch spy satellite system. Its launch rate plummeted, but at the same time the country took advantage of its relatively low launch costs to garner a lot of commercial launch business, so that from about 1996 to 2015 it had a stable customer base and was making a lot of money.
The arrival of SpaceX shattered that customer base. This loss of business was further accelerated by serious quality control problems in Russia’s entire rocket industry, resulting in many launch failures in the 21st century.
In the past two years Russia has shown some signs of recovery. I expect that recovery to continue in ’21.
Europe’s Arianespace has suffered commercially as well due to SpaceX’s arrival, but not as badly. Their very slow adoption of reusability in their rockets however suggests they will do even more poorly in the coming years.
We next look at the new big player on the block, China.
The graph shows China’s launch history since the beginning of the space age. In the 20th century China was a minor player in space. In the 21st century however China’s government has made space a big priority, devoting large resources to its government-run space program. They have launched their first manned missions, their first space stations, and their first planetery missions. Along the way they have also encouraged Chinese privately funded pseudo-companies to join in, developing their own commercial rockets, often based on military technology.
The result is that China now dominates the world’s space industry, with its only viable competitor the United States.
I expect this growth in China to continue. It appears to be the long term policy of its government. More important, that government is unlikely to change direction, as it is dominated by managers who cut their teeth in that space program. In the past two decades China has treated its space program as the training ground for its government leaders, so that today many of its provincial governors and important rulers came from within that space program.
This new generation of leaders is likely to have an ingrained loyalty to space exploration, and will likely to want to keep it going.
So what shall we expect in 2021? All signs continue to point to a continuing growth. We not only have a lot of new companies competing for business, we have many nations competing as well, both for profits and prestige. Unlike the decades of moribund cooperation during the last third of the 20th century — which saw little new achievement or innovation — today we have a new competitive space race, with many players aggressively trying to garner market share, profits, and major space achievements.
The graph below, showing all launches worldwide by everyone since 1957, illustrates this growth.
The rocket industry has seen steady and sustained growth throughout the 21st century. And unlike the 1960s, where the competition was focused on a single goal (landing humans on the Moon) and could die off once that goal was achieved, today’s competition is open-ended, and is based mostly on profits, not national prestige.
Under these conditions, the sky is both literally and figuratively the limit.
There is one major dark cloud on the horizon, and that has less to do with the space industry and more to do with the robustness of Western civilization itself. Space exploration is hard. It is technologically challenging and can only be achieved because it is coming from a civilization rich in wisdom, smart policy, and wealth (both financial and technological).
Right now our Western civilization is showing major signs of collapse and failure. Many younger people as well as a large majority of our intellectual class appear to have rejected wholesale its principles of rule by law, personal responsibility, and above all, the search for truth. In fact, our intellectual class appears to no longer consider the search for truth important at all. Instead many appear to prefer the obtaining of power — sometimes for idealistic goals and sometimes merely for their own ends — even if it means lying and cheating and destroying those who disagree with them.
The search for truth however is at the heart of space exploration. Getting payloads into space is, as the saying goes, rocket science. If you aren’t 100% focused on honestly doing things right, you can’t succeed. Rockets will crash, Satellites will fail. People will die.
Furthermore, if the obtaining of power becomes the goal, than those in power will use it, and that wielding of power could easily impact negatively the rocket companies now trying to figure out better and cheaper ways to get into space.
We have already seen this in Texas, where both federal and state regulators have expressed opposition to SpaceX’s work at its Boca Chica facility where it is building its new giant rocket, Starship.
It is also quite reasonable to expect more of the same from a Biden administration. Democrats have traditionally favored regulation and control by government over freedom and private enterprise.
When it came to space, however, the Democratic Obama administration was an exception. During Obama’s eight years of rule his administration pushed for private enterprise in space rather than big government-run programs. It was for that reason that the transition to capitalism in space occurred this century, and was accelerated by the Trump administration.
We can hope the Biden administration will maintain that momentum. The groundwork laid in the past two decades will certainly make it hard for the power-hungry in government to regain control over the new commercial space industry.
At the same time, the cultural collapse that is occurring all around us does not bode well for space exploration. A society where a woman is suddenly considered a man, simply because she says so, and can require everyone to agree with that fantasy by the use of threats and violence, is not a society where the hard technology required for space exploration is possible. Too often fear of retribution for questioning the decisions of those in authority will prevent a rethinking, and thus rockets will crash and people will die.
Thus, we sit on a knife edge. Right now space exploration is seeing a new resurgence, based on freedom and competition and private enterprise. Whether this will be sustained however remains unknown. Recent trends in commercial space say yes. Longer and more fundamental changes in our culture say no.
My deep hope is that this resurgence in space, due to freedom and competition and private enterprise, will end up acting as the spark to halt the decline in the overall general culture. Capitalism in space will demonstrate the value of these ideals to a jaded public, and help that jaded public shift back to following those ideals.
This might seem a foolish hope, but then, I have always been, and will continue trying to be, a wide-eyed optimist.
From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.
Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him. The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today. He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future. Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit. And if you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.