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A Successful Year for U.S. Launch Providers as New Vehicles Debut

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
December 26, 2013
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A false color infrared image of the Antares launch. (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

A false color infrared image of the Antares launch. (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Part 1 of 2

By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

It has been a busy year for American rocket companies, with 19 successful missions flown by the nation’s three launch providers. The U.S. space transportation fleet became more diverse as three boosters and a cargo vessel made successful maiden flights in 2013.

Launch highlights for the year include a number of significant missions and firsts:

  • Orbital Sciences Corporation debuted its new Antares launch vehicle with two flawless flights in April and September;
  • Orbital’s new Cygnus freighter made a successful demonstration flight to the International Space Station (ISS), paving the way for commercial cargo deliveries and successfully closing out NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program;
  • SpaceX successfully debuted an upgraded version of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle in September;
  • On the same flight, SpaceX succeeded in a controlled re-entry of a Falcon 9 first stage, a crucial step toward its goal of making the rocket reusable;
  • Two month later, SpaceX launched a commercial communications satellite into geosynchronous orbit for the first time;
  • Orbital’s Minotaur V made a successful maiden flight in September by sending NASA’s LADEE orbiter to the moon;
  • United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V launched the space agency’s MAVEN probe to Mars two months later;
  • ULA increased its launch tempo, with 11 flights of the highly reliable Atlas V and Delta IV launch vehicles;
  • The Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) in Virginia came into its own in 2013, with three orbital launches and the LADEE mission to the moon;

A Perfect Year

U.S. launch providers went 19 for 19 this year, with no major launch anomalies. The 19 launches involved eight different types of rockets and took place from three different spaceports. One vehicle, Orbital Sciences’ Pegasus XL, was air launched from a modified L-1011 jetliner.

# Date Launch Vehicle Company Payload Launch Site Result
1 01/30 Atlas V ULA TDRS K CCAFS Success
2 02/11 Atlas V ULA LDCM VAFB Success
3 03/01 Falcon 9 SpaceX CRS 2 CCAFS Success
4 03/19 Atlas V ULA SBIRS GEO 2 CCAFS Success
5 04/21 Antares Orbital Sciences Antares Demo
& Nanosats
MARS Success
6 05/15 Atlas 5 ULA GPS 2F-4 CCAFS Success
7 05/24 Delta IV ULA WGS 5 CCAFS Success
8 06/27 Pegasus XL Orbital Sciences IRIS VAFB
9 07/19 Atlas V ULA MUOS 2 CCAFS Success
10 08/07 Delta IV ULA WGS 6 CCAFS Success
11 08/28 Delta IV ULA NROL-65 VAFB Success
12 09/06 Minotaur V Orbital Sciences LADEE MARS Success
13 09/18 Atlas V ULA AEHF 3 CCAFS Success
14 09/18 Antares Orbital Sciences Cygnus 1 MARS Success
15 09/29 Falcon 9 v. 1.1 SpaceX CASSIOPE VAFB Success
16 11/18 Atlas V ULA MAVEN CCAFS Success
17 11/19 Minotaur I Orbital Sciences ORS 3 MARS Success
18 12/03 Falcon 9 v. 1.1 SpaceX SES 8 CCAFS Success
19 12/05 Atlas V ULA NROL-39
& Nanosats
VAFB Success

U.S. Orbital Launches by Company

ULA led all launch companies with 11 successful flights this year, followed by Orbital Sciences with five and SpaceX with three.

Company Launches Launch Vehicles Launch Sites
ULA 11 Atlas V (7), Delta IV (4)
Orbital Sciences 5 Antares (2), Minotaur I (1),
Minotaur V (1), Pegasus XL (1)
MARS, VAFB (L-1011)
SpaceX 3 Falcon 9 (1), Falcon 9 v1.1 (2) CCAFS, VAFB

Orbital Sciences Corporation

Antares lifts off with a Cygnus freighter. (Credit: Orbital Sciences Corporation)

Antares lifts off with a Cygnus freighter. (Credit: Orbital Sciences Corporation)

The Virginia-based company had a very successful year, with five launches of four different rockets. The company debuted two new launch vehicles this year.

# Date Launch Vehicle Payload Launch Site Result
1 04/21 Antares Antares Demo
& Nanosats
MARS Success
2 06/27 Pegasus XL IRIS VAFB
3 09/06 Minotaur V LADEE MARS Success
4 09/18 Antares Cygnus 1 MARS Success
5 11/19 Minotaur I ORS 3 (29 satellites) MARS Success

The Antares launches were the company’s most significant achievements of 2013. The maiden flight in April went flawlessly, placing a Cygnus mass simulator and several cubesats into orbit. The successful mission capped years of development of the new rocket in partnership with NASA under the COTS program.

In September, a second Antares rocket sent the first Cygnus freighter to ISS on a demonstration mission with another flawless launch. Although Cygnus suffered a computer glitch that delayed its berthing with the station, the vehicle performed extremely well throughout its mission, leading NASA to declare the flight a complete success.

Cygnus berthed at ISS. (Credit: NASA)

Cygnus berthed at ISS. (Credit: NASA)

The successful mission meant Orbital could begin to deliver cargo to ISS on a commercial basis. The first of eight flights was scheduled for earlier in December. However, NASA postponed the mission until early January to allow astronauts to repair the station’s malfunctioning cooling system.

After the demonstration flight ended, NASA was able to declare its COTS program completed. In addition to its partnership with Orbital, the space agency also worked with SpaceX to develop the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon freighter. SpaceX has already made multiple cargo runs to ISS.

In addition to the Antares missions, Orbital successfully completed three other launches in 2013. The most prominent was the LADEE mission in September, which was the maiden flight of the Minotaur V launch vehicle. The spacecraft is now in orbit around the moon, where it is studying lunar dust and the satellite’s thin atmosphere.

Two months later, the smaller Minotaur I launcher set a new world record by lofting 29 satellite in low Earth orbit, including the first spacecraft ever built by high school students. The record stood for less than two days when a Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr rocket placed 32 spacecraft into orbit.

Orbital also orbited NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) in June using an air-launched Pegasus XL booster. The spacecraft is providing data to allow solar and heliospheric scientists to study the interface between the photosphere and corona.


Falcon 9 lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base. (Credit: SpaceX)

Falcon 9 lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base. (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX flew only three missions this year, although two of them involved major milestones that are crucial to the company’s long-term success.

# Date Launch Vehicle Payload Launch Site Result
1 03/01 Falcon 9 CRS 2 CCAFS Success
2 09/29 Falcon 9 v. 1.1 CASSIOPE VAFB Success
3 12/03 Falcon 9 v. 1.1 SES 8 CCAFS Success

In March, SpaceX flew its second commercial resupply mission to ISS. The launch went fine, but upon entering orbit, three of Dragon’s four thruster pods were inoperable. Engineers found a fix for the problem, and the vehicle berthed with ISS a day later than planned. The rest of the flight, which ended with a successful splashdown in the Pacific, was uneventful.

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft. (Credit: NASA)

SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft. (Credit: NASA)

In late September, SpaceX debuted the Falcon 9 v. 1.1, a significantly upgraded rocket with more powerful engines, longer fuel tanks, a payload shroud and a handful of other improvements. The rocket was designed to enable the company to send spacecraft beyond low Earth orbit, a capability the earlier Falcon 9 model did not have.

The rocket worked as planned, succeeding in its primary mission of deploying Canada’s CASSIOPE satellite into low Earth orbit. However, a planned relight of the second stage failed when lines froze. The test was not crucial for the flight, but the second stage would need to relight to put communications satellites into geosynchronous orbit on future missions.

During this same flight, SpaceX succeeded in bringing the Falcon 9’s first stage through the atmosphere in a controlled descent. The test didn’t work entirely; the vehicle eventually rolled and tumbled before crashing into the ocean. However, the company declared the experiment to be a successful and an important milestone on a path toward landing the stage back on Earth for reuse.


The first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket just before hitting the ocean. (Credit: SpaceX)

In early December, SpaceX successfully launched a second Falcon 9 v.1.1  after multiple mission scrubs. This time the second stage re-fired as planned, sending the SES-8 communications satellite into geosynchronous orbit. It was a major achievement for SpaceX, which has a large manifest of commercial satellites to launch.



An Atlas V rocket lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base. (Credit: ULA)

The venerable launch company increased the pace of its launches this year to 11, and it reached a milestone of 75 successful flights in a row since the company was formed. The launch total included seven Atlas 5 and four Delta IV flights.

# Date Launch Vehicle Payload Launch Site Result
1 01/30 Atlas V TDRS K CCAFS Success
2 02/11 Atlas V LDCM VAFB Success
3 03/19 Atlas V SBIRS GEO 2 CCAFS Success
4 05/15 Atlas 5 GPS 2F-4 CCAFS Success
5 05/24 Delta IV WGS 5 CCAFS Success
6 07/19 Atlas V MUOS 2 CCAFS Success
7 08/07 Delta IV WGS 6 CCAFS Success
8 08/28 Delta IV NROL-65 VAFB Success
9 09/18 Atlas V AEHF 3 CCAFS Success
10 11/18 Atlas V MAVEN CCAFS Success
11 12/05 Atlas V NROL-39
& Nanosats
VAFB Success

Ten of the 11 launches placed military or intelligence satellites into orbit. The exception was the Nov. 18 launch of NASA’s MAVEN probe to Mars. The orbiter will study the Red Planet’s atmosphere and how the world lost its water and atmosphere in the distant past.

The Atlas V and Delta IV are both used almost exclusively for U.S. government launches. However, there is international interest in using the highly reliable Atlas V for commercial launches. In September, Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services (a partner in ULA) announced that it had sold an Atlas V launch for  Mexico’s Morelos-3 communications satellite. ULA is looking to sell additional commercial launches in the future to supplement its government work.

In Part 2, we will look at the year ahead

5 responses to “A Successful Year for U.S. Launch Providers as New Vehicles Debut”

  1. windbourne says:

    it has been a good year for the Americans. The interesting part is that SpaceX is pushing the WHOLE industry in spite of American companies trying to use legal and political means of killing them.

    Next year is going to be VERY interesting.
    Upon Falcon Heavy’s success, I suspect that SpaceX will announce the MCT/Falcon X.
    Likewise, I will be interested to hear what SpaceX will do right after Dragon Rider is successful.
    I THINK (hope?) that it will be announcing a tug/fuel depot to move items around in space.

    • Michael Vaicaitis says:

      “I THINK (hope?) that it will be announcing a tug/fuel depot to move items around in space.”
      Where’d you get this from? or is it just wishful thinking?

      For Dragon (and DragonRider) launch-abort testing will most likely dominate 2014. I am as impatient as anyone, but I think it unlikely we’ll see Dragon(Rider) land propulsively in 2014, though that would be a fabulous bonus. Of course, landing propulsively is a key element of reusability, as well as of landing on non-terrestrial surfaces.

      Although one or two flights of FH and development of Dragon propulsion and crew functionality are exciting, I think 2014 will go down in history as the true beginning of the space-age era due to the return and landing of first stage boosters. Also, I wonder if announcements regarding Falcon X and MCT might not be requisite on the successful development of Raptor, so we may have to wait on that too.

      You are certainly correct though “Next year is going to be VERY interesting.”

      • windbourne says:

        Several SpaceXers have hinted that MCT is planet to planet transport, not the SHLV. If so, then it is all but certain that it will involve Bigelow, with SpaceX providing the propulsion.
        If so, then the only real way to do that, is via tug/fuel depot UNTIL NERVA is going. And announcing does not mean showing. Simply what they are working on.

        It is obvious that for 2014, their 4 main goals remain:
        1) getting F9 into a full production mode. This is the most important thing that they can do. They need to have money flowing in to accomplish the rest.
        2) getting FH fully tested and start sales (production mode should be trivial). Again, this is right up there with importance. The ability to put nearly 2x to GTO up what ariane does, for about 1/3 of the price means that they will dominate for a good 5-10 years.
        3) getting dragon rider tested by end of 2014 and then going for true human launch by mid 2015.
        4) first stage re-usability fully tested. It will be interesting to see if this actually backfires on them. Part of their model depends on cranking out loads of engines. If they re-use, then they must either slow down their production, or increase their sales a great deal.

        • Michael Vaicaitis says:

          MCT = Mars Colonial Transport; it is the spacecraft propelled by Raptor – see Elon’s RAS lecture and twitter.

          One of the primary reasons for Raptor being methane fuelled is to land a hab sized spacecraft directly onto Mars. This will be for 6-10 person crewed pre-cursor missions. Although Bigelow habs are excellent on a mass-to-volume ratio, they are not suitable for atmospheric landings such as to Mars.

          Personally I don’t see nerva gaining new traction any time soon. More likely is electric plasma engines such as VASIMR. Long term these will need nuclear reactors for large scale electric generation. I think the first 10 years of SpaceX Mars missions will be only and simply methane powered: Earth departure main burn, cruise/coast to Mars, retro-burn to slow enough for direct descent and landing, re-fuel and return to Earth two years later. Whether the Earth operations will be out of LEO or direct from the surface is not really that clear, but I suspect the intention is initially to go surface to surface. Obviously, when the passenger count increases to a hundred colonists, the mission profile will have to be orbit to orbit, but that’s a good while into the future.

          I’d be happy to discuss/argue further if you wish.

          “4) first stage re-usability fully tested. It will be interesting to see if this actually backfires on them. Part of their model depends on cranking out loads of engines. If they re-use, then they must either slow down their production, or increase their sales a great deal.”

          The answer is to greatly increase sales. This is a “build it and they will come” enterprise model. With lower prices comes more customers. Displacing the deliberate inefficiency, greed and lack of technological ambition of the incumbent launch providers is simply the first stage of the process of market transformation. Let’s be honest the legacy launch providers are basically just weapons manufacturers. It’s not really the comsat market that supports the current launch industry, it’s political and military paranoia. Low launch costs will help create and establish a truly civilian space market.

          • windbourne says:


            “Shotwell said a possible payload range of the new rocket is 150-200t to low Earth orbit (LEO). A vehicle of that size would easily eclipse NASA’s proposed Space Launch System, which will eventually be capable of launching 130t to LEO, making SpaceX’s potential vehicle the most capable ever built by a wide margin”

            putting a bigelow on mars is not really much different from taking off on earth. Basically, you have a shield around it. You are NOT going to land it inflated. You even point out that they will have powered landing.

            The new nerva is already being worked on.

            And vasimr will never be used to carry crews to Mars. The reason is that it takes a load of electricity and solar will NOT cut it. Not even close (though VASIMR/Solar MAY be useful and cheaper for cargo). But, the real problem is that you need a very low weight to electricity generation, which you can NOT get in space. To get a MW of power up there, will require a large amount of radiators, which will then add not just drag, but a large mass. FAR Far more than what NERVA would have.

            I agree with your last part with one issue: China and Russia. China’s gov is in a cold war with the west, in spite of what many think. They will simply subsidize more of the launches to keep new ones from going to SpaceX.
            And based on what happened with Solar Manufacturing, it is obvious that our congress and presidents will move slow to stop this. And then it will be next to nothing.

            Russia will not give up easily, but, they are not really in a cold war with the west (though putin will be happy to watch US collapse if we do not get a control on our deficits/debt, just like USSR did). I suspect that they will subsidize to some degree to get things moving. But it will be to keep themselves in the race, and not simply trying to take out the west.

            One last thing, I think that SpaceX WILL build the FX, and it will be 150 tonnes on earth. Of course, it will have the ability to land and launch at the moon and mars as well.
            MCT will be nothing but Bigelow units pushed via a SpaceX tug and SpaceX/Musk will continue to push NASA to get NERVA going. ANd yes, Musk has been pushing NASA to get NERVA going just for the mars transport as well as sending sats to the outer solar system and onwards to another star system.

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