While SpaceX led all U.S. providers with 61 launches, six other companies and NASA conducted launches that significantly advanced America’s space exploration program.
NASA’s Artemis I mission opened the way for the first crewed mission to the moon in 50 years. Rocket Lab launched a spacecraft to evaluate the orbit for the Lunar Gateway station the astronauts will use when they get there. United Launch Alliance (ULA) sent Boeing’s Starliner crew transport on a successful flight test to the International Space Station (ISS). And an inflatable heat shield was tested that could be used to deliver large payloads to Mars.
All in all, it was a wildly successful year for U.S. launch providers that saw 87 launch attempts. There were 184 successes, two failures and one partial failure.
Launches by U.S. Companies, 2022
|Company/Launch Vehicle||Successes||Failures||Partial Failures||Launches||Payloads|
|Delta IV Heavy||1||0||0||1||1|
|NASA||Space Launch System||1||0||0||1||11|
|Firefly Aerospace||Firefly Alpha||0||0||1||1||7|
NASA and the six launch providers not named SpaceX conducted 23 successful launches while suffering two failures and one partial. They launched a combined 118 payloads, including a dozen spacecraft to the moon. One payload was launched on a suborbital flight by ULA’s Atlas V rocket.
NASA’s massive Space Launch System (SLS) rocket roared off the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center for the first time on Nov. 16. The giant booster sent an uncrewed Orion crew vehicle on a 25.5-day long flight test to the moon on a mission designated Artemis I.
NASA officials said SLS performed better than expected. They were also extremely pleased with the performance of the Orion spacecraft, saying the vehicle experienced only minor anomalies. The successful test paved the way for a crewed Orion flight to the moon in 2024, followed by a landing at the south pole on the subsequent flight using SpaceX’s Human Landing System.
Ten CubeSats were launched to the moon along with Orion. Six spacecraft succeeded, while the other four were lost. See Deep Space CubeSats: Where Are the Artemis Secondary Payloads Now? for more details.
Rocket Lab (NAS: RKLB) set a new record of nine launches in a year, exceeding the seven launches the company conducted two years earlier. One of the seven launches in 2020 failed.
Rocket Lab conducted its first mission beyond Earth orbit on June 28 when it launched NASA’s Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) spacecraft to the moon. CAPSTONE is testing the near-rectilinear halo orbit that will be used by the human-tended Lunar Gateway station. Rocket Lab’s Photon space tug made a lunar flyby.
Payloads Launched by Electron, 2022
|E-Space Demo||E-Space||USA||Private constellations for communications, remote sensing||3|
|BlackSky 16, 17||BlackSky||USA||Earth observation||2|
|StriX-β, StriX-1||Synspective||Japan||Earth observation||2|
|RARS-3, 4||National Reconnaissance Office||USA||Reconnaissance||2|
|TRSI-1, 2||TRSI||Germany||Amateur radio||2|
|MyRadar-1||Acme AtronOmatic||USA||Prototype for Hyperspectral Orbital Remote Imaging Spectrometer constellation||1|
|Unicorn 2||Alba Orbital||UK||Earth observation||1|
|Copia||Astrix Aeronautics||New Zealand||Inflatable solar array attached to Electron kick stage||1|
|AuroraSat-1||Aurora Propulsion Technologies||Finland||Water thruster for maneuvering, plasma brake for deorbiting||1|
|CAPSTONE||NASA||USA||Near-rectilinear halo orbit||1|
|GAzelle (Argos-4)||NOAA/CNES||USA||Relay satellites for environmental sensors||1|
|Photon||Rocket Lab||USA||Lunar flyby||1|
|MATS||Swedish National Space Agency||Sweden||Gravity wave observation||1|
Electron launched 25 communications satellites, including 24 SpaceBee spacecraft for SpaceX-owned Swarm Technologies.
Five spacecraft were devoted to Earth observation. E-Space tested three satellites for constellations the company wants to offer for communications, Earth observation and other purposes.
Rocket Lab’s attempts to capture Electron first stages for reuse came up short. In May, a helicopter briefly captured a stage during descent. However, the pilot released the booster for safety reasons after encountering different load characteristics than anticipated. The stage was later recovered from the ocean.
A subsequent attempt in December was aborted when controllers lost telemetry from the descending first stage. The helicopter left the recovery area for safety reasons. That stage was also recovered from the ocean.
United Launch Alliance (ULA)
A ULA Atlas V launched Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft on its second orbital flight test on May 19. The automated crew vehicle docked with the space station during a six-day flight before landing at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
The successful mission paved the way for NASA astronauts Barry E. Wilmore and Sunita Williams to conduct a crewed flight test to the station in April.
The second uncrewed flight test was necessary because of the failure of a Starliner to reach the space station during a flight in December 2019. The spacecraft suffered software and communications problems that prevented it from docking with ISS. Instead, it flew an abbreviated two-day orbital flight.
Payloads Launched by ULA, 2022
|Starliner||Atlas V||Boeing||Flight test|
|GSSAP-5 (USA-324)||Atlas V||U.S. Space Force||Space surveillance|
|GSSAP-6 (USA-325)||Atlas V||U.S. Space Force||Space surveillance|
|SBIRS GEO-6||Atlas V||U.S. Space Force||Early warning|
|NROL-91 / (KH-11 19)||Delta IV Heavy||NRO||Reconnaissance|
|GOES-18 (GOES-T)||Atlas V||NOAA||Meteorology|
|NOAA-21 (JPSS-2)||Atlas V||NOAA||Meteorology|
|LOFTID||Atlas V||NASA/ULA||Inflatable decelerator (suborbital)|
ULA launched a rare commercial mission when an Atlas V lofted the SES-20 and SES-21 communications satellites to geosynchronous orbit.
ULA also launched a pair of meteorology satellites — GOES-18 and NOAA-21 — into orbit.
The NOAA-21 launch carried the Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID) as a secondary payload. The joint NASA-ULA project tested a large inflatable heat shield for use in landing heavy payloads on Mars and other worlds. LOFTID landed under parachute in the Pacific Ocean after a suborbital flight.
The final Delta IV Heavy launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base was conducted on Sept. 24. The giant rocket lofted the NROL-91 spacecraft for the National Reconnaissance Office.
There are only two more Delta IV Heavy launches scheduled for this year and 2024 before the booster is retired. ULA will replace it with the Vulcan Centaur, which is due to make its maiden flight this year.
Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC) launched two Cygnus resupply ships to ISS aboard Antares rockets. The flights carried seven CubeSats, two of which were deployed during launch and five others from the space station. Four CubeSats were designed to demonstration new technologies, with the other three focused on Earth observation.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine last February severed the supply of Ukrainian-built first stages and Russian RD-181 engines that power Antares. Northrop Grumman has contracted with Firefly Aerospace to develop a new first stage and its Miranda engines.
The current version of Antares will fly for the final time in March when it launches a Cygnus cargo ship to the station. Northrop has booked three SpaceX Falcon 9 launches to fly Cygnus cargo ships to ISS while the new Antares first stage is developed.
This is the second time Antares has been reengineered. The rocket originally used refurbished Soviet-era NK-33 engines imported by Aerojet Rocketdyne to power the first stage. The company switched to RD-181 engines after a catastrophic engine failure led to a failed launch in October 2014.
Virgin Orbit (NAS: VORB) started out 2022 optimistic that it would launch up to six times. It ended the year with only a pair of launches (the same number it conducted in 2021), and a dwindling supply of cash that required a $45 million infusion from Richard Branson’s Virgin Group.
On January 13, LauncherOne orbited seven satellites for customers from Austria, United States, United Kingdom and Poland. Virgin Orbit launched again on July 1 — the exact midpoint of the year — with eight American satellites.
Payloads Launched by Virgin Orbit, 2022
|PAN-A, PAN-B||Cornell University||USA||CubeSat autonomous rendezvous & docking||2|
|Gunsmoke-L (Lonestar)||U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command||USA||Test next-generation tactical space support payloads||2|
|Recurve||U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory||USA||Test adaptive radio frequency system capability||1|
|GEARRS-3||U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory/NearSpace Launch||USA||Black Box transmits vital data, GPS, and summary data for 24/7 coverage via Globalstar network||1|
|MISR-B||Department of Defense||USA||Possible test of signal collection technology||1|
|NACHOS-2||Los Alamos National Laboratory||USA||Earth observation||1|
|TechEdSat-13||NASA Ames Research Center||USA||Test exo-brake & Loihi neuromorphic chip||1|
|GPX-2||NASA Langley Research Center||USA||Test commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) differential GPS to enable on-orbit assembly, docking, and formation-flying of smallsats||1|
|CTIM-FD||University of Colorado at Boulder||USA||Test new tech for measuring total solar irradiance||1|
|Slingshot-1||The Aerospace Corporation||USA||Advance on-orbit experiments using modular and autonomous technologies||1|
|Lemur-2-Krywe (ADLER-1)||Austrian Space Forum||Austria||Measure space debris||1|
|SteamSat-2||SteamJet Space Systems||UK||Test water-fueled thrusters for in-space propulsion||1|
Virgin Orbit launched 12 satellites that are focused on demonstrating technologies, two devoted to Earth observation, and one that measured measuring space debris.
Virgin Orbit planned to conduct its first launch outside the United States from Spaceport Cornwall in England. The company hoped to conduct the flight in late August, and then return to the United States to conduct a fourth launch before the end of the year.
However, the British government took longer than Virgin Orbit expected to issue the necessary licenses. The company also dealt with technical challenges with new equipment at the spaceport.
The launch failed on Jan. 9 due to an unknown anomaly in LauncherOne’s second stage. Nine satellites were lost in the accident.
Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha booster placed satellites into orbit for the first time last year. Alpha failed on its maiden flight in 2021 after one of its first stage engines stopped firing.
Payloads Launched by Firefly Aerospace, 2022
|TechEdSat-15 (TES-15)||NASA Ames / SJSU||USA||Technology demonstration|
|TIS Serenity||Teachers in Space, Inc.||USA||Education|
|FOSSASAT-1B||FOSSA Systems||Spain||Technology demonstration|
|QUBIK-3||Libre Space Foundation||Greece||Technology demonstration|
|QUBIK-4||Libre Space Foundation||Greece||Technology demonstration|
Firefly declared its 2022 launch to be a complete success. However, the launch is classified as a partial failure because the payloads were released at a lower-than-planned altitude. This caused the spacecraft to reenter the atmosphere earlier than expected.
Astra (NAS: ASTR) had the worst year of any U.S. launch provider, with a record of a single success and two failures. The company was forced to retire its failure-prone Rocket 3.3 in order to focus on developing a larger booster.
Payloads Launched by Astra Space, 2022
|SpaceBEE||Swarm Technologies||New Zealand||Communications||4|
|Crossover (EyeStar-S4)||NearSpace Launch||USA||Flight test of prototype payload hosting platform; stayed attached to upper stage||1|
|OreSat0||Portland State Aerospace Society||USA||OreSat satellite bus test||1|
Astra succeeded in launching 22 payloads on its lone successful mission on March 15. Twenty of the payloads were SpaceBEE satellites for Swarm Technologies, a company owned by SpaceX.
That success was bracketed by a pair of failures that destroyed six satellites. The coup de grace for Rocket 3.3 came on June 12 when it failed to deliver two NASA Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) satellites to orbit. It was the first of three Rocket 3.3 launches that would have orbited six TROPICS satellites to study tropical cyclones.
NASA subsequently canceled Astra’s other two TROPICS launches. The space agency said it would provide Astra with other unspecified scientific payloads to launch on Rocket 4 at a later date. NASA awarded a contract to Rocket Lab to launch the remaining four TROPICS satellites on a pair of Electron rockets. Officials said the constellation can work with four instead of six satellites.
Astra announced in August that it was retiring Rocket 3.3, which could launch 50 kg into orbit. The Rocket 3 launcher family had a record of two successes, five failures and one booster destroyed on the launch pad during pre-flight preparation.
The company is now concentrating on building Rocket 4, which will have a payload capacity of up to 600 kg. The company plans to conduct flight tests of the new booster later this year.
Astra’s problems worsened when it received a delisting warning from Nasdaq in early October after its stock price closed below $1 for 30 consecutive days. It was given 180 days (until April 4, 2023) to get the price back up to $1 or facing being delisted from the stock exchange. The company has the right to appeal any delisting move. It could be granted an additional 180 days to raises its stock price.