SpaceX Ruled Roost in 2017, Boosting U.S. to No. 1 in Global Launches

Falcon 9 carries the Dragon cargo ship into orbit. (Credit: NASA TV)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

SpaceX had a banner year in 2017, launching a record 18 times and helping to propel the United States to the top of the global launch table with a perfect 29-0 record. The U.S. total made up 32.2 percent of 90 orbital launches worldwide, which was an increase over the 85 flights conducted in 2016.

The 29 American launches were a leap of seven over the 22 flights conducted the previous year. This is the highest number of American orbital launches since the 31 flights undertaken in 1999. However, that year the nation’s launch providers suffered four failures whereas they were perfect in 2017.

United States290029
New Zealand0101

Russia was second behind the United States with 21 launches with one failure. China conducted 18 launches with one failure and one partial failure, followed by Europe with nine successful flights. Japan and India followed with seven and five launches, respectively. Each nation suffered a launch failure. New Zealand conducted its first ever orbital launch in 2017.

U.S. Launch Providers


Falcon 9 first stage descends toward its landing pad.

Falcon 9 boosters launched 48 communications satellites in 2017. That total included 40 Iridium-Next spacecraft that were launched on four separate flights from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

SpaceX launched four Dragon resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS). The company also launched two defense payloads, including the mysterious X-37B space plane that had previously flown only on United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V booster.

Falcon 9 (SpaceX)18481420
Atlas V (ULA)600141
Delta II (ULA)100001
Delta IV (ULA)100010
Antares (Orbital ATK)100100
Minotaur C (Orbital ATK)106000
Minotaur IV (Orbital ATK)100000

SpaceX’s efforts to recover and reuse boosters and spacecraft came to fruition in 2017. Elon Musk’s company successfully recovered 14 of the 18 first stages, with no effort made on four other flights due to mission requirements. Eight of the first stages landed on off-shore drone ships, with six others touching down at Cape Canaveral.

Five of the 18 Falcon 9 flights flew with reused first stages. Two of the four Dragon resupply missions to the space station used refurbished capsules. One of the refurbished capsules was launched by a reused first stage.

SpaceX also introduced the Falcon 9 Block 4 variant in 2017. The rocket has more powerful engines and titanium grid fins to improve recovery of the first stage. The company expects to introduce an upgraded Block 5 booster — Falcon 9’s last variant — later this year.


Atlas V lifts off with NROL-52 satellite. (Credit: ULA)

ULA launched eight times in 2017. Six Atlas V boosters carried four U.S. defense payloads as well as a TDRS M communications satellite for NASA. An Atlas V also launched an Orbital ATK Cygnus resupply mission to the space station in April.

ULA conducted the penultimate flight of the venerable Delta II rocket on Nov. 11. The booster lofted NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS-1) meteorological satellite into orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

ULA also launched the Department of Defense’s Wideband Global SATCOM 9 (WGS-9) communications satellite aboard a Delta IV booster in March. The launch was conducted from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Minotaur-C booster lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base. (Credit: Orbital ATK)

Orbital ATK

Orbital ATK launched three times last year. In August, a Minotaur IV booster lofted the ORS-5 mission for the U.S. Air Force’s Office of Operationally Responsive Space. The spacecraft, also known as SensorSat, is designed to scan for other satellites and debris in geosynchronous orbit.

On Oct. 31, a Minotaur-C booster launched six SkySat remote sensing satellites for Planet from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Minotaur-C is an upgraded and renamed version of the Taurus booster.

The following month, an Antares booster launched a Cygnus resupply ship to ISS from Wallops Island in Virginia. It was the second launch of an Orbital ATK Cygnus in 2017. The previous cargo ship was launched aboard an ULA Atlas V from Cape Canaveral in April.

Global Launch Providers


The Soyuz MS-07 rocket is launched with Expedition 54 Soyuz Commander Anton Shkaplerov of Roscosmos, flight engineer Scott Tingle of NASA, and flight engineer Norishige Kanai of Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. (Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Russia came in second, launching 21 times with one failure. This total was an increase over the 19 launches the nation conducted in 2016. Russia also suffered one launch failure that year.

The Russian launches included four Soyuz crew missions and three Progress resupply flights to the International Space Station (ISS). The other 14 launches break down as follows:  communications satellites, seven; military, three; Earth observation, two; GLONASS navigation and meteorological, one apiece.

Russia began 2017 with its one of its key boosters, Proton, grounded due to quality control problems. The rocket did not make its first flight until June after a year-long stand down. The Proton flew only four times in 2017, a small number of launches for the workhorse launcher.

Russia suffered a setback in late November when the Meteor M2-1 weather satellite and 18 secondary payloads failed to enter orbit after launch aboard a Soyuz rocket from the Vostochny Cosmodrome. Officials have blamed a malfunction in the Fregat upper stage.


Long March 5 on the launch pad. (Credit: China National Space Administration)

China launched 18 times with one failure and one partial failure last year. This was a reduction of four from the 22 launches the nation conducted in 2016.

Chinese launches by primary payloads break down as follows: military, five; communications, five; Earth observation, four; Beidou navigation, meteorological and space station, one apiece.

A highlight of the year came in April when a Long March 7 booster launched the Tianzhou-1 resupply ship to the unoccupied Tiangong-2 space station. The supply ship docked with and undocked from the station multiple times and also carried out a number of experiments.

China debuted two new small-satellite boosters in 2017. The Kuaizhou 1A (KZ-1A) rocket made a successful maiden flight in January. The launcher, an upgraded version of the Kauizhou 1 rocket, is capable of lifting payloads weighing up to 300 kg (661 lbs) into low Earth orbit (LEO).

The Kaituozhe-2 (KT-2) rocket successfully launched a payload for the first time in March. The booster is capable of launching a 350-kg (772-lb) payload to LEO or a 250-kg (551-lb) payload to a 700-km (435-mile) sun synchronous orbit (SSO).

The Chinese space program suffered two setbacks in 2017. In June, a Long March 3B rocket placed the ChinaSat 9A communications satellite in the wrong orbit.  The spacecraft was able to reach its intended orbit using on-board propulsion at the cost of a reduced operating life.

The following month, a Long March 5 failed on its second flight, destroying the Shijian 18 experimental communications satellite. Officials have not provided an explanation for the accident, which reportedly originated in the booster’s first stage.

The failure was a setback for China’s ambitious space station and lunar exploration programs, which are dependent upon the heavy-lift Long March 5. The Chang’e-5 mission, which is designed to return soil samples from the lunar surface, was delayed from 2018 to 2019.

China plans to launch the core of a permanent, multi-module space station in 2019 using a Long March 5. Construction of the station is expected to take about three years.


Ariane 5 launch on Dec. 12, 2017. (Credit: Arianespace)

Europe launched nine times without failure, including six Ariane 5 and three Vega flights. There were actually 11 flights from the European launch center in French Guiana. Two Soyuz launches conducted at Kourou are included in the Russian launch total.

Ariane 5 boosters launched 12 communications and four Galileo navigation satellites. The Vega rockets lofted two Earth observation spacecraft and a military reconnaissance satellite into orbit. The two Soyuz launches carried one communications satellite apiece.


H-IIA launch on Dec. 23, 2017. (Credit: JAXA)

Japan launched seven times with one failure. Six H-2A missions carried three Michibiki navigation satellites, two military reconnaissance spacecraft, one Earth observation satellite, and one technological demonstration spacecraft into orbit.

The lone failure occurred on the maiden flight of the SS-520 microsat launcher in January. The booster, an upgraded sounding rocket, was carrying a CubeSat. JAXA says that a second attempt is scheduled for later this month.


PSLV C38 mission launches (Credit: ISRO)

India launched five times with one failure. ISRO’s boosters successfully launched two communications and two Earth observation satellites into orbit.

India set a new world record by launching 104 satellites on a single PSLV booster in February. The CartoSat 2D remote sensing satellite was accompanied by 103 secondary payloads from India and foreign customers, including 96 spacecraft from the United States.

ISRO suffering a rare failure of its reliable PSLV booster in August when the payload shroud failed to separate. The accident destroyed an Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) spacecraft. The PSLV rocket was grounded for the rest of the year, but it scheduled to return to flight next week.

New Zealand

The lone launch attempt from New Zealand of Rocket Lab’s new Electron booster failed in May. A second attempt carrying CubeSats from Planet and Spire is scheduled for January.

Launches By Booster

The U.S. Air Force’s 45th Space Wing supported SpaceX’s successful launch of the EchoStar XXIII spacecraft aboard a Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center March 16 at 2 a.m. EDT. (Credit: SpaceX webcast)

Falcon 9 was the most used booster in the world with 18 launches. Soyuz came in second with 14 launches, including one failure. Ariane 5, Atlas V and H-2A were tied in third place with 6 launches apiece last year.

China used nine different rockets and variants to launch 18 times. The United States used seven different boosters to accomplish 29 launches. Russia launched 21 times using five different rockets. India used three boosters, Japan two and New Zealand one.

Falcon 9USA180018
Ariane 5Europe6006
Atlas VUSA6006
Long March 2DChina5005
Long March 3BChina4015
Long March 2CChina2002
Delta IIUSA1001
Delta IVUSA1001
GSLV Mark IIIndia1001
GSLV Mark IIIIndia1001
Kuaizhou 1AChina1001
Long March 4CChina1001
Long March 6China1001
Long March 7China1001
Minotaur CUSA1001
Minotaur IVUSA1001
ElectronNew Zealand0101
Long March 5China0101
*Russian conducted launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome. Zenit booster composed of Ukrainian first stage and Russian upper stage.

Space Station Support Missions

The Canadarm2 robotic arm is seen grappling the Orbital ATK Cygnus resupply ship on Nov. 14, 2017. (Credit: NASA TV)

There were 13 support missions flown to ISS in 2017. The list includes four crew flights using Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft and booster and nine missions flown with by fleet of American and Russian resupply ships.

2/19/17USAFalcon 9CRS-10 (Dragon)ResupplySuccess
2/22/17RussiaSoyuzProgress 66PResupplySuccess
4/18/17USAAtlas VOA-7 (Cygnus)ResupplySuccess
4/20/17RussiaSoyuzISS-50S (Soyuz)CrewSuccess
6/3/17USAFalcon 9CRS-11 (Dragon)ResupplySuccess
6/14/17RussiaSoyuzProgress 67PResupplySuccess
7/28/17RussiaSoyuzISS-51S (Soyuz)CrewSuccess
8/16/17USAFalcon 9CRS-12 (Dragon)ResupplySuccess
10/14/17RussiaSoyuzProgress 68PResupplySuccess
11/12/17USAAntaresOA-8 (Cygnus)ResupplySuccess
12/15/17USAFalcon 9CRS-13 (Dragon)ResupplySuccess
12/17/17RussiaSoyuzISS-53S (Soyuz)CrewSuccess

SpaceX flew four Dragon missions to ISS last year, with the Russian Progress flying three times. Orbital ATK flew two Cygnus freighters to ISS, one launched aboard its own Antares booster and the other flown on an ULA Atlas V rocket.

China was also busy with its own space station program in 2017. The Tianzhou-1 resupply ship docked and undocked repeatedly with the unoccupied Tiangong-2 space station and also carried out a series of scientific experiments in preparation for a permanent space station set to launch next year.

Suborbital Flights

New Shepard booster fires its engine just over the landing pad. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Your typical suborbital flight is usually conducted with a sounding rocket that carries one or more scientific experiments. As such, they don’t generate a whole lot of attention or media coverage.

Blue Origin’s suborbital flights are different. On Dec. 12, the company launched upgraded versions of its reusable New Shepard booster and capsule, marking a return to flight for the first time in 14 months.

The new capsule includes large windows that will be used on later human-rated versions of the spacecraft. The December flight carried numerous scientific experiments as well as an instrumented test dummy named Mannequin Skywalker.

Mannequin Skywalker — an instrumented test dummy — flew aboard the New Shepard capsule. (Credit: Blue Origin)

This was the first New Shepard flight to be conducted under a FAA-issued launch license, which enabled Blue Origin to collect revenues for payloads flown aboard the vehicle. The company says it is planning a series of automated flights in 2018. It could be ready to fly scientists with their payloads on a human-rated version of New Shepard capsule by the end of the year.

The New Shepard flight was one of 21 suborbital rocket launches conducted worldwide in 2017. Eighteen of the flights were successful, with one failure and two partial failures. These figures do not include ballistic missile tests.

1/23/17VSB-30MAIUS-1 (Matter-Wave Interferometry in Microgravity)Esrange (Sweden)Success
1/27/17Black Brant IXPolarNOx (Thermosphere research)Poker Flats (Alaska)Success
2/22/17Black Brant IXISINGLASS (Ionosphere research)Poker Flats (Alaska)Success
3/01/17Black Brant IXJETS (Magnetosphere research)Poker Flats (Alaska)Success
3/01/17Black Brant IXJETS (Magnetosphere research)Poker Flats (Alaska)Success
3/01/17Black Brant IXISINGLASS (Ionosphere research)Poker Flats (Alaska)Success
4/07/17MaxusMAXUS-9 (metal combustion, solidification physics, flame propagation, micro-organisms in microgravity)Esrange (Sweden)Success
5/05/17Black Brant IXRAISE 3 (solar research)Whites Sands (New Mexico)Success
5/13/17VSB-30MAPHEUS-6 (Biological and materials science experiments)Esrange (Sweden)Success
5/16/17Black Brant IXSubTec-7 (20+ technologies tested to improve sounding rocket & spacecraft capabilities)Whites Sands (New Mexico)Success
6/22/17Terrier-Improved OrionRockOn (Various student experiments)Wallops Island (Virginia)Success
6/27/17Black Brant IXCHESS-3 (Colorado High-resolution Echelle Stellar Spectrograph)Whites Sands (New Mexico)Success
6/29/17Terrier-Improved OrionAmpoule Test Launch (Ionospheric research)Wallops Island (Virginia)Success
7/06/17VSB-30Hi-Fire4 (Hypersonic technology demonstration)Woomera (Australia)Success
7/29/17MomoUnknownTaiki Aerospace Research Field (Japan)Failure
8/13/17Terrier-Improved MalemuteRockSat-X (Various student experiments)Wallops Island (Virginia)Success
9/09/17Black Brant IXWINDY (Ionospheric research)Kwajalein Atoll (Marshall Islands)Success
9/09/17Terrier MalemuteWINDY (Ionospheric research)Kwajalein Atoll (Marshall Islands)Partial Failure
10/04/17Black Brant IXASPIRE (Mars 2020 lander parachute test)Wallops Island (Virginia)Success
10/30/17Black Brant IXDEUCE (Astronomy)White Sands (New Mexico)Partial Failure
12/12/17New ShepardNew Shepard capsule w/ multiple experimentsCorn Ranch (Texas)Success
*Figures do not include suborbital ballistic missile tests.

Suborbital launches took place from eight locations worldwide, five of which were located in the United States or run by the U.S. government. (Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands is operated by the U.S. Army.) American facilities hosted 16 of 21 suborbital launches in 2017.

Poker FlatsUSA5005
Wallops IslandUSA4004
White SandsUSA3014
Kwajalein Atoll+Marshall Islands1012
Corn RanchUSA1001
*Figures do not include suborbital ballistic missile tests.
+Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site operated by U.S. Army.

Launches by Spaceports

Orbital Launches Worldwide

The Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan tied with NASA’s Kennedy Space Center by hosting 12 launches that were conducted by Russia under a long-term lease. Russia also conducted 5 launches from Plesetsk, two from the European launch complex in French Guiana, and one from the Vostochny Cosmodrome.

Kennedy Space CenterUSA120012
Cape CanaveralUSA7007
Satish DhawanIndia4105
Wallops IslandUSA1001
Mahia PeninsulaNew Zealand0101
TOTALS: 845190

There were 11 launches from French Guiana. The total includes six Ariane 5, three Vega and two Soyuz launches.

Vandenberg hosted nine launches last year, followed by Cape Canaveral and China’s Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center with seven apiece.  China used four spaceports to conduct its 18 orbital launches.

Rocket Lab’s launch complex on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula hosted its first launch in 2017. The maiden flight of the Electron small-satellite booster reached space but failed to orbit its inert payload. Another Electron flight is scheduled for later this month.

Orbital Launches From U.S. Spaceports

SpaceX launched its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. (Credit: NASA Television)

The year saw the return of launches from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida for the first time since the end of space shuttle missions in 2011. SpaceX launched 12 times from the refurbished Pad 39A, which the company is operating under a long-term lease with the space agency.

SpaceX pressed Pad 39A into service after a Falcon 9 exploded on Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station while being fueled for a pre-launch engine test on Sept. 1, 2016. It took SpaceX more than a year to get Pad 40 back in operation. The company conducted its first launch from the rebuilt launch pad on Dec. 15, 2017.

Kennedy Space Center (Florida)120011
Vandenberg (California)9009
Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (Florida)7008
Wallops Island (Virginia)1001

The U.S. Air Force’s 45th Space Wing, which operates the Eastern Test Range, had a very busy year. The wing supported 12 missions flown from  Kennedy Space Center and seven more from Cape Canaveral.  Officials expect the range to be even busier in 2018.

Nine launches were conducted from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. There were five flights of SpaceX’s Falcon 9, two ULA Atlas V launches, and one flight each of ULA’s Delta II and Orbital ATK’s Minotaur-C.

Wallops Island in Virginia supported a single Antares launch that send a Cygnus resupply ship to the space station.

Suborbital Launches From U.S. Facilities

Poker Flats (Alaska)5005
Wallops Island (Virginia)4004
White Sands (New Mexico)3014
Kwajalein Atoll (Marshall Islands)+1012
Corn Ranch (Texas)1001
*Figures do not include suborbital ballistic missile tests.
+Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site operated by U.S. Army.

Wallops Island was busy with four suborbital sounding rocket in 2017. Poker Flats in Alaska led all locations with five suborbital launches, White Sands had three, Kwajalein Atoll hosted two, and Corn Ranch in Texas was the site of Blue Origin’s lone New Shepard flight.