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.