Behind the Numbers: Russia Rules Launch Roost, China Ties U.S. for Second

The FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation: 2010 Year In Review report has some interesting charts and tables that show the state of the global launch market. Russia leads the world in all categories, with the United States a distance third in commercial launches and not too far behind in non-commercial ones. China tied the U.S. for the first time with 15 launches, none of them commercial. Europe launched six Ariane V commercial missions. As for the rest of the world, there were all of seven launches, three of which sent their payloads to swim with the fishes. (Sorry South Korea and India. May 2011 be a much better year.)

But, that’s just the top level analysis. There’s much, much more. Follow me down below as we go Behind the Numbers…

The commercial launch market, in pie form….

…and the revenues from those launches, in a bar graph.

A breakdown of all U.S. launches….

…which shows a newcomer, SpaceX’s Falcon 9, making a perfect debut. ULA operates the Delta and Atlas vehicles in the chart. Orbital Sciences Corporation handles launches for the Minotaur IV, which is a converted ICBM.

Meanwhile in Russia,…

…the Proton and Soyuz variants ruled the roost, accounting for 24 of the 31 launches. The lower end of the market is served by Rockot and Dnepr M, which are both modified ICBMs. Dnepr is actually a Ukrainian rocket launched in Russia. Molniya is a derivative of the venerable R-7 booster, which launched Sputnik in 1957.

And the rest, here on Gilligan’s Isle….

China has enormous capabilities, and it is building ever larger rockets with designs on human missions to the moon. Sanctions have kept it out of the international commercial launch market, but one wonders how long that will hold. India is also interested in marketing its rockets internationally, but only the small PSLV has proven to be reliable. The Japanese H-II has proven to be too expensive to compete on the commercial market.

Suborbital Launches

There was no fancy table for this category, so I created one.

Not a good year. But, looking on the bright side: They’ve got literally no place to go but up. (Da dum dum)

The Future

A number of key developments are in the pipeline that should change these numbers significantly in the years ahead (absent the Mayan prophecy of doom coming true late next year).

But, I digress. Let’s break them down by country, region and sector.

United States

The retirement of the space shuttle later this year will reduce the number of U.S. human spaceflights to zero for a minimum of four years. ULA is also phasing out the Delta II, with only a handful of rockets left in the inventory.

ULA's Atlas V

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and ULA’s Atlas V are under consideration as boosters for NASA’s CCDev program under which the space agency would procure human flights to LEO flight services on a commercial basis. Flights with crews would not start until around 2015, but test flights would be undertaken prior to them. ULA’s Delta IV is being considered for NASA’s Orion vehicle, which is also set to debut in mid-decade.

Much will depend upon what decisions NASA makes in funding the second round of CCDev program later this year. It is almost certain that the space agency will continue funding development of technologies to human-rate the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets. Multiple commercial crew providers have used the Atlas V as their baseline vehicle. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is also in the running for human-rating funds.

The Falcon 9 has a large backlog of ISS supply flights and satellite launches. Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Taurus II is set to make its first flight later this year. The rocket will be used for eight supply flights scheduled to ISS and for satellite launches.

Another key issue is the fate of the Obama’s Administration’s proposal to upgrade the launch infrastructure and capabilities at Cape Canaveral to make the spaceport more competitive and attractive to commercial providers. Funds for this effort have been deeply cut by Congress, which if focused on programs such as the heavy-lift vehicle and Orion capsule that employ lots of people in individual districts and states.


After having led the league with 31 launches last year, the Russians will increase the pace to 48 this year. This is an ambitious agenda is somewhat worrisome as Russia begins Soyuz launches from South America (see  Europe, below) and takes over sole responsibility for crew transport to the International Space Station.

One wonders if the strain of hitting such a target is beginning to affect their work. In December, three expensive navigational satellites ended up in the Pacific after pad technicians overfilled the upper stage of a Proton with too much fuel. In February, a failure of an upper stage of a Rockot booster stranded a Russian military satellite in a useless orbit.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sacked high-level officials at Roscomos and RSC Energia after the Proton failure and reprimanded space agency chief Anatoly Perminov. The second failure resulted in even more public criticism of Roscosmos, with charges that it is falling behind in spacecraft production.

The effectiveness of Roscosmos is no small matter because the agency will take over sole responsibility for launching crews to ISS once the U.S. space shuttle retires later this year. Russian officials have said this will be a major burden in the years ahead as the Americans attempt to field a shuttle replacement around 2015. Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft and booster are extraordinary safe; there has not been a fatality with them in 40 years.


Ariane V is finally getting some company at its jungle spaceport:  Arianespace will begin launching Russian Soyuz and Europe’s Vega rockets from Kourou later this year. The medium-lift Soyuz should allow the Euro-Russian partnership to capture a share of the market for communications satellites that can be launched one at a time instead of in pairs aboard the larger Ariane V. The smaller Vega is designed to serve the lower end of the satellite market.

Arianespace plans 12 launches for 2011, including at least six Ariane 5 and two Soyuz flights. That number may be reduced due to delays in the Soyuz and Vega programs.


The Tiangong-1 space station with a Shenzhou spacecraft. Credit: CNSA

After tying the U.S. with 15 launches last year, China may end up launching more rockets in 2011 than America. Whatever the number of launches turns out to be, the world’s attention will be focused on one of them: the Tiangong-1 module scheduled for liftoff later this year. Tiangong-1 is a small research module that will begin hosting human crews beginning next year. It is the first step toward the construction of a space station scheduled for 2020.

An interesting question is when China will enter the lucrative commercial launch market, where it would be very competitive. The U.S. prohibits American payloads from launching on Chinese rockets.


The Indian space agency ISRO ended the year in disarray.The Christmas Day failure of its GSLV booster was the second failure of that rocket in 2010, and the fourth mishap in eight launch attempts. One of last year’s failures involved India’s first indigenous cryogenic upper stage, which the country had been working on for 17 years. ISRO has only one cryogenic stage left from a batch it purchased from Russia.

Until ISRO can make the GSLV reliable, the country has no chance of competing in the international market for large GEO comsats, much less launching humans into space later this decade. ISRO’s PSLV (shown at left) has an excellent  record, but its small size and low payload limits its commercial appeal. PSLV made no commercial flights last year.

There was an important development earlier this year. The United States lifted sanctions on ISRO and other Indian organizations, paving the way cooperation with American firms. Boeing and Lockheed Martin were on a recent trade mission to India led by Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. Boeing, in particular, wants to work with ISRO in a broad range of areas, including human spaceflight and the cryogenic upper stage ISRO needs for the troubled GSLV rocket. We’ll see what develops out of that cooperation.


After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, this newly-independent country inherited remnants of the nation’s space program. After some lean times and setbacks, Ukraine is about to make a comeback in the launch market.

In addition to the Dnepr, Ukraine also produces the Zenit rocket, which is launched from both land and an offshore platform. Zenit production was stalled after the Sea Launch consortium went bankrupt in 2009. The company, which has emerged from bankruptcy with 95 percent Russian majority ownership, expects to begin commercial launches again later this year. This is good news for satellite producers, which want more alternatives to Russian and American boosters.

Ukraine also has a partnership to launch its Cyclone-4 rocket from Brazil. A spaceport is now being constructed in South America, and the first test flight is scheduled for 2012. The Brazilian launch site is within about 3 degrees of the equator, making it ideal for launches to GEO.

Although it does not show up in launch statistics, Ukraine is playing a major role in OSC’s Taurus II rocket. Ukrainian companies are supplying the rocket’s first stage and are also assisting the American company with the second stage.

Suborbital Launches

The biggest impact in terms of flight numbers is likely to occur in this area. Five U.S. based companies are competing to send humans and experiments above the 100 kilometer altitude that marks the boundary of space. One European company, EADS-Astrium, has plans for a suborbital space plane.

All the U.S. companies will be conducting test flights at lower altitudes first. Once these programs are licensed by the FAA, the number of commercial flights will go up dramatically. We will see tourists and scientific researchers fly into space. XCOR and Virgin Galactic also have plans to launch small satellites using their vehicles.

If the companies receive permission to fly their vehicle aboard, then we should see flights from such places as South Korea, Kiruna, Curacao, Scotland, and UAE. The ability to reach near space without investing in a massive infrastructure and developing exotic new technologies will quickly transform the definition of a spaceport. They will sprout up like weeds and, if you live near them, will probably be just as annoying. Especially if you can’t afford a ticket.