China Launch Surge Left U.S., Russia Behind in 2018

Long March 2F rocket in flight carrying Shenzhou-11. (Credit: CCTV)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The year 2018 was the busiest one for launches in decades. There were a total of 111 completely successful launches out of 114 attempts. It was the highest total since 1990, when 124 launches were conducted.

China set a new record for launches in 2018. The nation launched 39 times with 38 successes in a year that saw a private Chinese company fail in the country’s first ever orbital launch attempt.


The United States was in second place behind China with 34 launches. Traditional leader Russia launched 20 times with one failure. Europe flew eight times with a partial failure, followed by India and Japan with seven and six successful flights, respectively.

The year saw a number of significant launches, including:

  • maiden flight of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy;
  • first successful flight of Rocket Lab’s Electron booster;
  • China’s Chang’e-4 mission to the moon;
  • NASA’s Mars InSight lander;
  • Europe’s BepiColombo mission to Mercury;
  • NASA’s TESS exoplanet hunting observatory;
  • America’s newest weather satellite; and,
  • SpaceX’s reuse of Falcon 9 first stages and Dragon cargo ships.

There were also some setbacks in 2018, including:

  • the abort of a crewed Soyuz mission to the International Space Station (ISS) with the safe recovery of the two-man crew;
  • the failure of a Chinese commercial company to reach orbit;
  • the partial failure of Europe’s highly reliable Ariane 5 that deposited two satellites in the wrong orbits;
  • continued delays in NASA’s Commercial Crew program; and,
  • schedule delays and cost overruns with the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft.

2018: 38-1
2017: 16-1-1

China’s 39 launch attempts far surpassed its previous high of 22. The surging space power launched an ambitious mission to the moon, continued deploying its Beidou satellite navigation system, and saw its first commercial orbital launch attempt end in failure.

Long March 2C, 2DChina Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT)140014
Long March 3A, 3B, 3CCALT140014
Long March 4B, 4CCALT6006
Long March 11China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CAST)3003
Kuaizhou 1ACAST1001
Zhuque 1LandSpace0101

The Long March 2 and 3 booster families were the workhorses of the Chinese fleet, accounting for 14 launches apiece last year. State-owned China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology’s (CALT) boosters accounted for 34 of the 39 launch attempts when six flights of Long March 4 variants are included.

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CAST) conducted three launches of Long March 11 and one flight of the Kuaizhou 1A booster. Both solid-fuel rockets serve the small satellite market.

LandSpace’s maiden launch of its solid-fuel Zhuque 1 booster on Oct. 27 failed due to an anomaly in its third stage. A China Central Television satellite was lost in the failure of the small-satellite booster.

There were no flights last year of China’s new heavy-lift Long March 5 launcher from the recently completed Wenchang Satellite Launch Center. The booster remained grounded after suffering a catastrophic failure during its second flight on July 2, 2017. Officials have said it could fly late this year.

China’s Yutu 2 rover drives off the Chang’e-4 lander. (Credit: CNSA)

China began its most ambitious exploration of another world with the launch of the Chang’e-4 relay satellite in May. The Chang’e-4 lunar lander/rover followed on Dec. 7. It became the first mission to touch down on the far side of the moon early in the new year.

The Yutu rover and the lander were designed to survive the frigid temperatures of the 14-day lunar nights. They recently “awoke” from hibernation to begin their 10th lunar day on the surface.

Two microsatellites named Longjiang-1 and Longjiang-2 (Dragon River) were launched along with the Chang’e-4 relay satellite. Longjiang-2 successfully entered lunar orbit, but its twin failed to do so.

Longjiang-2 conducted radio-astronomy during its passes on the lunar far side. These measurements are impossible from Earth orbit due to interference from the ionosphere.

Primary payloads aboard China’s 39 launches included:

  • Earth Observation: 21
  • Satellite Navigation: 20 (19 Beidou, 1 Centispace)
  • Military Reconnaissance: 10
  • Communications: 7
  • Lunar: 3 (Chang’e-4 lander, orbiter and rover)
  • Earth Science: 2
  • Meteorological: 1
  • Technology Demonstration: 1.

China launched 19 Beidou satellite navigation satellites, bringing the total number in orbit to 33 by the end of the year. Nine Long March 3B’s launched two satellites apiece with a Long March 3A placing a single Beidou satellite into orbit.

2018: 34-0
2017: 29-1

Lifting off at 3:45 p.m. from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, a SpaceX Falcon Heavy begins its demonstration flight. (Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett)

The U.S. launch market was once again dominated by SpaceX’s 21 launches. Elon Musk’s launch provider set a new company record with 20 launches of the Falcon 9 (F9) and inaugural flight of the Falcon Heavy (FH).

Traditional leader United Launch Alliance (ULA) conducted eight flights of its Atlas V, Delta IV and Delta II boosters. ULA’s share of the U.S. market has fallen in recent years as SpaceX has cut into its near monopoly on government launches.

Rocket Lab flew its Electron booster from New Zealand three times, marking the first successes for the small-satellite launch company. Electron had failed in its maiden launch in 2017.

Northrop Grumman’s Antares launched two Cygnus resupply ships to ISS. To date, the Antares manifest has been limited to launching Cygnus freighters to the space station under a contract with NASA.

F9Atlas V
Earth Observation28
ISS Resupply32
Tech Demo13

SpaceX led all U.S. launch providers with 107 payloads, including 34 communications satellites. The low-cost Falcon 9 has become the go-to booster for geosynchronous communications satellites, cutting sharply into Russia’s previous dominance of the market.

SpaceX also launched:

  • 25 communications satellites for the Iridium-NEXT constellation;
  • 64 small spacecraft on a single rideshare mission for Spaceflight;
  • three ISS Dragon resupply missions to ISS;
  • two defense satellites;
  • a pair of Earth observation spacecraft;
  • a new exoplanet hunting observatory;
  • two prototypes for its Starlink broadband constellation; and,
  • Elon Musk’s red Tesla automobile into deep space.

Electron launched 22 satellites and one dummy spacecraft in 2018. Payloads include eight Earth observation and 13 technology demonstration satellites.

Only Electron’s rideshare launches are broken out by type. Secondary payloads such as CubeSats launched by other boosters are not included in the above table.

ULA’s Atlas V carried five primary payloads to orbit, followed by Delta IV and Antares with two apiece and Falcon Heavy with one.

Starman in orbit in a red Tesla Roadster. (Credit: SpaceX)

2018:  21-0
2017: 18-0

The most exciting SpaceX launch of the year occurred on Feb. 6 when the company’s Falcon Heavy booster roared off Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. With its first stage composed of three Falcon 9 cores with 27 Merlin 1D engines, the company’s new booster became the most powerful rocket in the world.

The two side boosters separated several minutes into the flight and made picture perfect landings back at Cape Canaveral. The core booster barely missed landing on an off-shore drone ship.

The payload for the flight was Elon Musk’s red Tesla Roadster with a mannequin named Starman dressed in a spacesuit seated in the driver’s seat. After circling the Earth, the Falcon Heavy’s upper stage sent the car and its dummy occupant into deep space.

SpaceX’s most mysterious launch came on Jan. 7. Carrying a secret defense satellite code named Zuma, the rocket lifted off as planned and entered orbit. However, later reports indicated that the satellite failed to separate from the second stage of the Falcon 9 booster and burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere during reentry.

Reports indicate that the problem occurred not in the Falcon 9 but with the special payload adapter supplied by Zuma’s manufacturer, Northrop Grumman. Since the adapter was not used on other SpaceX launches, the launch was declared a success and the booster was not grounded.

Falcon 9 lifts off on Spaceflight SSO-A rideshare mission. (Credit: SpaceX webcast)

In May, a Falcon 9 launched NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Surveying Satellite (TESS), a new telescope focused on finding worlds orbiting distant stars. The spacecraft is a replacement for the Kepler Space Telescope, which ceased operations last year.

The following month, SpaceX launched the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-on (GRACE-FO) mission. A joint program between NASA and the German Research Centre for Geosciences, GRACE-FO consists of two satellites that are monitoring changes in underground water storage, the amount of water in large lakes and rivers, soil moisture, ice sheets and glaciers, and sea level caused by the addition of water to the ocean.

SpaceX launched two test small satellites named Tintin-A and Tintin-B for its Starlink Internet constellation as secondary payloads in February. The company plans to eventually orbit nearly 12,000 spacecraft to provide high-speed communications everywhere on Earth.

While SpaceX enjoyed a record launch year, the company was forced to delay the first flight test of its Crew Dragon spacecraft. That spacecraft, which did not include a crew, successfully visited the space station in March 2019.

Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner are designed to return restore America’s ability to launch crews into space that ended with the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011. Boeing’s first launch of its spacecraft was also delayed until late this year.

An ULA Delta II rocket carrying the ICESat-2 mission for NASA lifts off from Space Launch Complex-2 at 6:02 a.m. PT. (Credit: United Launch Alliance)

United Launch Alliance (ULA)
2018: 8-0
2017: 8-0

United Launch Alliance launched eight times last year. The missions included five successful flights of the Atlas V and one flight apiece of the Delta IV, Delta IV Heavy and Delta II boosters.

ULA boosters placed four national security and two civilian government satellites into Earth orbit for the Department of Defense, NASA and NOAA. They also sent a spacecraft to Mars and one to study the sun.

On March 1, an Atlas V booster lifted off from Cape Canaveral with America’s latest weather satellite, GOES-S. The spacecraft, later renamed GOES-17, is the second of a new generation of meteorological satellites.

This is NASA InSight’s first selfie on Mars. It displays the lander’s solar panels and deck. On top of the deck are its science instruments, weather sensor booms and UHF antenna. The selfie was taken on Dec. 6, 2018 (Sol 10). (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

An Atlas V launched NASA’s InSight lander to Mars on May 5 in the first planetary launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The lander successfully touched down on the martian surface on Nov. 26.

InSight’s entry, descent and landing data were relayed to controllers back on Earth by two CubeSats named MarCO-A (WALL-E) and MarCO-B (Eva) that flew as secondary payloads on the Atlas V launch. The two spacecraft radioed the data as they flew past the Red Planet.

The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket launches NASA’s Parker Solar Probe to touch the Sun, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2018, from Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Parker Solar Probe is humanity’s first-ever mission into a part of the Sun’s atmosphere called the corona. Here it will directly explore solar processes that are key to understanding and forecasting space weather events that can impact life on Earth. (Credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

In August, a Delta IV Heavy launched NASA’s Parker Solar Probe. The heliophysics observatory is observing the sun at a distance of 8.5 solar radii (5.9 million km/3.66 million miles), closer than any other spacecraft has ever approached the star.

The Delta II rocket flew for the 156th and final time on Sept. 15 when it orbited NASA’s ICESat 2 spacecraft from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The scientific satellite is measuring ice levels on Earth.

Introduced in 1989, Delta II retired with a record of 154 successes, one failure and one partial failure. It’s final launch ended with a streak of 100 successful flights, with its only catastrophic failure occurring 21 years earlier in 1997.

Atlas V was unable to launch Boeing’s Starliner commercial crew vehicle last year due to delays in that program. A source tells Parabolic Arc that a Starliner flight to ISS without a crew is currently scheduled for the end of November. The mission will be followed by a crewed test to the station in 2020.

Electron launches NASA’s Venture Class CubeSats. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

Rocket Lab
2018: 3-0
2017: 0-1

It was a breakout year for Peter Beck’s Rocket Lab. The company successfully launched the Electron booster from New Zealand three times. The final flight launched 13 CubeSats as part of NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services program.

Although Rocket Lab began in New Zealand and has its launch complex and other facilities there, Beck has said it is an American company with its headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. Thus,  Rocket Lab’s missions are characterized as American launches.

In a similar vein, Soyuz flights from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana are considered Russian launches. The same is true for Russian missions flown from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Rocket Lab will soon be launching from American soil. The company is currently completing a launch complex on Virginia’s Wallops Island where Electron launches will be conducted.

Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket launched the company’s Cygnus spacecraft carrying about 7,400 pounds of cargo for the International Space Station on Nov. 17, 2018. (Credit: Northrop Grumman)

Orbital ATK/Northrop Grumman
2018: 2-0
2017: 3-0

The Antares booster launched Cygnus resupply ship to ISS  in May and November from Wallops Island in Virginia.

During the first mission, the Cygnus spacecraft demonstrated  its ability to raise the space station’s orbit. Russian Soyuz transports usually perform this function.

After astronauts loaded the supply ship with trash, the Cygnus separated from ISS and released four aircraft-tracking Lemur-2 CubeSats for Spire Global and the Aerocube 12A and 12B technology demonstration CubeSats using NanoRacks’ external deployer.

The second Cygnus flight featured a two-week post-ISS mission that included the deployment of three CubeSats using NanoRack’s deployer and  two CubeSats utilizing the Slingshot CubeSat Deployer System developed by SEOPS.

Between the two missions, Orbital ATK was acquired by Northrop Grumman. The first launch in May was designated OA-9 for the ninth Orbital ATK mission.  The resupply flight in November was designated NG-10.

Soyuz MS-10 launch photo (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

2018: 19-1-0
2017: 20-1-0

Russia launched 20 times in 2018, a slight decline from the 21 launches the country attempted in 2017. However, failure continued to dog Russia’s space program during a year that saw further deterioration in its position in the commercial launch market.

Variants of the Soyuz-2 booster family flew 15 times. The most spectacular – and frightening – launch came on Oct. 11 during the launch of a new crew to the the ISS. One of four side boosters failed to separate properly from the rocket’s core stage due to a deformed sensor, resulting in an abort of the Soyuz MS-10 capsule.

Expedition 57 Flight Engineer Alexey Ovchinin of Roscosmos, left, and Flight Engineer Nick Hague of NASA, right. embrace their families after landing at the Krayniy Airport, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018. (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin landed safety in Kazakhstan after a hair-raising ballistic abort. Neither man was injured during the flight. They later flew to the space station in 2019.

The failure left three astronauts aboard the space station with an aging Soyuz whose on-orbit life was only rated at six months. If the Soyuz booster was grounded for a long period, they might have to take the unprecedented step of the leaving ISS without a crew.

However, the Russians recovered quickly from the failure. After three successful Soyuz launches with satellites aboard, Russia sent a fresh crew to the station on Dec. 3.

The abort was the first failure of a Soyuz crewed launch since September 1983 when the Soyuz T-10-1 capsule fired its abort motor after a fire engulfed the booster on the launch pad. In April 1975, the  crew of Soyuz 18-a made a ballistic reentry after the second stage of its rocket failed to separate. Both crews survived.

Failures have dogged Russia’s satellite launches in recent years. The program has experienced at least one failure or partial failure annually going back to 2002. The totals over the past 17 years include 24 failures and six partial failures. The last time Russia went 12 full months with a perfect was in 2009-2010.

Fortunately, Russia’s other six Soyuz launches to the space station went off without a hitch in 2018. The missions included three Soyuz crew and three Progress resupply spacecraft.

The other seven Soyuz-2 boosters launched four communications satellites, four Earth observation spacecraft, two Glonass M navigation satellites, one military reconnaissance spacecraft, and a weather satellite.

Proton launches EchoStar XXI satellite. (Credit: Roscosmos)

Russia’s venerable Proton booster, which was once a mainstay of commercial communications satellite launches, flew only twice in 2018. It launched a pair of Blagovest communications satellites for the Russian military.

Proton has been hit on two fronts in recent years: quality control problems have left the booster grounded for long periods and dented its record of reliability; and SpaceX’s low-cost Falcon 9 boosters have undercut it in the market.

Russia has withdrawn its Rockot (“roar”) launcher from commercial service. However, the converted intercontinental ballistic missile continued to carry government payloads into orbit.

In April, a Rockot launched Europe’s Sentinel B Earth observation satellite. At the end of November, another Rockot launched a Rodnik communications satellite for the Russian military.

The Soyuz-2.1v, which despite its name is a fundamentally different rocket from the Soyuz-2 family, flew once last year. It orbited an EMKA military reconnaissance satellite from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome.

Ariane 5 launches the Aeolus satellite. (Credit: Arianespace)

2018: 7-0-1
2017: 9-0

Europe launched its Ariane 5 and Vega boosters eight times in 2018, with seven successes and one partial failure.

Six Ariane 5 boosters launched seven communications satellites, four Galileo navigation spacecraft, and a weather satellite into Earth orbit. The rocket also sent the BepiColombo probe on a mission to orbit the planet Mercury.

The first Ariane 5 launch of the year placed the SES 14 and Al Yah 3 communications satellites into the wrong orbits due to a software programming error. Both satellites were able to reach their planned orbits using on-board propulsion.

Europe also launched the Vega booster twice last year. In August, a Vega launched the Atmospheric Dynamics Mission Aeolus (ADM-Aeolus), an Earth observation satellite built by Airbus Defence and Space.

ADM-Aeolus is the first spacecraft capable of performing global wind component profile observations, which will provide data that will help improve weather forecasting.

In November, a Vega rocket launched the Mohammed VI-B Earth observation satellite for Morocco. The spacecraft, which was manufactured by Astrium Satellites and Thales Alenia Space, is being used for land surveying and mapping, agricultural monitoring, border and coastal surveillance, and the prevention of natural disasters.

GSLV Mk. III lifts off with GSAT-29 satellite. (Credit: ISRO)

2018: 7-0-0
2017: 4-1-0

India launched seven times from Satish Dahwan in 2018. Three PSLV boosters carried four Earth observation satellites into orbit. A fourth PSLV rocket also launched a satellite for India’s regional satellite navigation system.

A pair of GSLV Mk. II boosters carried the GSAT-6A and GSAT-7A communications satellites into orbit for use by the Indian military. A larger GSLV Mk. III booster launched the GSAT 29 satellite into space for civilian use.

The success of the GSLV Mk. III booster has given India confidence to launch a human spaceflight program. The nation plans to use the rocket to launch three astronauts on a seven-day mission in Earth orbit before Indian Independence Day in August 2022.

Despite the success of GLSV Mk. III, India continues to rely on outside launch providers for its larger communications satellites. In December, an European Ariane 5 booster launched India’s heaviest satellite to date, GSAT-11. The spacecraft is designed to boost broadband connectivity to rural and previously inaccessible areas of the country.

Epsilon launches ASNARO-2 satellite. (Credit: JAXA)

2018: 6-0-0
2017: 6-1-0

Japan launched six times in 2018, including four flights from the Tanegashima spaceport and two from Uchinoura.

Three H-IIA boosters launched two military reconnaissance satellites for the Japanese government and a pair of civilian Earth observation satellites from Tanegashima.

In September, a H-IIB booster lifted off from the same launch pad with the HTV-7 resupply ship bound for the International Space Station.

An Epsilon rocket also launched the ASNARO 2 Earth observation satellite into orbit from Uchinoura in January. The satellite was developed by Japan Space Systems and NEC Corp.

SS-520 booster (Credit: JAXA)

Sixteen days later, the SS-520-4 booster accomplished its first successful launch by placing the TRICOM 1R spacecraft into orbit from the same spaceport. The CubeSat has an imaging camera and communications technology aboard it.

It was the second and final launch for the upgraded sounding rocket, which had failed in its maiden flight in 2017. JAXA, which used the SS-520-4 to develop technology for a future small-satellite booster, declared the SS-520 program a success and has no plans to launch the rocket again.


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

China’s CALT led all booster manufacturers in launches in 2018. Variants of the state-owned company’s Long March 2, 3 and 4 boosters flew a total of 34 times.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 flew the most of any booster family. The debut of the Falcon Heavy in February helped the company set a new record of 21 flights in a calendar year.

Falcon 9USA200020
Long March 3 (A,B,C)China140014
Long March 2 (C,D)China140014
Long March 4 (B,C)China6006
Ariane 5Europe5016
Atlas VUSA5005
H-II (A,B)Japan4004
Long March 11China3003
Delta IV (IV, Heavy)USA2002
GSLV Mk. IIIndia2002
Delta II*USA1001
Falcon HeavyUSA1001
GSLV Mk IIIIndia1001
Kuaizhou 1AChina1001
Zhuque 1China0101
* Final launch

Long March 4 and Ariane 5 flew six times each; Atlas V five times; H-II and PSLV four times apiece; Electron and Long March 11 three times each; six boosters flew twice; and eight rockets were launched one time apiece.

The year saw the debut of the Falcon 9 Block 5, which was billed as the final variant of the booster. It is also the version designed to launch astronauts to the space station aboard Crew Dragon spacecraft.

SpaceX recovered 12 of the 23 first stages launched last year, including the two side boosters from the Falcon Heavy debut. Eight boosters landed on offshore drone ships, with another four touching down on land.

There were two failed booster recoveries. The Falcon Heavy’s core stage narrowly missed landing on an off-shore drone ship. In December, a stalled hydraulic pump resulted in a first stage crash landing off shore instead of on land.

SpaceX did not attempt to recover the first stage during nine launches. Most of these launches were older Block 4 variants that were being phased out.

Ten Falcon 9 first stages were reused on nine launches. Both of Falcon Heavy’s side boosters were flying for the second time. A first stage was launched for the third time in December carrying 64 satellites as part of Spaceflight’s rideshare mission.


Launch of the Soyuz rocket carrying David Saint-Jacques and his Expedition 58 crewmates. (Credit NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)

There were a total of 13 support missions launched to the International Space Station, including four crew and nine resupply flights.

Russia continued to carry the largest load in supporting the station, with four crew and three resupply missions launched. Five American cargo ships visited the station along with one Japanese resupply vessel.

02/13/18RussiaSoyuzProgress 69PISS ResupplySuccess
3/21/18RussiaSoyuzISS 54S (Soyuz)ISS CrewSuccess
04/02/18USAFalcon 9CRS-14 (Dragon)ISS ResupplySuccess
05/21/18USAAntaresOA-9 (Cygnus)ISS ResupplySuccess
06/06/18RussiaSoyuzISS-55S (Soyuz)ISS CrewSuccess
06/29/18USAFalcon 9CRS-15 (Dragon)ISS ResupplySuccess
07/09/18RussiaSoyuzProgress 70PISS ResupplySuccess
9/22/18JapanH-IIBHTV-7ISS ResupplySuccess
10/11/18RussiaSoyuzISS 56S (Soyuz)ISS CrewFailure/Crew Safely Aborted
11/16/18RussiaSoyuzProgress 71PISS ResupplySuccess
11/17/18USAAntaresNG-10 (Cygnus)ISS ResupplySuccess
12/03/18RussiaSoyuzISS-57SISS CrewSuccess
12/05/18USAFalcon 9CRS-16 (Dragon)ISS ResupplySuccess

Due to delays in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, Russia continued to be the only nation capable of sending astronauts and cosmonauts to the station. It now appears that neither Boeing nor SpaceX will fly astronauts to ISS until 2020.

The October in-flight abort of the Soyuz flight carrying Hague and Ovchinin was not the only safety-related problem affecting Russia’s contribution to the space station program.

In August, ISS astronauts discovered a 2-mm hole in the orbital module of the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft docked at the station. Astronauts quickly patched the hole, which posed no further danger to them.  The orbital module was jettisoned before re-entry of the crew module into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Roscosmos General Director Dmitry Rogozin recently said officials discovered why the hold was in the module. However, he said the state corporation is keeping the answer secret.

HTV Small Re-entry Capsule (Credit: JAXA)

Filled with trash and discarded equipment, Japan’s disposable HTV-7 cargo ship burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere as planned on Nov. 10 after separating from the space station.

Before the mission ended, controllers ejected the Small Re-entry Capsule (HSRC) loaded with experiments from the cargo ship. Equipped with a heat shield, the HRSC was recovered after it splashed down into the Pacific Ocean under a parachute near the island of Minamitorishima.

it was the first time that experiments had been returned from the space station in a vehicle other than Soyuz, Dragon or the space shuttle. JAXA is using the lessons learned from HRSC to develop a larger reentry vehicle capable of carrying more experiments.


Atlas V launches the AFSPC-11 mission. (Credit: ULA)

Cape Canaveral Air Force Station remained the world’s busiest orbital spaceport in 2018 with 19 launches of SpaceX and ULA boosters.

China’s Xichang and Jiuquan spaceports were close behind Cape Canaveral with 17 and 15 launches, respectively. They were followed by Kourou (11), Baikonur (9), Vandenberg (8), Satish Dhawan and Taiyuan (7 apiece), and Plesetsk (6).

Cape CanaveralUSA190019
Satish DhawanIndia7007
Mahia PeninsulaNew Zealand3003
Wallops IslandUSA2002

When two launches from the neighboring Kennedy Space Center are included, Florida’s Space Coast accounted for 21 of the 114 orbital launch attempts worldwide, or 18.4 percent of the total.

That meant a busy year for the U.S. Air Force’s 45th Space Wing, which handles operations for the Eastern Test Range where ballistic missile tests are also conducted.

Cape Canaveral’s 19 launches placed it well ahead of Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, where eight launches were conducted in 2018. Vandenberg has struggled to attract launch companies, although it has had some success. Firefly Aerospace has committed to flying its small-satellite launcher from there.

Cape Canaveral (Florida)190019
Vandenberg (California)8008
Mahia Peninsula (New Zealand)3003
Kennedy (Florida)2002
Wallops Island (Virginia)2002

U.S.-based Rocket Lab gave New Zealand its busiest launch year in history. It successfully flew the Electron booster from its launch complex on the Mahia Peninsula three times. The nation’s only other orbital launch was a failed Electron flight in 2017.

Wallops Island, which has been limited to Antares/Cygnus flights to ISS, will see an increase in launches in the coming years. Rocket Lab is building a launch complex for the Electron on the island.

Russia’s Vostochny Woes

Russia launched nine times from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, six times from Plesetsk, three times from the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, and twice from the new Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East.

Soyuz rocket blasts off from Vostochny on Nov. 28, 2017. (Credit: Roscosmos)

Vostochny — whose construction has been plagued lengthy delays, fraud and  embezzlement, and unpaid workers — was built to break Russia’s reliance on foreign spaceports.. However, 12 of the 20 launches — 60 percent — in 2018 took place outside the country.

The pair of Soyuz-2 flights that delivered four Earth observations to orbit last year were only the third and fourth launches since the spaceport’s inaugural flight took place in April 2016.

Roscosmos is expanding Vostochny to accommodate launches of the Angara family of rockets, which can launch light to heavy payloads. The Angara A5 is intended to replace the Proton booster.

However, Angara is off to a slow start as Protons continue to fly. An Angara 1.2PP launched from Plesetsk on a successful suborbital flight in July 2014. Five months later, an Angara A5 successfully launched a mass simulator into orbit.

Russia plans to gradually phase in Angara launches as it phases out the Proton. The final launch of Proton is scheduled for 2025.