A Look at Launches in 2016

Atlas V launches the NROL-61 satellite. (Credit: ULA)

Excerpt from

The Annual Compendium of
Commercial Space Transportation: 2017
Federal Aviation Administration
Office of Commercial Space
Transportation (FAA AST)

January 2017

2016 Launch Events

Space launch activity worldwide is carried out by the civil, military, and commercial sectors. This section summarizes U.S. and international orbital launch activities for calendar year 2016, including launches licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA AST). Countries and jurisdictions worldwide that possess functional and operating indigenous launch industries are the United States, Russia, China, European Union, India, Japan, Israel, Iran, North Korea, and South Korea. Several other countries, including Argentina, Brazil, and Indonesia, are developing launch vehicle technologies.

The table below presents civil, military, and commercial orbital launches by country in 2016. In 2016, the United States, Russia, Europe, China, Japan, India, Israel, and North Korea conducted a total of 85 orbital launches, 21 of which were commercial (see Figure 5). In 2015 there were 86 launches, including 22 commercial launches.


Two of the 85 launches failed. These included two government launches: a Soyuz U carrying the Progress MS-4 cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) and a Long March 4C carrying the Gaofen 10 remote sensing mission. Two Commercial launches resulted in partial success. The Atlas V carrying OA-6 to the ISS in March experienced first stage booster shutdown several seconds ahead of schedule that did not affect the success of the mission. China’s Long March 2D launch in December represents the second partial success, having deployed three satellites into an incorrect (lower) orbit. The September 1 launch pad explosion of a Falcon 9 FT during a static-fire test did not present a launch attempt and is not counted as such in this report.

Highlights of 2016 in the orbital space launch industry:

  • The United States performed 11 commercial orbital launches;
  • NASA continued its ISS CRS program, with the launch of four resupply missions;
  • SpaceX continued to launch payloads for commercial clients with five commercial launches to geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO). Falcon 9 FT launches were suspended following a launch pad explosion during a static-fire test on September 1. Falcon 9 FT returned to flight in January 2017, launching ten Iridium-NEXT satellites;
  • United Launch Alliance (ULA) performed 12 missions, launching eight Atlas V and four Delta IV; and
  • One new orbital launch vehicle was successfully tested. The Chinese Long March 7 launched a test reentry capsule to demonstrate capability of launching human rated spacecraft.

Revenues from the 21 commercial orbital launches in 2016 were estimated to be $2.5B, a healthy increase from $2.2B in 2015. The estimated commercial orbital launch revenues of $1.2B for U.S. providers, compared to $617M in 2015, reflects 7 Falcon 9 FT flights, 3 Atlas V flights, and the return to flight of the Antares (See Figure 7). These 11 missions were licensed by FAA AST.

AST 2016 Orbital Launch Activity

AST licensed eleven commercial orbital launches in 2016, compared to eight licensed launches in 2015. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 vehicle was used in seven licensed launches: two in April and July under NASA’s CRS program and five for commercial satellite operators SES, Sky Perfect JSAT (twice), Thaicom, and a dual manifest launch for ABS and Eutelsat. ULA’s Atlas V vehicles successfully launched a Cygnus cargo module to ISS on behalf of Orbital ATK and a communications satellite for , a Worldview 4 commercial Earth observation satellite. Orbital ATK returned to flight with its modified Antares 230 vehicle successfully launching another Cygnus spacecraft to ISS.

Figure 8 shows the number of FAA AST-licensed orbital launches for 2012 through 2016.


Table 10 provides specifications for the five vehicle types that were launched during 2016 under an FAA AST license. Note that the Falcon 9 FT was introduced in 2015 and that earlier variants flew successfully 18 times since 2010 and one launch resulted in a failure.


FAA AST 2016 Reentry License Summary

There were two reentries conducted under an FAA AST reentry license in 2016. Two SpaceX Dragon spacecraft performed the licensed reentries, in May and August, completing its eighth and ninth CRS missions to the ISS.

FAA AST 2016 Suborbital Launch Summary

Four suborbital test flights were conducted under an FAA Experimental Permit by Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle, in January, April, June, and October. No suborbital flights were conducted under an FAA AST license during calendar year 2016.

  • windbourne

    One issue is that many of China’s civil SATs are actually military in purpose.

  • windbourne

    Quite the turn around on commercial space at America vs Europe vs Russia.
    If spacex has really solved their issues, those numbers will really jump.

  • duheagle

    Something else to note is that ULA was in 2nd place in U.S. commercial launches. The idea that ULA was completely uncompetitive in civil space during most of its history isn’t true. It’s just that its former CEO, Michael Gass, couldn’t be bothered to seek any such business. Tori Bruno takes quite the opposite tack and, whudyano, ULA can land commercial business, even without having Vulcan in service yet. ULA isn’t a slam-dunk for long-term survival and success yet, but the company is manifestly no longer sitting on its duff either. It would be nice, a few years hence, to see ULA dicing with Blue Origin, Orbital-ATK and SpaceX for relative position among the top four U.S. launch providers.

    One advantage the U.S. has enjoyed over other nations in pretty much every category of industrial endeavor since the days of the Civil War is a much deeper “bench.” Competition within the domestic market raised every participant’s game anent competing with foreign business rivals. It’s looking very much as though the space launch business will be following in this long tradition.