Mid-Year Launch Report: U.S. (& SpaceX) in the Lead

Screenshot of SpaceX Falcon 9 Bulgaria 1 satellite launch. (Credit: SpaceX)

We are now halfway through 2017, so it seems like a good time to take a look at the year in orbital launches.

United States130013
New Zealand0101

A total of 42 launches have been conducted thus far, with 39 successes, two failures and one partial failure. The two failures were inaugural flight tests of new boosters.

American companies have launched 13 times. Nine of those flights have been conducted by SpaceX, giving the company more launches than anyone else thus far. United Launch Alliance successfully three three Atlas V boosters and one Delta IV rocket.

Russia has conducted eight launches. Included in the total are two Russian Soyuz flights conducted from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana.

China is close behind with seven launches. Six flights were successful, but a Long March 3B booster suffered a partial failure earlier this month that left a spacecraft in a lower-than-planned orbit.

 Falcon 9United States9009
 Soyuz 2Russia6006
 Ariane 5 Europe4004
 Atlas VUnited States 300 3
 Long March 3BChina2013
 Delta IV United States1 001
 GSLV Mk II India 1 001
 GSLV Mk III India 1 001
KT-2 China 1 001
 Kuaizhou 1 China 1 001
 Long March 2D China 1 001
 Long March 7 China 1 001
 Proton Russia 1 001
 Soyuz-2.1vRussia 1 001
 VegaEurope 1001
 Electron New Zealand0101
 S-520-4 Japan010 1

Europe follows with five successful launches, including four using the Ariane 5 booster and one using the Vega launcher.

India launched four times, with the highlight being the successful first orbital test of the new GSLV Mk. III booster. The launch vehicle — the nation’s most powerful to date — had been previously tested during a suborbital flight without an upper stage.

Japan also launched four times with three successes. The maiden flight test of Japan’s new SS-520-4 nanosat launcher failed in January, destroying some CubeSats.

New Zealand made the orbital launch list for the first time this year. The maiden flight test of Rocket Lab’s Electron booster failed to orbit an inert mass. Rocket Lab is a U.S.-New Zealand company.







  • Paul451

    If SpaceX was its own country, it would be at the top of the nations list. The US-sans-SpaceX would drop to equal fifth.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Ahhh, that’s the way it should be. Thanks to SX and in about 5 years BO, that lead will grow and persist. Think how much more the lead will open once payload makers start tuning the engineering of their payloads to the fact that launch is much cheaper and available than it has been the past 40 years.

  • Vladislaw

    Of the 13 SpaceX launches … how many would have stayed in the US 3? The others would have been launched by Russia and Ariane?

  • windbourne

    Europe sans Airbus would drop out of the list. Same with Japan and Hitachi.

    The next couple of years will interesting.
    Not only will spacex have their F9/FH ducks in a row, but, I’m guessing that SX satellite factory will be making their sats for under $1M. Then that factory will be used to make other sats for a fraction of the price that is paid today.

    As I have been saying for sometime, we just have to get Congress , namely the gop, to back doing new private space on habitats, and I mean now.

    We need multiple destinations to support multiple HSF companies.

  • Neil Hammond

    Great to see RocketLab / New Zealand on the list. With 2 more test flights in the next 6 weeks (according to Bloomberg) and then presumably a few commercial flights during the 2nd half of the year those stats will improve considerably.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Do you now agree Raptor testing is at sub-scale?

  • Paul451

    Weird non-sequitur.

    Define “sub-scale”. The tested Raptor was a full-sized version tested at partial thrust. Just as the composite tank test article was full ITS diameter, but not yet capable of handling the full intended loads.

    SpaceX is not pursuing a smaller version of ITS, nor any Raptor-based Falcon replacement. They don’t even seem interested in a Raptor-based improved upper-stage for FH, unless a customer like USAF specifically pays for it.

    And I don’t believe this because I don’t want a sub-scale version of ITS. Quite the contrary, for me it would be much more logical to replace the Falcon line with a methalox version, using an early version of Raptor. (That was the original plan, to upgrade the F9 and FH with bigger “Merlin 2” engines.) This lets them practice composite tank development, methalox handling, and provides a platform for iterative development of Raptor (just as they massively improved Merlin while flying actual payloads for income.) It would also allow them to close out the Merlin and Falcon production lines, reducing the wasted resources of parallel development.

    But… there’s nothing to indicate that Musk has any intention of doing that.

    I want it to be true, but I can accept that it’s not.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    it’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, not Hitachi

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Apparently USAF is interested in a Raptor upper stage for F9/FH, and has specifically paid for it:
    “Under the contract, SpaceX’s will develop a Raptor prototype for use as an upper stage on the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles.”

    “But… there’s nothing to indicate that Musk has any intention of doing that.”
    Just speculation on my part, but I’m wondering if the upcoming announcement of a more pragmatic route to BFR/BFS/ITS will include the use of Raptor on some sort of “sub-scale” launch architecture – it would make a lot of us happy.

  • Paul451

    Re: USAF.

    AIUI, the contract is just to demonstrate a methalox engine. There’s no funding to actually develop a new upper-stage.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    “AIUI, the contract is just to demonstrate a methalox engine. There’s no funding to actually develop a new upper-stage.”
    The engine is the tricky and expensive part though, and one might assume funding an upper stage engine development might at least imply a desire that it eventually be used on an upper stage. Though perhaps it was just usaf’s way of handing SpaceX a piece of the engine development pie.

    Musk has said to expect some sort of mitigation to his previous ITS all-or-bust plan. Whether that be Falcon+Raptor, or sub-scale BFR/BFS, or something else, we will have to wait and see. But it does seem as though he has moved from his original message, so I do some change.

  • Paul451

    The engine is the tricky and expensive part though

    Not in this case. Because of the low density of methane compared to RP-1, a Raptor-based upper-stage would have very different dimensions from the existing Merlin US. That means a major change to the TEL and fuelling systems, which makes it incompatible with F9 and FH-standard launches. And thanks to the layout of the launchpads, it would be hard to run parallel HIF/TEL lines.

    Re: USAF’s intentions.

    The only payloads that would require a larger US also require vertical payload integration. That requires a change to the entire pad infrastructure. So going any further would be a huge commitment.

    AIUI, the USAF was just promoting new engine development, promoting the art, annoyed at the dependence on Russian engines and the lack of development by the traditional players.

    But speculating: by focusing on upper-stages with FH, they were also cheaply buying insurance in case Boeing/ULA threatened to abandon Delta IV unless they got moar dollars. At some point it would be cheaper to bite the bullet and switch launchers than continue paying ransom, that makes it less likely that Boeing/ULA will push things too far.

    Musk has said to expect some sort of mitigation to his previous ITS all-or-bust plan.

    Given that they’ve been working on this for years before Musk’s announcement, and that the last announcement was a huge shift from the expected plan, I’m not expecting anything significant so soon. But we won’t know until we know.

  • duheagle

    9 SpaceX launches. 13 USA launches.

  • duheagle

    Shotwell recently said the Raptor test engines are sub-scale. So that controversy is dead. Paul and I were wrong.

    Shotwell also said Raptor may yet figure in Falcon’s future. To me that says new, bigger, reusable upper stage. The USAF contract already made this a non-issue – it’s the stated purpose of the work.

    There is this meme going around in certain quarters that the BFR tank test was a “failure.” It was a deliberate test-to-failure. That’s something a lot of rocket parts get subjected to in order to see how much beyond-spec margin actually exists in an as-built component. There is zero basis for assuming any deficiency in the test article composite tank. SpaceX never intended the tank to come back intact. That’s why the pressure testing was done at sea on a barge – so that any uncontained shrapnel wouldn’t hit anything.

    As for a methalox Falcon replacement, there is no business case whatsoever for such a thing. The Falcons will get new, fatter, Raptor-powered upper stages to more or less complete their march to full reusablility, but the Falcon 9 1st stage will stay largely as it is about to be (Block 5). SpaceX has invested much time and money in getting Falcon 9/H to where they are now. Mars needs money. The way to get it is to operate the ever-loving heck out of Falcon 9/H, not to abandon both in favor of some new replacement that will absorb, not generate, revenue. “BFR-Jr” is the fever dream of people who don’t understand business.

    The notional schedule for BFR/BFS is to get both to the prototype stage in five or six years. That is what will be absorbing the major part of SpaceX’s efforts as soon as a year from now.

  • duheagle

    The “pragmatic route to BFR/BFS is to go at them directly.

  • Paul451

    There is this meme going around in certain quarters that the BFR tank test was a “failure.” It was a deliberate test-to-failure. […] There is zero basis for assuming any deficiency in the test article composite tank.

    It’s not just a meme. Shotwell also said the composite tanks have under-performed. But that they haven’t “given up” on composite tanks, they “still believe” they can solve the problems.

    As for a methalox Falcon replacement, there is no business case whatsoever for such a thing.

    Being able to close out the Merlin lines and focus entirely on the Raptor. Being able to iteratively improve Raptor on a vehicle with (say) 9 SL-engines and 1 vac-engine, exploring the capability before committing to the design of ITS. (That is, having customers paying you for flight tests of each version of Raptor.) Having enough surplus payload capacity to experiment with recovery of the upper-stage (and again, having customers paying you for your test program), being able to feed that knowledge back into the development of the full-size BFS before committing too deeply to the design. Being able to experiment with orbital methalox refuelling, feeding that knowledge back into the design of BFS and BFS-tanker.

    Having enough BEO payload capacity to be able to send major demo hardware to Mars to test things like fuel processing. (The ITS model fails without in-situ refuelling on Mars, and that is not as hand-wavy-simple as many would like to pretend – the sheer volume of fuel required for each BFS.) Being able to utterly usurp SLS/Orion much sooner than ITS, leaving NASA with virtually no choice but to give up building launchers and simply buy HSF BEO launches from SpaceX for moon/Mars, and for all major deep-space probes and rovers, meaning that NASA would subsidise SpaceX’s test program for ITS hardware development.

    But there’s no indication whatsoever that SpaceX wants to develop an interim mini-ITS to replace FH. And I’m okay with that.

  • windbourne

    mea culpa.

  • Vladislaw

    thanks for the catch …

  • The Raptor I believe is sub-scale because it is using the Merlin Nozzle.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    No, rocket engines don’t work like. Completely new nozzle although truncated.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    No one builds an engine and turbo-pump and only every test it at 1/2 to 1/3 performance level. That’s dumb. Stop grasping at straws here. Furthermore, it seems you will be pleasantly surprised.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    No it isn’t. Firstly that tank would need to be built on-site and Musk wants short span of control (likes his bee hive) and certainly likes if for something very new. It’s another story once proven tech and has no choice. Most importantly bigger is much more expensive at that scale (scale where no one has gone) in all sorts of dimensions and before they start to throw 100 people in the thing the architecture needs to be proven (flown to Mars, fueled, and flown back). No reason to test all this stuff at gargantuan scale. Money is a huge driver here. SpaceX is not exactly flush with cash for that kind of project, nor are they poor either.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Yes, this is where duheagle departs reality. The contract is to demo the engine. The fact that Shotwell said they were evaluating it for the Falcon program shows this is not a firm commitment to build an upper. And since we know the EELV reference missions there is no need for it. USAF isn’t going to throw some secret handshake requirement that’s only offered to SpaceX.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    The tank failure was absolutely not ideal given Shotwell comments. Not a deal breaker but seems it didn’t fail at levels above requirements (with margin).

  • Mr Snarky Answer