Worldwide Launches Hit 20-Year High in 2014

Orion Exploration Flight Test launch. (Credit: NASA)
Orion Exploration Flight Test launch. (Credit: NASA)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

It was a banner year for launches worldwide in 2014, with the total reaching a 20-year high as Russia and India debuted new launch vehicles, NASA tested its Orion crew spacecraft, China sent a capsule around the moon, and Japan launched a spacecraft to land on an asteroid.

There were a total of 92 orbital launches, the highest number since the 93 launches conducted in 1994. In addition, Russia and India conducted successful suborbital tests of new boosters.

Nation(s)SuccessesFailuresPartial FailuresSuccessesFailuresTotal
United States22100023

Russia once again led the field with 38 launches which it conducted on its own or in partnership with Ukraine. Thirty-three launches were conducted from spaceports in Russia and Kazakhstan, with an additional four Soyuz launches from Europe’s Kourou launch site in South America. Sea Launch also launched a Zenit booster from an equatorial ocean platform.

The Sea Launch flight and two Dnepr launches involved joint ventures between Russian and Ukrainian companies. The programs continued despite fighting between the two nations in eastern Ukraine.

Russia hit two major milestones with its Angara family of boosters, which has been under development since 1995. In July, the Angara 1.2PP booster completed a suborbital flight from Plesetsk. This was followed by a successful orbital test of the larger Angara 5 launch vehicle in December.

Inaugural Angara A5 launch (Credit: Khrunichev)
Inaugural Angara A5 launch (Credit: Khrunichev)

The Russians continued to have quality control problems with their launch vehicles. In May, a Proton rocket failed to orbit the Express AM4R satellite, resulting in a four-month stand down for the booster. In November, another Proton launch placed the Express AM6 satellite in a lower than planned orbit. The satellite reached its proper orbit using on-board fuel.

A Russian Soyuz placed two European Galileo in the wrong orbits in August. The satellites were unable to reach their intended orbits, but engineers managed to make use of them.

The United States conducted 23 launches for the year, including 14 by United Launch Alliance, six Falcon 9 flights by SpaceX, and three Antares missions by Orbital Sciences Corporation.

ULA’s successes included nine Atlas V launches, four Delta IV flights, and a single Delta II mission. The highlight of ULA’s manifest came in December when a Delta IV Heavy launched NASA’s first Orion crew capsule on a successful test flight.

Landing legs deployed just before soft water landing in the Atlantic Ocean. (Credit: SpaceX)
Landing legs deployed just before soft water landing in the Atlantic Ocean. (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX’s six flights doubled its launch total from 2013. The company flew two Dragon resupply flights to the International Space Station. It also continued to make progress toward landing its first-stage booster for re-flight. A test using an off-shore barge is planned for Jan. 6.

The only setback in an otherwise successful launch year was the October failure of Orbital’s Antares rocket, which exploded in spectacular fashion shortly after lifting off the launch pad. The rocket was carrying a Cygnus supply ship to the International Space Station.

Orbital has sped up a plan to replace Antares first-stage engines, which are refurbished 40-year old refurbished leftovers from the Soviet lunar program, with modern Russian motors. It also has reserved a flight on ULA’s Atlas V booster to carry a Cygnus to the station late this year.

China launched 16 times, including 15 Long March boosters and one flight of the Kuaizhou rapid launch booster. The highlight of China’s launch year came in October when it sent a precursor of Chang’e-5’s lunar sample return capsule around the moon.

Europe had seven launches from Kourou, including six Ariane 5 flights and one Vega mission. In July, ESA launched the final ATV-5 cargo ship to the ISS. The technology is being adapted for use as the service module on NASA’s Orion spacecraft.

GSLV Mark III inaugural flight test. (Credit: ISRO)
GSLV Mark III inaugural flight test. (Credit: ISRO)

India launch year was highly successful, with four orbital flights and one suborbital launch. In December, it conducted a suborbital test of its largest rocket to date, the GSLV Mark III. The flight carried a model of a human space capsule.

Japan launches four times, the highlight being the successful Dec. 3 flight of Hayabusa2, an ambitious mission to land on an asteroid and return soil samples to Earth.

Israel conducted a single launch of its Shvit booster, orbiting the Ofek 10 reconnaissance satellite.

  • savuporo

    So which year was all time high, ever ? 1983 ?
    edit: amazingly enough, appears to be 1967

  • windbourne

    Doug, nice write-up. And it really is amazing.
    However, I think that VG belongs on that list.
    They did in fact launch SS2 and it was suborbital.

    I do have to wonder what the launch number will look like over the next 3 years.
    By then, I believe that BA will have a full station up there and bringing customers up.
    Hopefully, ISS will be used for engineering on the asteroid trip.
    But, I hope that BA, along with several ‘customers’, will be engineering for the moon.

    With the above, we should see US launches double.

  • therealdmt


    Come to think of it, those two times correspond with the periods of the largest NASA budgets (by percentage of the federal budget — iirc, I gotta fact check that [might have been inflation adjusted dollars]) and also times of great military tension in the Cold War. Kennedy/Johnson and then the Reagan years.

    In contrast, the current NASA budget percentage is low and military spending is being somewhat restrained in the US, but now there are more players (esp. China) and commercial activity is on the rise.

    Hopefully commercial activity can finally lead us past 1967, both unmanned and manned, in the not too distant future.

  • Hug Doug

    the high coming in the peak of the space race! not terribly surprising 🙂

  • Sam Moore

    Very low satellite lifetime at the time is also a factor, so that doesn’t represent as much of a difference in activity as it may appear.

  • Sam Moore

    The list doesn’t include suborbital launches, and even if it did, SS2 didn’t take part in any.

  • Jeff Smith

    Correct. Think of the fact that all spy satellites were still film and only returned a single film canister (Corona, Argon and Gambit and Soviet equivalents). Vandenberg was a hotbed of activity, Thor-Agenas had to launch every 6 weeks or so to replace the used up film satellite with a fresh one. We had “operationally responsive space” back then, because the film satellites demanded it. When we switched to multi canister satellites with Hexagon, the launch rate went down and the mass went up.

    As you point out, the “activity” was about the same, we just needed more launches at the time to do it. The only thing that would bring that back would be the proliferation of short lived CubeSats.

  • Vladislaw

    Any link for a breakdown of Military-civil-commercial? Also compared to 1994 how many were for commercial projects versus government etc ..
    Would like to see what direction the launches are moving.

  • savuporo

    responsive payloads want to be small, generally. Nobody has money and infrastructure to build and launch huge sats every day – even if these were mostly propellant. One ton of hydrazine is still a ton of nasty chemicals.
    The launch providers are trying to push into the higher payload range, see F1->F9 rapid transition, and then to v1.1.

    Complexity and cost of building huge payloads scales regardless of how you build it – even down to as simple things as being able to carry your payload vs having to loading it on a train.

    So, to actually get to high launch rates, it does need to happen in cubesat->nanosat spectrum, it will not happen with multi tonne comsats, ever.

  • Jeff Smith

    My friends and I have been having serious discussions about where the cubesat effort will go. If large telecom satellites are bulk freight, does that make a cubesat express mail? Large satellites are planned years in advance, just like any large capital project. If the shipment of such equipment is done by slow moving freight carriers, what does that mean for cubesats? Will cubesats be launched in small groups alone? Individually? If a rocket is a self-propelled envelope (or large crate), does it make sense to size the rockets for the small of cubesats? I’m interested to see the answer, and while we can speculate, I’m not sure we’ll have the real one for several years to come.

  • windbourne

    cubesats are useful for education, but I would like to think that they are going to be far more interesting around the moon and mars.

  • Matt

    Less as 100 launches/anno for the whole world. It is a very small transportation
    branch. When will our successors see thousands of space launches per year? Will
    be ever there a launch market of these size?

  • DavidR2014

    It should be in around 10 – 15 years time. The sooner the better.
    In order to do a lot in space, we need cheap launch costs. To be able to maintain revenues, as launch prices fall, launch volumes will need to surge otherwise business will get very difficult for launch providers.

  • therealdmt

    It sorta underlines how far we haven’t come though.

    (I say “sorta” as, as pointed out by Jeff Smith and Sam Moore, it also shows we have come far in terms of longevity of spacecraft and Earth-Space data transfer [vs., say, re-entering film canisters back in the 60‘s]).

    But back in ‘67 the U.S. was one year from astronauts orbiting the moon, 2 from walking on the moon. Fast forward approximately half a century and where are we…?

    The term “the space age” was once synonymous with a modern society advancing into the future. Now, it’s an anachronism.

    Anyway, enough of that. A rocket might land on its tail in the middle of the ocean just a few days from now(!) and more affordable, widespread spaceflight through semi-private and private develeopment and private operation seem very much within reach, starting within this decade. Exciting times.

  • Matt

    We have to discuss the points that presented in first paragraph (which will not be changed completely by SpaceX as I predict) :

    You wrote: “The term “the space age” was once synonymous with a modern society advancing into the future. Now, it’s an anachronism.”

    Yes, it seems so. Why did “we” not proceed further in respect to manned space flight?

    My theory:

    1. Manned space flight does not fulfill an urgent need, which could justify its extreme expenses but prestige.

    2. People were bored by arrogant astronauts, which have been flown only in circles around earth and produced no important output.

    2. Underlying technology (esp. propulsion systems, reentry systems) achieved very fast a mature status.

  • windbourne

    it is based on prices and needs.
    If SpaceX is successful and can get 10 launches / first stage, it will mean that they have the ability to launch nearly every day. And will certainly launch at least 1x / week.
    And if they can cut the price in half from 50 million to 25 million for F9 (doubtful), then it will mean a lot more will happen.

    Basically, every drop in price means that more nations and companies will jump on this. And if BA is going in 2 years with a LEO station and shooting for the moon, I think that BA will be very busy.

  • windbourne

    You missed the important one: COSTS.

    It is only SpaceX that is focusing on REAL costs.
    ULA counted on owning DOD launches, along with 1B subsidy.
    Europe was doing 1-offs and counting on grabbing more commercial space as well as large gov. subsidies.
    Russia was simply repeating the same stuff from 40 years ago, and simply bringing their margins down, along with large gov. subsidies.
    China counted on massive gov. subsidies, massive dumping on foreign markets, along with money manipulation.
    India counted on money manipulation.

    SpaceX is the first group to really focus on ECONOMICS and the manufacturing of launch systems. Yes, they have had some gov. subsidy. They have had a TOTAL that is less than what ULA and Arianespace receive in any 1 year and certainly less than what any of the others receive.

    And arrogance of the astronauts. Really?

  • therealdmt

    Matt, I think you and Windbourne cover it well with the combination of high cost and lack of any urgent need

  • Matt

    Wow, I call this optimism!

  • Matt

    The question is about the elasticity of satellite market. Will potential price reduction honored in a very large increased number of new satellites? Or is no need for this also if prices are cut to half or third?

  • Matt

    Thanks for good review and compliation.

  • windbourne

    If there is no need for more SATs, than why is musk looking to start a company for doing SATs?

  • savuporo

    Fortunately there is no “the cubesat effort” – it is a myriad of different organizations across the world all just using a single simple form factor as a common ground. And then that single form factor spills over to component technologies like OBCs, telemetry systems and so on, building new nimble niche economies – which is exactly what the stagnant and slow space industry needs.
    I hope there will be more and more demand, although the cubesat launch rates have sort of hit a plateau in the last year or two, but its hard to tell if this is driven by supply or demand.

    If the demand will create a high enough pressure, one of the small upstarts will get well enough funded to field a dedicated responsive micro launcher – Planet Labs, FireFly or Lin, maybe others.

  • Matt

    That knows only Musk himself. 🙂 I assume because he had a vision.

  • windbourne

    well, so far, he has been right on.