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The state of the worldwide rocket industry at the start of 2018

In January 2017 I posted a graph that showed the total successful rocket launches, by company and nation, from the years 1998 through 2016. That graph allowed me to note some interesting trends, of which the following were the three most significant:

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.

Below the fold is a new graph. It now includes 2017, but also goes back to 1980, which I think makes a good starting point for the true beginning of the modern the rocket industry. In December 1979 Arianespace successfully completed the first launch of Ariane 1, beginning its effort to build a commercial rocket that would capture market share in the communication satellite industry. In 1980 India launched its first rocket. And in 1981 the space shuttle began flying.

Total worldwide launches since 1980

This new graph suggests that the three most important trends I noted last year are continuing. While Russia showed some recovery from its terrible year in 2016, its launch totals continued to be far below their yearly average since the mid-1990s. Russia had predicted they would complete 30 launches in 2017, and assuming they do not have more failures in 2018 I expect them to try to meet that goal this coming year. Their problem of course is avoiding launch failures, something Russia has, as yet, failed to avoid. [Update: One of my readers, mkent, pointed out that I had miscounted the Russian launch total for 2017, and after checking I discovered he was correct. Russian only managed to tie SpaceX with 18 launches, not 20. I have corrected the graph accordingly.]

The graph does reveal one interesting historical detail about Russia. During the Soviet era that nation routinely launched as many rockets per year as the entire world does today. Many of those launches however were short term lightweight spy satellites, designed to remain in orbit only a month or so before they would send a capsule back to Earth with film for developing. Such satellites haven’t been practical or economical for decades, however, superseded by high resolution digital cameras placed in higher orbits that could beam their images down to Earth and stay in orbit for years. Thus, the need to launch so often for this purpose no longer exists.

The seventeen successful launches by China put it smack dab in the center of that nation’s average number of yearly launches since 2010, but this was about half the number of launches they had predicted they would complete. Because of two launch failures in the summer, including the failure of their biggest rocket (Long March 5 on its second launch), China shut down all launches for the rest of the summer and early fall. This pause prevented them from achieving their goal of 30 launches for the year, though the large number of launches they completed in the year’s last three months (10) suggests that they will make it happen in 2018.

And the U.S. continued its transition from a government-owned and controlled rocket industry to one owned and controlled by private companies. This is highlighted by SpaceX’s 18 launches in 2017, which is historic in that it is the most launches in a single year by any private company ever in the entire history of space. Prior to the 1970s there was no private rocket industry. Every rocket built and launched was essentially designed by the U.S. government with different parts, engines, and stages contracted out to different companies. Moreover, before 1970 there were only a tiny handful of commercial launches. In the 1970s these numbers rose, and privately owned rockets began to launch these new private geosynchronous commercial satellites, but the numbers never rose so high as to match SpaceX’s total in 2017.

SpaceX has said it hopes to complete between 30 and 40 launches in 2018. Like Russia and China, I think they can do it, as long as nothing goes wrong. This is rocket science, however, so no one should be surprised if something does go wrong.

Nonetheless, SpaceX’s unprecedented success, including its demonstration that reusable rockets are possible and economical, has unquestionably reshaped the world’s entire launch industry. More important, I think this reshaping will end up powering the colonization of the solar system in the coming decades, something that governments have said they wanted to do for the past half century and have utterly failed to accomplish.

The graph reveals other interesting details. The total of U.S. launches in 2017 was also its highest, as a nation, since the short boom in satellite communications in the late 1990s. That boom went bust when it turned out that cell phones were a more economical choice. Whether today’s boom continues remains an open question, but I personally think it is more well grounded, providing a wider range of needed products that are not going away. I expect the launch rate to continue to rise because of this.

The graph also shows how the space shuttle essentially destroyed the American rocket industry in the 1980s. Before the shuttle the U.S. had two rocket companies launching commercial and government satellites (General Dynamics and McDonnell Douglas) as well as several government-operated rockets (the Titan and Scout for example) whose various components were built by a number of private companies. With the shuttle’s arrival all these alternatives died. And though General Dynamics and McDonnell Douglas managed to recover somewhat after Reagan declared the shuttle would no longer do any commercial launches after the Challenger accident in 1986 (with McDonnell Douglas doing the best), things were never the same. The corporate culture of these older big space companies did not know how to cut costs and compete, and the competition coming from Russia (which was much cheaper), Arianespace (which had captured the market lost when the shuttle began operating), and the new company Orbital Sciences (now Orbital ATK) was simply too much. By the mid-1990s there was a consolidation as these companies struggled, with a final consolidation in 2007 resulting in ULA.

Other details from the graph: India’s launch numbers declined in 2017, mostly because of a launch failure in the summer. Officials at ISRO however have said repeatedly that they not only intend to double their launches to 10 or 12 in 2018, they are pushing hard to capture a larger share of the commercial satellite industry. They plan to make their more powerful GSLV family of rockets operational in 2018, which will then give them the tools to make these promises more likely.

Japan also saw a resurgence in launches, something I did not expect, especially because, as far as I have found, their rockets continue to be very expensive and thus not very competitive on the commercial launch market. Still, there have been a variety of stories all year that suggest this nation is looking for ways to revamp its launch industry to become more competitive. Their expected first launch in 2018, the second test flight of their SS-520 smallsat rocket, designed to launch smallsats quickly and cheaply, will give us an indication whether this revamping is real or not.

Finally, the arrival of a variety of private American smallsat launch rockets, hoped for in 2017, did not happen. Rocket Lab twice attempted to complete an orbital launch, with the first failing and the second getting scrubbed into 2018. Vector did some suborbital test launches, as promised, but their first orbital launches might not occur for at least another year. Interorbital had seemed to be moving steadily toward the first launch of its smallsat Neptune rocket in April, but then everything stalled, with no word when this company will move forward.

Despite the lack of any orbital launches in 2017, I expect there will be some real action from the smallsat rocket industry in 2018. Stay tuned. This area of the rocket industry might be the most interesting of all to watch.

In addition to the arrival of smallsat rockets, expect the following significant events in 2018:

  • The first launch of Falcon Heavy
  • The first manned launches of SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner capsules
  • The first privately funded unmanned missions to the Moon
  • The first manned suborbital flights of Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule
  • China next lunar unmanned mission, plus the next launch of its large Long March 5 rocket

Overall, I think the odds are very good that the launch industry will top more than 100 launches in 2018, the first time that will have happened since the fall of the Soviet Union. Unlike then, however, the high numbers won’t be because of a lot of Soviet launches of out-of-date spy satellites, but because of the arrival of a diverse and very competitive international launch/satellite industry.

Indeed, the future for space exploration appears very bright at this moment.

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  • Outstanding summary Bob. Thanks.

  • pzatchok

    I just don’t beleive in the small launch industry.

    Small sats yes but it will almost always be more economical to launch a bunch 10+ of small sats at once than 2, 3 or 4 at a time.
    Private companies can afford to wait for the next available space on a full sized rocket launch.

    If Someone like space x finds a way to add a small sat adapter launching 2 to 6 with every flight it will capture even that market because of the frequency of its flights.

    You can see this by the amount of small sats each small launch company promises to launch with each flight. Even though companies like Virgin have not launched anything yet they are adding sats to their proposed flights. Up from 1 or 2 on a small rocket to 3 or 4 times that many on a larger rocket.

    The military will be the only place that a single or double small sat launch will be desired. And they want that from military aircraft, naval ships and army mobile launchers in order to bring battlefield compunucations back on line or for short time serveiliance. Or even to take out other enemy sats.
    A private company will make the rockets and launchers but they will never use them.

  • Localfluff

    US and Europe peaked their satellite launches in the late 1990s, I suppose that had to do with the internet bubble raging at the time and an associated communication satellite campaign? That’s just a hunch.

    Russia is at a fifth of its peak in the 1980s, a third of that during the Soviet collapse. Soviet really maxed out their space exploration at the end, maybe because Sputnik was their first truly global breakthrough as a superpower. With Buran and Energia and 100 launches in one year. Now a quarter of a century later they are down to low numbers with launchers from the 1960s.

    Like pzatchok I don’t see how small sat launcher will help space exploration much. But it is happening so we will see. If one reusable small launcher can launch one cubesat of 1 kg every hour a day everyday for two years in a row, it will launch as much mass to earth as one Falcon 9. The devil is always in the details, but I’d hate to try to compete with the oceanic oil tankers by smuggling one bottle of oil at a time in my holiday luggage. Is it North Korea and Iran that are behind this surge in development of small launchers?

    All Robert’s five points predicted seem quite probable (six really with both Dragon and Starliner launching crewed), so I bet that any three of them will actually happen this year. Including a Chines sample return from the Moon’s far side! It is not just a demonstration of space mastership (which it is also) but it is scientifically interesting to get a Lunar sample that has never been in radiative contact with the face of the once molten hot Earth very near the Moon’s near side. The heat of the Earth created the Mare of the Moon’s hither side. Well, that’s what the hypothesis is today, which the Chinese might turn over completely by actually sampling what’s out there. I’m encouraged by the Chinese science ambitions. They open up their 500 meter radio telescope and they have announced a very ambitious robotic planetary exploration program. I don’t think they are all so rigidly political as they play. Chinese scientists want to do good science, I’m sure (just like Chinese businessmen want to do good business). And they find their ways to handle their politicians.

  • mkent

    A few quick comments:

    1) It’s “McDonnell Douglas”, not “McDonald Douglas” — they make aircraft, not hamburgers.

    2) McDonnell Douglas merged with (they were not bought) Boeing on 01 August 1997, not 1994.

    3) General Dynamics’ Space Systems Division was bought by Martin Marietta in 1994, not Lockheed.

    4) Martin Marietta merged with Lockheed in 1995.

    5) For the life of me I can’t figure out which launch you’re attributing to Boeing in 1987.

    6) You’re still double-booking the Kourou Soyuz launches as both Russian and European. They should be one or the other but not both. It makes more sense to me to count them as Russian, but if you want to count them as European, fine, but not both.

    More thoughts later.

  • mkent: Oy. McDonnell Douglas has been fixed. I know this, but I was writing McDonald’s and reading it as McDonnell. This has been fixed.

    I am not double booking the Arianespace Soyuz launches. I have told you already that I count them in the European count only.

    The 1987 Boeing launch comes from the sources I used and listed on the graph. So does the merger information listed. I might have made some typos (I will check) but when I added this merger information I did so because my sources listed the ownership of the rockets had changed.

  • mkent: It is beneficial always to have informed readers who can spot my errors. I have reviewed points 2, 3, 4, and 5 above, and have corrected my graph accordingly. From what I can gather doing research on line, however, it remains fair to say that the Lockheed Martin merger occurred in 1994.

    The errors were mostly my relying on Wikipedia, which made its own errors, and also one typo on my part.

  • ken anthony

    Agree with pzatchok, anything smaller than a Falcon one should be considered a hobby rocket (yes I know they can be serious.) He simply made my point before I could. The future metric will not be launches, but payload mass which will be harder to track… Imagine tracking all the rocket club launches?

  • mkent


    Not to belabor the corporate M&A point but just to be precise:

    Lockheed bought General Dynamics’ Ft. Worth division (maker of the F-16), announcing the deal on 09 Dec 1992 and closing it on 01 Mar 1993. Martin Marietta bought General Dynamics’ Space Systems division (not the other way around), announcing the deal on 22 Dec 1993 and closing it on 02 May 1994. Lockheed and Martin Marietta then merged, announcing the deal on 30 Aug 1994 and finalizing it on 15 Mar 1995.

    See the 2nd from last paragraph at for the official date of the merger.

    Now, on to more important points.

    I don’t see how you can get 11 launches from the Europeans and 20 launches from the Russians unless you’re double-booking the Kourou Soyuz launches. This is what I have for successful Russian launches in 2017, not counting Kourou:

    01 – 22 Feb – Soyuz-U Baikonur: Progress MS-05
    02 – 20 Apr – Soyuz-FG Baikonur: Soyuz MS-04
    03 – 25 May – Soyuz-2.1B Plesetsk: Tundra
    04 – 08 Jun – Proton-M Baikonur: EchoStar-XXI
    05 – 14 Jun – Soyuz-2.1A Baikonur: Progress MS-06
    06 – 23 Jun – Soyuz-2.1v Plesetsk: Kosmos 2519
    07 – 14 Jul – Soyuz-2.1A Baikonur: Kanopus-V-IK
    08 – 28 Jul – Soyuz-FG Baikonur: Soyuz MS-05
    09 – 16 Aug – Proton-M Baikonur: Blagovest
    10 – 11 Sep – Proton-M Baikonur: Amazonas-5
    11 – 12 Sep – Soyuz-FG Baikonur: Soyuz MS-06
    12 – 22 Sep – Soyuz-2.1B Plesetsk: Glonass-52
    13 – 28 Sep – Proton-M Baikonur: AsiaSat-9
    14 – 13 Oct – Rockot Plesetsk: Sentinel-5p
    15 – 14 Oct – Soyuz-2.1A Baikonur: Progress MS-07
    16 – 02 Dec – Soyuz-2.1B Plesetsk: Lotus
    17 – 17 Dec – Soyuz-FG Baikonur: Soyuz MS-07
    18 – 26 Dec – Zenit-3SLBF Baikonur: AngoSat-1

    Add in the Meteor-M failure on 28 Nov 2017, and you’re up to 19. Add in the Kourou launches of Hispasat-AG1 and SES-15 on 28 Jan and 18 May, respectively, and you get 21. I assume to get to 20 you included the Kourou launches but not the Meteor launch, but that’s an assumption.

    Did I miss something? Was there another Russian launch not on my list?

    The reason I count the Kourou Soyuz launches as Russian and not European is that the Soyuz was designed by the Russians, built by the Russians, and launched by Russian personnel at a Russian launch site in South America. My understanding is that the ELS site is cordoned off from the Ariane launch site, staffed nearly entirely by Russians, with a Russian security detail. (If I’m wrong on those details, I could be persuaded to change my mind.)

    Even so, it’s not horribly wrong to consider them European. Both Arianespace and ESA call them European, so you’re in good company.

    It seems inconsistent, though, to call the Soyuz Kourou launches European but Sea Launch launches Russian. Sea Launch was in its heyday both incorporated and located in America, its largest shareholder (40%) was Boeing, an American company, and staffed by a mix of Americans, Russians, and Ukrainians. Its far more American than the Kourou Soyuz launches are European.

    Not to say you’re wrong, just to add some information to consider.

  • Edward

    You wrote: “I just don’t beleive in the small launch industry. Small sats yes but it will almost always be more economical to launch a bunch 10+ of small sats at once than 2, 3 or 4 at a time. Private companies can afford to wait for the next available space on a full sized rocket launch.

    You do not need to believe in the small launch industry. It is the small satellite industry that needs to believe in it.

    It may be more economical to start a constellation on large rockets, such as SpaceX has recently done for the Iridium next generation of satellites, but later replacements of single satellites will be more economical and more timely on a small launch rocket dedicated to that satellite. Waiting, perhaps a long time, for a larger (more economical) rocket that also launches close to the target orbital plane can mean lost business, lost revenue, lost profits, and maybe even customers lost to the competition.

    When I was building commercial communication satellites, we once had a problem with a vendor’s flight hardware, and it had to be sent back for redesign and rework. This was a delay of several months, but our customer had already hired people to train for installing the household TV dishes. Since it would be months longer before that company could start up its operations and revenues, those new hires had to be fired to reduce the drain on the company’s resources. Meanwhile, they still had to pay their corporate staff, building rents, and the interest on their loans for the months of the delay.

    Delays in launch can be very costly — even costly to the employees of other companies. (Although the bad situation was not our fault, my company’s management used it as an example of why our quality workmanship was important and highly valued.)

    Timeliness in getting satellites into space can be very valuable to the satellite operator. I worked on a series of four satellites in which the customer’s contract awarded us an additional $2 million for each month earlier than the contractual date that we delivered each satellite (up to three months, meaning $6 million maximum bonus per satellite). The incentive was because the customer thought it worth the extra money to get those satellites into service earlier, and the incentive taught us how to work more efficiently — a sense of urgency, as one manager later called it. We collected around half of the available bonus.

    As for small satellite adapters, they already exist and are routinely used. There are already standard cubestat ejectors that deploy various sized (1U, 3U, etc.) satellites.

    In the late 1990s, Iridium and Globalstar were launching their constellations. Also, worldwide demand for geostationary (GEO) communication satellites was high, at the time. A Soros monetary crisis as well as the bankruptcy of those two constellations put a serious damper on the (GEO) communication satellite industry. Up to those bankruptcies, every communication satellite put into orbit made lots of money. The monetary crisis badly hurt business and the economy in the affected part of the world, and several satellites were cancelled mid-construction.

    Also, the secret to the small satellite is that the science performed per pound is much more on the small satellites. Plus there is the ability to quickly update technologies on the next smallsat, in three years, rather than depend upon the old technology for the next 15 years. Finally, an equivalent amount of science or business can be performed for far less cost, over 15 years and several iterations, than can be done on a single large satellite. Think of what it would take for Iridium to do the same service using only large satellites.

    ken anthony,
    If it brings in revenue by putting satellites into orbit, is it still a hobby rocket or is it a commercial rocket?

  • mkent: I will review my numbers for Russian launches. It is certainly possible I miscounted at some point, double adding a single launch without realizing it. However, I was never counting the Soyuz launches in French Guiana in the Russian total.

    And yes, it can be argued both ways about where to assign the Soyuz and Sea Launch numbers. I could be convinced to switch the Sea Launch to Boeing, but it would require someone to provide me a full list of all their launches and when so I know where to make the changes. I don’t have the desire to do this work myself, since I also don’t think it will change the overall numbers. Even then, I am not sure I would want to make the change.

    Going forward however Sea Launch is definitely Russian. I am sure we can agree on that.

  • mkent: I have reviewed the launch totals from two different sites and I must agree with you that my Russian total is incorrect. Their correct total should be 18, not 20. I think what happened is that as the launches happened and I added the additional numbers into my spreadsheet I must have done it twice on two different occasions, by mistake.

    Thank you for demanding accuracy. I really appreciate it. I am fixing the graph and will correct the post.

  • mkent

    Despite all of my complaining, I mostly agree with your larger points. Worldwide launches are recovering from their mid-00 doldrums, and the Russian and Chinese governments are a big part of that. However, an even larger cause, one that may propel the global launch industry to new heights, is the emergence of a (largely American) private launch industry. I also agree that SpaceX was a huge part of that in 2017 and will likely be again in 2018.

    My difference there is one of degree, not of kind, in that I peg the emergence of the private launch market to the post-Challenger era beginning in 1989. 1989 saw the maiden launches of the Delta II and Titan IV, while 1990 saw the maiden launches of the Pegasus and Atlas II. While the Titan IV had a traditional military launch arrangement, the Delta II, Atlas II, and Pegasus all essentially created the private launch industry.

    My understanding of Delta and Atlas launches before the II series of each is that they were, like Titan IV, traditional government launches: the rocket may have been built by a contractor, but it was paid for and launched by the government (either NASA or the Air Force). It was very early in my career (I was actually interviewing with aerospace companies that month), but my recollection is that the inaugural Delta II launch in February 1989 was the first time that the contractor conducted the countdown and turned the key to launch the rocket. (And, yes, I recall there being an actual key back then to initiate launch at T-0). Thus, that launch was the world’s first successful launch by a truly commercial profit-seeking company (Arianespace being largely government-owned at the time).

    McDonnell Douglas followed that launch with a truly commercial launch of a Hughes-376 comsat for British Telecom in August of that year. General Dynamics then got into the act doing the same (in both regards) with the Atlas II the next year. Then Pegasus became the world’s first commercially developed launch vehicle to make orbit, also in 1990 (unlike for Pegasus, development of the Delta II and Atlas II was paid for by the Air Force, not the contractors).

    What followed in the 1990s was the failed commercial development of the Conestoga, AmRoc, and Beal launchers as well as the successful commercial development of the Athena I, Athena II, Delta III, Sea Launch, Atlas III*, and Delta IV Medium. In addition, Taurus and Atlas V were about 50/50 joint partnerships between government and industry.

    *Atlas III started life as Atlas II-AR, a derivative of the Atlas II-A with Russian engines (hence the name) whose development was funded (I believe) by Lockheed and ILS, though I may be wrong on that.

    The Delta II and Atlas II were groundbreaking in another way, too. Before them, Delta was considered the world’s most reliable launch vehicle with a success rate of 95%. Delta II then amassed a launch record of one true failure in 154 launches, the Atlas II and III no failures in 71 launches, and the EELVs no true failures in 109 launches.

    Thus I’ll claim rather emphatically that the commercial launch market emerged in 1989-1990 in the fallout of the Challenger disaster. SpaceX has since emerged as one of the leaders in that market, and they may take it to even greater heights, but the market was built on the billions of dollars of commercial development paid for by Orbital, McDonnell Douglas, Lockheed, and Boeing.**

    (**This last comment is more directed toward your earlier Capitalism in Space paper from last February than this post. It was a good paper in that its conclusions were sound, but it gave way too much credit to SpaceX. The paper made it seem like there was once government space, and then there was SpaceX — hurray SpaceX, commercial space is born!)

  • mkent

    “Going forward however Sea Launch is definitely Russian. I am sure we can agree on that.”

    Yes, absolutely agreed on that.

    And I don’t mean to be complaining. I just think your papers and some of your posts here are publication-quality work, and I go into engineering precision mode during those times.

  • mkent: The reason my graph begins in 1980 is because I wanted to show how the shuttle damaged the American rocket industry, as well as show that industry’s effort to recover. In this I agree with you.

    Overally, however, I do not think that 1980s and 1990s effort was even close to a successful effort at establishing a private rocket industry. The companies then did not try to compete or innovate. Nor did they try to lower costs. The result was that the Russians and Arianespace essentially took the business from them, and they ended up mostly dependent on government contracts, with their total customer base steadily shrinking. I watched as the American rocket industry was dying. It wasn’t until SpaceX came along that the industry finally started to show some life.

    See for example my UPI Space Watch column from May 2005: A Shrinking Timid Industry. Considering what has happened since I was almost clairvoyant with my analysis.

  • pzatchok

    From what I can gather untill Space X came alone the whole of the world wide launch industry was based petty much on what the governments were willing to pay per launch.

    No one was looking for ways to cut costs or increase launch rates.

    No one was really compeating with each other. Oh they would give out the discount here and there but it was never much. They all cried they were just barely making a profit the prices never came down. they just kept going up at a steady rate.

    But as soon as Space X landed its first first stage Every single one of them started dropping prices and promising new launch rates and better tech.

    That ticked me off to no end.
    Add in the fact that the Shuttle system disapointed me to the point of yelling.
    Plus the growing knowledge that the American rocket, space and satelite industry was shrinking itself to make more and more profits fir the few big launch companies. Right up to the point they stopped looking for or helping American companies to stay in the industry. All the way to the point they quit innovating and investing in new tech.

    So if young Americans don’t find any of the space industry except the new dog, Space X, exciting don’t blame them blame the old dogs in the fight for quitting the fight.
    Why would any young American want to even be an astronaut? Even if they qualify for the program and get the education they have to wait decades for a chance to go to space. If they are even chosen.
    And now we sit and watch as NASA sits back and dictates that every innovative self financing company slow down and wait. Like demanding more testing from Biggalo even though they have done more testing on their systems than NASA ever did on the Shuttle before letting humans inhabit that. And Space X’s propulsive landing system. They could be launching an empty capsule on the first heavy flight to test its ability to land but NASA said no for some stupid reason. So now we have some stupid car stunt.

    NASA is the core of an anchor on the whole of the space industry. In my opinion they need to sit back and just be space traffic controlers. If companies want to waste money its their dime not NASA’s. If private scientists find a way to finance their stay and want to do their own experiments in space they should be allowed with a minimun of extra training.
    NASA has no reason anymore to stop this. Even with all their training and extra caution even they sadly lost a teacher who was going up for nothing more than PR.

  • wodun

    The graph nicely illustrates that China is ramping up their space activities. With their own desires, the American military’s launch plans for next year, and a thriving US private sector, 2018 should be exciting.

    I hope none involved suffer any mishaps but it should be noted some of those launchers are better able, or soon will be, to deal with accidents and maintain launch rates.

  • Edward

    Robert Zimmerman wrote: “I do not think that 1980s and 1990s effort was even close to a successful effort at establishing a private rocket industry.

    I agree with Robert on this point. Orbital Sciences developed the Pegasus and Lockheed developed the Lockheed Launch Vehicle (later known as Lockheed Martin’s Athena) for the upcoming small satellite market. That market failed to materialize, however, leaving little incentive to improve either launch system, and the number of launches remained low. VentureStar, Delta Clipper, and Roton all failed to live long enough to prosper, or to attempt a space flight.

    This time around, a quarter century later, the small satellite market is developing and is demanding specialized rockets for small payloads. Satellite components are shrinking in size for many applications, and the lower cost of small satellites along with a lowering cost of launch helps to make access to space, and its use and exploration, affordable to even more companies, countries, and universities.

    I put emphasis on the invention of the cubesat (professors Twiggs and Puig-Suari) for creating a standard that greatly helped satellite operators and launchers work together to get nanosats into space. Cubesats helped to drive innovation in small satellite components, and universities started graduating students who had innovative ideas for small satellites.

    All this was happening as space enthusiasts realized, in the 1990s, that their dreams for space were never going to be turned into reality by the government monopoly, and they were beginning to try to compete with that government monopoly.

    pzatchok wrote: “From what I can gather untill Space X came alone the whole of the world wide launch industry was based petty much on what the governments were willing to pay per launch.

    pzatchok gathers correctly. A few companies thought that they could get in under that high price tag, but they had development problems with their rockets — sometimes technical but always financial. Investors were reluctant to invest in a new industry that intended to compete with governments.

    SpaceX would have gone the way of Armadillo and Kistler if it hadn’t been for the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program of the Bush administration. Even with that support from NASA, Kistler still was not able to find adequate investment capital to stay in business. This is why we talk about SpaceX and Orbital as the major commercial space players; Orbital took Kistler’s place in the COTS program.

    Dr. Alan Binder had serious trouble funding his private Lunar Prospector (discoverer of water ice at the lunar poles) and eventually had to give it over to NASA in order to get it completed. Government also had a monopoly on space exploration.

    These days, capital is a little easier to come by, and maybe Lunar Prospector could have been able to be completed through crowdfunding. Maybe; I might be dreaming here, but the possibility exists, these days.

    By the way, if COTS were a subsidy program, then Kistler would not have gone out of business as it did. Arianespace, on the other hand, is subsidized for (order of magnitude) 100 million euros a year.

    pzatchok wrote: “So if young Americans don’t find any of the space industry except the new dog, Space X, exciting don’t blame them blame the old dogs in the fight for quitting the fight.

    I am an old American who, like young Americans, has little excitement for the standard methods and a lot of excitement for the NewSpace methods. In fact, when I got into the industry I had expected to be doing the kinds of things that are only now beginning to happen. I thought space would be a busy place, as encouraged by an inexpensive, hard working shuttle, but instead the shuttle almost killed the American space program and caused commercial satellite operators to feed the other space programs. It’s enormous cost delayed the American space station to replace Skylab, caused the replacement space station to become an international station, and probably reduced some of the funding available for America’s unmanned space exploration. Government sure knows how to screw up a perfectly good industry.

    pzatchok wrote: “So now we have some stupid car stunt.

    I agree that there is too much regulation going on, but at least NASA is allowing a risk of damage to an historical launch site (although I would argue that it isn’t so historical without the Saturn’s gantry in place). Also, that car stunt could easily end up with the car in the Atlantic, in a swamp next to the pad, or molten on the pad itself. The Falcon Heavy test fire, later this month(?), will be truly interesting.

  • ken anthony

    Edward, good point about the value of timeliness and of course it’s commercial.

    Constellations of satellites normally have many backups. Correct me if I’m wrong, but economically wouldn’t it make sense to launch both replacements and extra backups at the same launch which would address the timeliness issue? Of course, orbits may complicate this and we shouldn’t abandon a single satellite capability.

  • ken anthony

    I was almost clairvoyant with my analysis.

    Which is what I expect from anyone worth listening to. The real question is why anybody listens to those that are almost always wrong.

    I put you in the adult column.

  • Edward

    ken anthony,
    The first Iridium constellation had a single backup satellite in each plane. This seemed adequate, despite the cost saving technique of not thoroughly testing each satellite (only the first five-ish went through shake and thermal vacuum testing). It is hard to say what will be needed for constellations of hundreds or thousands of satellites.

    But I think that the majority of small launchers will be used for individual satellites that go into relatively unique orbits. Geostationary satellites operate in a single plane, but there is no one plane for sun-synchronous orbits. Depending upon the size of debris-removal satellites, these may have to go up on small rockets because of the many, many planes and orbits that contain debris. Satellite-servicing satellites (e.g. refueling satellites) may not need to be terribly large, either, as stationkeeping does not require large amounts of propellant.

  • ken anthony: Thank you for the kind words.

  • Anthony Domanico

    Wow, great conversation from mkent, Edward, and others! Very interesting stuff. Thank you Mr. Z for putting together the chart. I will probably reference it many times for my own personal curiosity.

    I would like to cast my vote and support the notion that the entity that designs and builds the launch vehicle is the entity that deserves the credit for the launch. I would also like to acknowledge that the operations side of the equation deserves some credit but to keep things simple in the graphs full credit should go to the aforementioned entity.


    Because I enjoy our palaver, would you be willing to publicly give your prediction on the outcome of Falcon Heavy’s maiden voyage? As a young American I am excited beyond what words can convey about Falcon Heavy and all the other amazing things that are poised to happen in the near future. What are you most looking forward to coming to fruition in 2018?

    I hope everyone has a great 2018!

  • Edward

    Welcome to 2018. (I like to stand in the doorway of each new year and welcome people as though I had gotten here first. Call me crazy; I probably am.)

    You wrote: “but my recollection is that the inaugural Delta II launch in February 1989 was the first time that the contractor conducted the countdown and turned the key to launch the rocket. (And, yes, I recall there being an actual key back then to initiate launch at T-0). Thus, that launch was the world’s first successful launch by a truly commercial profit-seeking company.

    Ah. Now I understand what you mean by commercial space company. We will have to agree to differ on our definitions.

    ULA is still under the government’s thumb, as it has been directed by government to consider the Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR1 engine for the Vulcan rocket. Having government involved in a rocket’s design does not seem so commercial to me; it seems more like a government operation. Otherwise we could consider projects Mercury through Apollo as commercial, too. Except for the turning the key thing.

    I don’t care as much who turns the key. Since government owns the launch pads, I would accept them turning the key to their own pads as being part of the contract for using the pad by the commercial company. There is still much that is done by government for commercial space companies. Range safety and tracking, for instance. For me, it is the control over the rocket, from concept through design and development to operations that counts as commercial. This is how I define commercial satellites, too.

    Orbital and SpaceX designed their own rockets for their expected customers and did not have the government telling them how to design their rockets. That is an important distinction in my mind.

    If government were in charge of SpaceX’s rockets, they would have had operational Falcon 1 rockets. The Air Force expected to have the Falcon 1 available and was disappointed when SpaceX chose to discontinue that model due to lack of market, at that time. It was SpaceX’s choice, not government’s, to skip Falcon 1 and Falcon 5 and go straight to Falcon 9. That was the better choice for a commercial operator.

    Anthony Domanico,
    Welcome, young American, to the exciting world of space.

    You asked: “would you be willing to publicly give your prediction on the outcome of Falcon Heavy’s maiden voyage?

    Not really. First launches have traditionally been touch and go; the 1990s decade was particularly bad, in which nine or ten of the ten or eleven first launches failed spectacularly. Since Falcon 9 had not been designed from the beginning to be used in this way and had to be retrofit to do the job (Musk has made this very clear), I am particularly worried. Usually rockets that are to have boosters are designed with the boosters in mind, and may be designed along side the booster. I was surprised to learn that Falcon 9 was designed without attention to its use as a component for the Heavy version. Apparently, they had the booster then decided to combine it into a different rocket.

    You asked: “What are you most looking forward to coming to fruition in 2018?

    Even more than flourishing small launchers and commercial exploration of the Moon (small as that may be, this year), I look forward to commercial manned flights. I see this advancement as the gateway to serious expansion into space. Bigelow has been eagerly awaiting this development, too. Bigelow had set up its own X-Prize for a commercial manned spacecraft by 2015, but set it aside when it became clear that NASA was encouraging the same goal. Unfortunately, governments get wishy washy about these things; the funding faltered, and the 2015 goal slipped a few years. Bigelow now expects to put its first commercial habitat into orbit sometime in 2020, and Starliner is expected to be the main transporter. I think that there are many governments and companies eager to do their own experiments without NASA’s onerous requirements for ISS use (e.g. all data collected becomes public domain after only five years), and the next dozen years will be even more exciting than the last two were.

    This year may be the most exciting of all, with three major accomplishments in the same year. Four if New Shepard launches manned this year.

    I believe that in the next half decade manned flights will become common and that there will be several manned space habitats, though not as large as the ISS. ISS has shown me that a large spacecraft transferring people to Mars (e.g. Ares in the story “The Martian”) will be too expensive and that a better transporter is needed. SpaceX has come up with a more reasonable proposal, although it will be fairly crowded at full capacity.

    I envision the near future of space expansion to look similar to ULA’s CisLunar 1000 vision, although 1) it is clear that SpaceX intends to be exploring Mars for colony sites within ULA’s 30-year vision, and 2) there may not be 20 people in space by the beginning of 2021. There would be 6 on ISS, maybe 2 on China’s space station, which means that by 2021 Bigelow, Axiom, and Ixion would have to have a total of 12 people, but I don’t see Axiom or Ixion with their own orbiting stations by then. (7 minutes)

    What is your prediction for Falcon Heavy and what are you most looking forward to in 2018?

  • Anthony Domanico


    Interesting and insightful thoughts as always. Regarding my prediction of Falcon Heavy, I believe that if it clears the strong-back and flies nominally for 20 seconds there will be a Tesla in heliocentric orbit. I think timing the start-up of all those engines will be critical but not insurmountable. The power and accuracy of computer modelling has come a long way and I think that bodes well for Falcon Heavy’s first launch. Would you like to have a gentleman’s bet? I bet the primary mission will be a success. The loser has to publicly admit on this site that the winner is a space genius lol. Another reason I have some confidence is that Elon has voiced some concern about the chance of a RUD. This is in stark contrast from when he initially unveiled the plans for Falcon Heavy. He was truly ignorant of the difficulties of what he was proposing but it seems now that he respects the difficulty of the task.

    I really like ULA’s CisLunar 1000 as I am a moon-first kind of guy. I think its a bit optimistic initially with both the money being generated from space and the amount of people living in space but I will be rooting for the success of ACES. I can’t believe how long its been already since that video debuted.

    You said: “Even more than flourishing small launchers and commercial exploration of the Moon (small as that may be, this year), I look forward to commercial manned flights.”

    I agree whole heartedly. I think Rocket Lab is fun to follow and I was really excited about Firefly because of the aerospike but it’s 2018 and we should be sending many people to space and those companies aren’t currently pursuing that. I think Starliner and Crew Dragon are going to be SUPER exciting. I’m contemplating going with my daughter to watch the Crew Dragon on it’s first crewed mission for our first in-person rocket launch.

    I’m a huge fan of what Bigelow is doing. He has spent so much of his money to make this happen and I hope it pays off for him and America. I was unaware of his X-Prize but it shows just how much the lack of affordable, reliable, and timely launch is stifling our progress in space. I’m sure you have seen his presentation at the 2016 ISPCS on YouTube. I hope he is right about investors or costumer monies being able to afford the Atlas V 552 launch to put up the B-330. I wonder if he would ever consider using the Falcon Heavy for throwing his space stations. I don’t understand why he would align himself with Boeing and ULA and not SpaceX. Is it perhaps due to their success rate? Personally, I would rather board an Atlas V than a Falcon 9.

    Robert Bigelow at ISPCS 2016:

  • Edward

    Anthony Domanico,
    You asked: “Would you like to have a gentleman’s bet?

    Once again, not really. I am not that pessimistic about this launch.

    You wrote: “Another reason I have some confidence is that Elon has voiced some concern about the chance of a RUD.

    He expressed similar concerns when attempting to land on the drone ship (then called a barge), and he turned out to be right, back then. I know that I keep sounding negative, but I do not have more hope that it will succeed than concern that it won’t, and I think that things can still go wrong after the first 20 second, too. I’ll probably resume breathing again after the two boosters separate successfully.

    I really like ULA’s CisLunar 1000 as I am a moon-first kind of guy.
    … I can’t believe how long its been already since that video debuted.

    You really are a youngster. It has only been two years, next week.

    I have been a Moon-first advocate since at least the late 1970s, when I first argued the point with a friend of mine. I have come to accept, however, that there are people actively working on both concepts, and the next space race will be which group gets a permanent base or settlement set up first. There are even people talking about settlements low Earth orbit, so add that into the next space race.

    I’m contemplating going with my daughter to watch the Crew Dragon on it’s first crewed mission for our first in-person rocket launch.

    Good choice for a first in-person launch. Be prepared to spend a few extra days in the area, just in case of delays. I went to see the first Space Shuttle launch, and it was delayed two days. I was missing college classes, but I had permission from my professors. There are some amusement parks in that area (Orlando and Tampa Bay) which you may be able to visit if there is a multi-day delay or visit after the launch if it launches on schedule (admission to the parks is somewhat more expensive than the free admission to the launches).

    I wonder if he would ever consider using the Falcon Heavy for throwing his space stations.

    Fairing size is an important consideration. As Robert Bigelow said in the video: “There is only one rocket, at the moment, with one fairing type that can accommodate this 57-foot long structure; it is the Atlas 552 stretch fairing.”

    BEAM was smaller and could fit in the Falcon with a Dragon, but the B330 is much larger.

    Thank you for the link. I had not seen that video before. I like the title: “Not Giving Up Means Never Having To Say, I’m Sorry For Not Trying Harder.” Even the last answer in the Q&A demonstrated the importance of tenacity.

    Although he has partnered with Boeing, most or all of his slides showed Dragons docked with his space habitats, so that partnership does not seem to preclude other spacecraft types.

  • Edward

    Anthony Domanico wrote: “I think timing the start-up of all those engines will be critical but not insurmountable.

    How often does a rocket engine fail to ignite? I, too, am not concerned about that.

    This is one of the areas where rocket science is a real science. In my vibration class, in college the professor, (who did not believe in random vibration, but in aerospace there are so many sources of vibration that it sure seems to be random) had us do an experiment on sudden application of a force and damping the resulting vibration (it was not a lab class, so this was bonus fun without any lab fees). Cars have shock absorbers for hitting bumps or pot holes in the road, but rockets don’t have that luxury for vibrations in the engines, their mount structure, or other parts of the rocket.

    The center engine is the biggest problem, where this kind of vibration is concerned, as it is farthest from the mount points to the rest of the rocket. The mount points have to be at the thin cylindrical wall of the rocket, as that is where all the weight of the upper stages and payload are supported.

    On Falcon Heavy, those thin cylindrical walls now have to handle the force differential between all three rockets without the rockets ripping apart like they were made of aluminum as thin as a soda can. Clearly, Musk did not have his engineers design such mount points into the first Falcons or take into account the force distribution of those mismatched forces. There are also vibration considerations between the mounted rockets, which will probably vibrate differently, adding to the forces at the rocket booster mount points.

    The Saturn V’s first and second stages both had center-engine vibration problems. Apollo 13’s second stage center engine shut down early because the monitoring equipment detected excessive vibration of the mount structure at that engine. In an early test of the first stage, the engineers discovered that the center engine caused the structure to vibrate so much that the propellant lines were stretching and contracting, causing an uneven flow to the engine. That early design had both kinds of pogo problems.

    There are two kinds of pogo in rocketry. First there is the vibration of the structure. In vibration, everything becomes a spring, not just the engine mount structure but also the entire rocket, whose mass changes as propellant is expended. Natural frequency depends upon the mass and the spring constant, so as the mass changes the natural frequency of the stage and the rocket changes.

    On Falcon Heavy, the core rocket will also have the mass of the upper stage(s), payload, and fairing. The strap-on booster rockets will not.

    Second, there is pogo due to uneven flow of propellant into the engine. Not only can a stretching fuel line cause the flow to change, but the high pressure inside the combustion chamber can change the flow rate. Flow depends upon the difference of pressures in the line and the combustion chamber, so (especially at ignition) when the pressure in the chamber increases, the flow slows, causing a reduction of pressure in the chamber, causing the flow to increase, causing a decrease of flow, causing … Well, you get the picture, and the result is that the thrust constantly increases and decreases, giving a ride that feels like riding a pogo stick.

    There are other areas where rocket science is difficult, because you have an awful lot of power generated in a very small volume, with high pressure, high flow rates, high temperatures, room temperature or cryogenic liquid propellants, vibration, shock waves, limits on the properties of the materials, vaporizing the propellants, pumping the propellants to high pressure at high flow rates, and the desire to complete most or all the combustion before the propellants pass through the nozzle (how many milliseconds is that?) all in a lightweight engine.

    A while ago, I was in LA and visited the Space Shuttle Endeavor. They had a shuttle engine on display and explained that the power from that one engine was equal to the output of thirteen hydroelectric power plants. The turbines from any one of those power plants would have filled the room that contains Endeavor (and all 13 dams worth of turbines probably weigh more than a Space Shuttle, fueled external tank, and both SRBs), but the power of thirteen times those turbines passed through the combustion chamber, a size only a couple of times that of my torso.

    Now that is rocket science.

    You have my permission to be impressed.

  • Chris Fisher

    I am impress with the conversation.

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