Graphs with a lot of space launch data can be a bit of a Rorschach test, including the part about seeing angels or demons. The lonely data point, on the other hand, is easy to employ to jump to about any answer, and nowadays, there is no lack of these unique space sector events. In recent weeks alone, NASA rolled its Space Launch System to the pad, Firefly is not only still alive but set to sell engines to Northrop Grumman for yet another iteration on their Antares rocket, China launched a small spaceplane to orbit, and Europe is looking to Space Based Solar Power. It’s easy to say we are going to the Moon, small launch is taking off, China has leaped ahead, and Europe’s energy picture will soon be Star Trekky. Well, probably not. There is no replacement for quantifying if we can. Quantifying and counting may be tedious, and it may create pictures that take a while to process. But the insights are probably “not bad” for anyone taking bets.
With this in mind, here on offer are a few graphs gathering up space launch data like which rocket launched when, was it “commercial,” and if it was reused, how often and how quickly. What do you see?
For starters, a classic is plotting rocket launches against time, joining the dots by launcher. A simple count over time in US launch reveals a few curiosities. Virgin Galactic’s Launcher One and Northrop Grumman’s Antares are still looking for runway. It’s not clear these will tick “up” (a more vertical line), reflecting launch rate increasing a lot, anytime soon. Rocket Lab’s Electron, though, seems to be getting its groove back after some mishaps. Minotaur rockets, as long as they’ve been around, continue as rare events, and this may be more the case after the last mishap. Not surprisingly, and not productive, US government policy here remains about supplying old boosters back to the company these were purchased from, rather than pushing growth competitively and fairly through the demand side of launch services. As to the Delta IV sputtering along, it awaits its last launch point sometime in 2024. A prediction for Delta IV fitting an S-curve would have seen this slow demise coming well before the advance obituary in 2015.
What do you see?
As we continue to move to the left, the United Launch Alliance (Boeing and Lockheed) Atlas V started to sputter as well, around 2017, with a low launch cadence since. This brings us to Falcon 9, with data points so close together as to draw a near-solid line. In 2022, SpaceX is running a yearly launch rate of about 59 launches a year. For SpaceX, gone are the days when you could see individual launches in the lines connecting the dots.
Where does all this space launch place the US globally? Here things get a little iffy – at least for a “commercial” launch, which is very much a US phenomenon. Whether the customer is the government or the private sector, the notion that a launch is honestly competed, and the eventual launch provider is not a given, captures part of what being “commercial” means. Yet private enterprises, as with SpaceX Starlink launches, are also arguably “commercial” in nature. Time will tell, but at least by these definitions, global commercial space launch in 2022 will exceed 2021 and hit another peak above that seen in the late 1990s. This commercial trend is led by US launch systems, primarily SpaceX.
Perhaps in our lifetime, we will say “rocket” the way we say “airplane” without having to say reusable or expendable…
Reusability is likely the most critical part of what gives us the global commercial trend led by SpaceX. It wasn’t a disposable one-use rocket that kept the US at the forefront of global launches – commercial or otherwise. It’s tempting to draw a cross-industry comparison. Most car companies now see the spelling on the wall and have begun efforts to electrify. Similarly, we see companies like Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos’s company) and Rocket Lab (in New Zealand, but set up as a US corporation) embracing reusability as the future. Still, for an industry that’s all about the future, it seems many salaries remain tied to not reading what’s on the wall. On another bright note for reusable launch, the European Space Agency is showing enthusiasm for Space Based Solar Power and the reusable launch that’s part of getting this to work. Perhaps in our lifetime, we will say “rocket” the way we say “airplane” without having to say reusable or expendable because reuse is a given.
For those who go forward, we know the bar on reusability is high, even if the cost side remains known only to SpaceX. Boosters are reused by SpaceX about 6 times (7 launches) and a booster is turned around and relaunched in about 2 months. With a relatively small fleet, this translates into the years weekly SpaceX launches.
Somebody smart once said something about how not everything that can be counted counts. Not as memorable, but also true, counting sure helps figure out what counts.