First Quarter 2018 Launch Report: China & USA Battle for Lead

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy begins its first flight. (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The world’s launch providers have been extremely busy in the first quarter of 2018, with 31 orbital launches thus far. This is more than one third of the 90 launches conducted last year.

China leads the pack with 10 successful launches. The United States is close behind with a total of nine launches with one failure. The tenth American launch is scheduled for Monday afternoon from Florida.

ORBITAL LAUNCHES
NATIONSUCCESSES
FAILURES
PARTIAL FAILURES
TOTAL
China100010
United States 8109
Russia 5005
Japan 3 003
India 2 0 0 2
New Zealand 1 0 01
Europe 00 11
TOTALS: 29 1 131

Russia — the traditional leader in launches — is in third place with five flights, followed by Japan with three, India with two, and Europe and New Zealand with one apiece. (A Soyuz launch from Kourou is included under Russian launches).

The one failure this year occurred in January when a SpaceX Falcon 9 launched a secret military payload code named Zuma. Although there is some uncertainty about the fate of the satellite, the bulk of the information that has become public indicates the payload failed to separate from the second stage and burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

SpaceX says that Falcon 9 performed as planned. That would leave responsibility on Northrop Grumman, which supplied the satellite and the payload adapter that connected it to the booster. Northrop Grumman has not commented for the record on the classified mission.

The other launch mishap involved an Ariane 5 rocket that placed two satellites in the wrong orbits in January. The partial failure was blamed on a programming error that sent the booster off course. The satellites were able to reach their intended orbits using onboard propulsion.

Launches by Booster

Soyuz rocket takes off from French Guiana on March 9, 2018. (Credit: Arianespace)

China’s Long March 2 family and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets each flew five times during the first three months of 2018. Russia launched different variants of its venerable Soyuz booster four times, with China’s Long March 3B flying three times and United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V launching twice.

LAUNCHES BY BOOSTER
LAUNCH VEHICLE
NATION
SUCCESSES
FAILURESPARTIAL FAILURES
TOTALS
Long March 2 (C,D)China5005
Falcon 9USA4105
SoyuzRussia4004
Long March 3BChina3003
Atlas VUSA2002
Long March 11China1001
Long March 4CChina1001
GSLV Mk. IIIndia1001
PSLVIndia1001
EpsilonJapan1001
H-IIAJapan1001
SS-520Japan1001
ElectronNew Zealand1001
Soyuz-2-1vRussia1001
Delta IVUSA1001
Falcon HeavyUSA1001
Ariane 5Europe0011
TOTALS:291131

The highlight of the first quarter was SpaceX’s maiden launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket in February. The rocket, which is composed of three Falcon 9 first stages with 27 engines, launched a Tesla Roadster with a mannequin dressed in a spacesuit into deep space.

SpaceX also reached a milestone with its 50th Falcon 9 launch on March 6 by orbiting the Hispasat 30W-6 communications satellite.

Rocket Lab successfully flew its Electron booster for the first time in January from New Zealand. The inaugural launch of the small-satellite rocket failed in June 2017.

Japan successfully launched the SS-520 rocket with a CubeSat aboard in February.  The maiden launch of the microsat launcher had failed the previous year.

SpaceX is attempting to launch Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters around 30 times this year. The total would be significant increase over the 18 launches the company conducted in 2017. Additional launches planned by ULA, Orbital ATK and other companies could boost the American total above 40.

China is also looking to launch more than 40 times this year. The Chinese government has 36 launches on the manifest, with a number of private companies planning launches as well.

Launches by Primary Payloads

The GOES-S satellite being lowered into a thermal vacuum chamber. (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

The 31 launches carried a total of 54 primary payloads and dozens of smaller secondary ones into space. Eleven launches had military spacecraft aboard, with eight flights carrying Earth observation payloads and six others with civilian communications satellites. China launched six Beidou navigation satellites aboard three rockets.  

LAUNCHES BY PRIMARY PAYLOADS
NATION
CHINA
EUROPE
INDIA
JAPAN
NEW ZEALAND
RUSSIA
USA
Communications 11 1 3
Defense3 11114
Earth Observation 31 11 1 1
ISS Crew & Resupply2
 Meteorological 1
 Navigation3
 Promotional1
Science1

Other significant payloads launched this year included:

  • Russian ISS Progress resupply and Soyuz crew flights;
  • American GOES-S weather satellite;
  • two prototypes for SpaceX’s Starlink global broadband satellite network;
  • Tesla Roadster, which became the first terrestrial car in outer space; and,
  • Chinese Seismo-Electromagnetic Satellite (CSES), which is studying the studying the correlation between atmospheric events and seismic activities.

Launches by Spaceport

SpaceX assembly hangar at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. (Credit: SpaceX)

America’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station was the busiest spaceport during the first quarter with five launches. Florida hosted six launches when you add in the Falcon Heavy flight from the adjoining Kennedy Space Center. The other three U.S. launches flew from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

ORBITAL LAUNCHES BY LOCATION
LAUNCH SITENATION
SUCCESSES
FAILURESPARTIAL FAILURES
TOTALS
Cape Canaveral Air Force StationUSA
410 5
JiuquanChina4 0 0 4
XichangChina4 0 0 4
VandenbergUSA3 003
BaikonurKazakhstan
(Russia Leased)
2 002
Satish DhawanIndia2 0 02
TaiyuanChina2 0 02
UchinouraJapan2 0 02
 Kourou*Europe1 0 12
Kennedy Space CenterUSA1 0 0 1
TanegashimaJapan1 0 0 1
PlesetskRussia1 0 0 1
Mahia PeninsulaNew Zealand1001
VostochnyRussia1001
TOTALS:29 1131
* Includes one Russian Soyuz launch from Kourou.

China conducted four launches apiece from its Jiuquan and Xichang launch centers. The nation’s two other launches lifted off from the Taiyuan spaceport.

The Baikonur Cosmodrome has hosted only two launches thus far, a small number for a spaceport that has traditionally led the world in flights. Russia has conducted one flight apiece from Plesetsk, Vostochny and the European spaceport in Kourou.

India’s Satish Dhwan, Japan’s Uchinoura and Europe’s Kourou spaceports hosted two launches apiece during the first quarter. Japan’s Tanegashima and New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula each saw one launch each.

Space Station Support Flights

The Progress 69 resupply ship is pictured just moments from docking to the space station. (Credit: NASA)

There were two support missions flown to the International Space Station during the first quarter. The first was a Russian Progress resupply mission launched in February, the second a crew flight in March.

ISS SUPPORT MISSIONS
DATENATION
LAUNCH VEHICLE
MISSION
MISSION TYPE
OUTCOME
 2/13/18Russia SoyuzProgress 69PResupply Success
 3/21/18Russia SoyuzISS 54SCrew Success

SpaceX is set to launch a Dragon cargo ship to ISS on Monday afternoon aboard a Falcon 9 booster.

Suborbital Launches

Black Brant IX rocket lifts off with ASPIRE experiment. (Credit: NASA)

There have been six civilian suborbital launches thus far this year.

SUBORBITAL LAUNCHES
DATELAUNCH VEHICLE
PAYLOAD(S)
LAUNCH SITERESULT
1/19/18Black Brant IX DXL-3 (Astronomy)Poker Flats (Alaska) Success
 1/26/18 Terrier-Improved Orion Super Soaker (Atmospheric)Poker Flats (Alaska) Success
 1/26/18Terrier-Improved Orion Super Soaker (Atmospheric) Poker Flats (Alaska) Success
 1/26/18Terrier-Improved Orion Super Soaker (Atmospheric)Poker Flats (Alaska) Success
 3/25/18 Terrier-Improved Malemute USIP (Student Payloads)Wallops Island Success
3/31/18Black Brant IXASPIRE (Supersonic Parachute)Wallops IslandSuccess

Four missions were launched from the Poker Flats range in Alaska in January, with two others conducted from Wallops Island in Virginia. The ASPIRE flight at the end of March tested a supersonic parachute that will be used on the Mars 2020 mission.

  • Paul Thomas

    The US hasn’t had a launch failure.
    Their is some unknowns about a payload but it had nothing to do with the launch.

  • windbourne

    Why is F9 listed with a failure?

  • Douglas Messier

    Reports are payload burned up in atmosphere. That’s a failure.

  • Douglas Messier

    The mission was a failure.

  • Paul Thomas

    The mission may have been but the launch wasn’t, which is the articles implication.
    The payload is only speculated to have failed, it could be that only the second staged burnt up as planned. As far as I am aware the payload has been given an orbital ID (Johnathan’s Space Report).
    The best you can say is that the status of the payload is unknown.

  • Douglas Messier

    Launches aren’t deemed successful until payload is deployed. In this case, the bulk of evidence says that didn’t happen.

  • Paul Thomas

    I’ve given evidence of an orbital ID number and said that the burning up of the second stage could be just that – the second stage.
    what ‘bulk of evidence’ do you have to the contrary?
    Also the way you word it implies that the launcher failed (which it did not). Also you may want to look again at the ISRO launch last week, apparently they have lost contact with the payload.

  • Michael Halpern

    Failure as far as we are likely to ever know was not on part of f9 so it’s not counted against the vehicle, post launch activities do not suggest it to be on part of F9 either, as falcon did not have a standdown.

  • Michael Halpern

    There is no bulk of evidence, all we have is rumors that it didn’t deploy or was DOA and SpaceX’s official statement that Falcon 9 preformed its mission successfully, backed with not being ordered to stand down, if there was a problem it wasn’t with their hardware or software, as such it’s not classified as a failure on thier system, its considered an other. Unless we get official word it could be considered a success or a failure depending on who you ask so for the sake of record keeping it isn’t factored in as a launch for failure rate calculations and instead listed as “other”

  • Robert Sutton

    And what about that FH launch?
    Center stage didn’t reach barge so was that launch a failure?
    Payload in orbit but not advertised one.
    GSat 6A maybe lost/maybe not
    Is there really an Intl definition of launch/mission success/failure?

  • Michael Halpern

    Fact is we don’t know what happened with Zuma and we likely never will therefore we can’t list it as a failure or a success as it is unlikely to be a vehicle failure in f9 concerned records it’s a success in overall records it’s neither because we don’t know

  • Douglas Messier

    Falcon Heavy delivered payload to deep space. Failure to recover core stage didn’t affect that.

    GSAT 6A appears to be spacecraft failure. No evidence booster was at fault.

  • Douglas Messier

    I’m convinced based on media reports quoting sources who knew about the mission that the satellite burned up. The reports are credible.

  • Douglas Messier

    They lost contact after payload deployment as far as I know. Satellite was in middle of series of burns of own propulsion system when contact was lost. That indicates spacecraft failure unless evidence surfaces it was damaged during launch.

    The way I word it? I gave description of what govt and industry sources said.

  • Douglas Messier

    The media reports quoting Congressional and govt and industry sources are persuasive to me. You’re free to disagree.

  • Michael Halpern

    They are vague and congressiomals have reason to blame SpaceX therefore are biased

  • Michael Halpern

    It is he said she said and we don’t know WHO said Zuma failed in the first place, therefore cannot know if they had some sort of agenda

  • Douglas Messier

    The sources aren’t going to lie about whether the mission failed or not. As for the orbital ID number, I would point you to this:

    https://allthingsnuclear.org/lgrego/lost-in-space-the-zuma-satellite

    The relevant section is this:

    Jonathan McDowell makes two important points in his Jan 17 Space Report
    that I missed. One, a successful mission would likely have had two
    entries in the Space Track catalog—the payload as well as the final
    stage, which was scheduled to complete an orbit before being de-orbited.
    And two, that the catalog entries for classified national security
    satellites are not as a rule updated when those satellites become
    defunct or de-orbit. So the continued presence of the USA 280 entry
    doesn’t necessarily indicate anything except that an object from this
    launch made it into orbit, at least briefly.

  • Michael Halpern

    It also doesn’t mean it DID deorbit or become defunct as for reasons to lie,
    1 shade SpaceX
    2 what spy satellite? (Plausible deniability)
    3 everyone loves drama.

  • Michael Halpern

    No evidence f9 was at fault with Zuma either

  • Douglas Messier

    You’re missing the forest for the trees. You’re so busy trying to defend Elon and SpaceX against something the article doesn’t say that you’re not focused on the actual outcome of the flight. Again, if the satellite ends up stuck to the second stage and burns up, that’s a launch failure.

  • Douglas Messier

    Go back and look. I remember a Congressman who was briefed confirming on the record confirming the satellite had failed and that he thought SpaceX and NG were going to have a long discussion about exactly who was to blame over it.

    I don’t have time to go look that up. Since you’re insistent that nobody confirmed anything, you find it. I’ve spent too much time on this already.

  • Michael Halpern

    My point is it isn’t an f9 failure even if it was a failure the official status of Zuma is “we are not at liberty to discuss the matter”

  • Douglas Messier

    My point was that the sources aren’t going to lie about the satellite failing to blame SpaceX. They might lie to cover up the fact that it’s in orbit, but the evidence is against that.

  • Michael Halpern

    Evidence is also against it being a failure on part of f9 because it wasn’t their payload adapter it’s mission ended when it gave the adapter the signal to deploy,

  • Douglas Messier

    “Evidence is also against it being a failure on part of f9…”

    Yes. You’ve said this 10 or 12 times already. You’ve made the point. We get it. The story doesn’t say the Falcon 9 failed. it says the launch failed. OK?

  • Vladislaw

    Sounds like a Schrodinger’s cat launch …..

  • Vladislaw

    Does that include test launches with no cargo?

  • Douglas Messier

    If there’s no payload, then you evaluate the launch on how well the stages performed in relation to the goals. Test launches are, by nature, to see what works and what doesn’t, so even a failure can be valuable.

    In any event, most launches to orbit have a payload, even if it’s an inert mass simulator. So, you can evaluate what happens to that.

  • Michael Halpern

    Basically

  • windbourne

    Neither grummen nor the gov have listed it officially as mission failure.

  • Douglas Messier

    And they might never admit it. At least until some years from now.

    It’s Grumman. Northrop Grumman.

  • windbourne

    He is not saying it was F9 failure. He is saying that F9 launched Zuma, and preponderance of evidence indicates that Zuma failed. The fact that Northrup did not point fingers after first 5 minutes would seem to indicate they failed.

  • Michael Halpern

    But the article implies it was f9

  • Paul451

    The sources aren’t going to lie about whether the mission failed or not.

    My point was that the sources aren’t going to lie about the satellite failing to blame SpaceX.

    I’m puzzled by these comments. Why wouldn’t those responsible for the failure, or their paid lackeys, lie about who is responsible?

    Surely it would be better to look at the behaviour of those with strong motivation not to believe SpaceX, such as the DoD planning future national launches, NASA planning manned flights. And their behaviour is consistent with the launch itself being successful.

  • Arthur Hamilton

    F9 haven’t had a launch failed this year. Stage 2 was in orbit already when signal for Zuma came to separate. So, there was no launch failure associated with it. You might want to list it as an on orbit mission failure or unknown. But, then, if the object of the mission was to sow confusion, which is possible with the DOD, then the mission was a success. Musk did say that Zuma was SX’s most important payload for the DOD. As far as I am concerned, the Congressmen was in on the confusion. Launch failure is totally misleading.

  • Arthur Hamilton

    Since it was a secret mission, was the payload supposed to deploy? All I have read about is just rumors? Everyone assumes that Zuma was supposed to deploy from the second stage. Some payloads doesn’t have to deploy from the second stage to be tested in an orbital plane or a ballistic trajectory that reaches on the other side of the planet.

  • Arthur Hamilton

    Yes it does. And no SX official have said that Zuma was a launch failure. The classification system is wrong.

  • Douglas Messier

    I’m ending comments on this because I can’t spend the next week responding to the same erroneous claims with the same answers I’ve given over and over again. This is something I never do, but I’ve had enough of this.

  • Douglas Messier

    I did this whole quarterly launch report and the only thing anyone can focus on is trying to defend the honor of Elon Musk and SpaceX.

  • Douglas Messier

    For the 10th time, the article does not say that. It does not imply that. Please stop this. Just stop.

  • Douglas Messier

    Their behavior is also consistent with what sources said happened during the launch: the satellite failed to separate and ended up in the atmosphere. If the problem was with the payload adapter, and SpaceX is not going to use that adapter for future flights, then there would be no problem with continuing with launches because they’ve had no trouble with the system they normally use. That’s what I believed happened.