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The Launch Landscape: The Whole Thing
Over the past 18 months, I've written a series of newsletters that provide a survey and analysis of the most relevant orbital rockets in the launch market. It has covered rockets that were already flying, as well as those that aimed to start launching in the very near term.
Titled the Launch Landscape, the series touched on everything from Astra's Rocket 3 on the smallest end, all the way up to SpaceX's Starship at the largest. There were 23 rockets discussed over 5 publications.
Having now hit upon so many vehicles over an extended period, I think it's helpful to provide a single, comprehensive writeup of the whole set of rockets and reflect on the Launch Landscape holistically, as well as take a look back on what has and hasn't changed since the newsletters were published. Lets dig in!
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Small-Lift Class Vehicles, originally published June 16th, 2021
I wrote about small rockets in the summer of 2021. It was an exciting time in the small launch industry with some companies hoping to scale up their operations and others attempting their first orbital launches in the months to follow.
While Astra and Vega-C have now successfully reached orbit for the first time, other small launchers like Firefly's Alpha rocket, Relativity's Terran 1, and ABL's RS1 are still hoping to make their first successful orbital launches. Furthermore, Astra has decided to step away from their Rocket 3 and move to a newer, larger Rocket 4. On the other hand, Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne and Rocket Lab's Electron vehicles are scaling operations as their vehicles demonstrate higher rates of reliability, with Electron hitting its stride and surpassing a monthly launch cadence.
In my newsletter 12 months ago, I focused largely on questions regarding the size of the market demand for dedicated small launch vehicles carrying payloads less than 1,500kg. In retrospect, it's hard to determine how warranted those concerns were around market size. There hasn't been enough scale on the supply of these launch vehicles to determine what launch rate would seem to meet the demand from satellites and spacecraft. For the moment, it's clear that the demand still outpaces supply.
In some ways, the slower ramping up of these launch vehicles is further reducing concerns around demand, as new satellite constellations are being announced on a seemingly monthly basis. Some constellations have started to partner up with these launch companies, however, it's notable that most constellation deployments have been planned with vehicles in larger payload classes. For example, Relativity's significant partnership to deploy OneWeb satellites was announced using their next-generation Terran R vehicle rather than the smaller Terran 1.
In addition, attention has shifted from questions around demand to instead focus on risks around execution. This is particularly true as launch companies begin to announce next-generation ambitious projects like lunar landers, satellite buses, and communications constellations, making it all the more important that these organizations execute on near-term milestones before moving towards future projects. For more information on those projects, check out a previous newsletter of mine titled When Rocket Companies Become More Tan Rocket Companies.
Medium-Lift Class Vehicles, originally published July 29th, 2021
When I wrote about the rockets in the medium launch vehicle category, I emphasized the international nature of this payload class of rocket. Representing the US, China, India, Russia, and Japan, there was something particularly global about the vehicles capable of lifting 2,000kg to 20,000kg of payload to low Earth orbit.
The geographic diversity of these vehicles has become even more relevant due to the events that have transpired since the article was written. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, western nations responded by sanctioning a number of Russian exports. Roscosmos, Russia's state-sponsored space agency, themselves responded by suspending flights of western satellites and cooperation with European partners. The first to be impacted was satellite broadband provider OneWeb who had been using Russia's Soyuz rocket for deploying its constellation and had a number of satellites integrated aboard a Soyuz vehicle at the time cooperation halted. OneWeb ultimately never recovered those satellites and wrote them off as a $229 million loss. OneWeb has since announced partnerships with U.S. launch companies SpaceX and Relativity.
In addition, the Northrop Grumman Antares rocket used Russian-bought RD-181 engines to power its first stage. Supply of those engines has similarly halted and Northrop has recently announced a partnership to develop a new first stage alongside Firefly Space, which will power the Antares rocket.
Given the supply chain challenges, it's no wonder so many spacefaring nations have elected to maintain a domestic launch capability in this lift class, despite the costs in doing so.
Medium/Heavy-Lift Class Vehicles, originally published March 2nd, 2021
When I began writing the Launch Landscape series, I chose to start with the busiest rockets on the market. It turned out that many of those rockets all had similar payload capabilities right around 20,000kg to LEO, the border between the medium and heavy lift classes. Rather than shoehorn them in with the medium rockets (2,000kg to 20,000kg) or the heavy rockets (20,000kg to 50,000kg), I gave them their own category.
In retrospect, these three vehicles tell an interesting story of the impact that innovation has had on the launch industry. One of these rockets, the Falcon 9, has in only the last decade completely redefined not only launch, but the space industry entirely. The consequence is that the other two vehicles, the Atlas V and the Proton, are being displaced and phased out due to their lack of competitiveness in this shifting launch market.
It's hard to overstate the impact the Falcon 9 has had on both rocketry and the economics of launch. It most obviously has reduced the costs of accessing space. More than that I'd argue though that it has greatly shifted how we even think about space as a commercial industry. The Falcon 9 challenged us to focus less on the technology of rocketry and more on the economics.
Given the significant demand for vehicles in this category, as exemplified by their rate of flight, we can better understand why some companies building small launch vehicles, specifically Rocket Lab and Relativity, have announced next-generation rockets around this 20,000kg to LEO lift-capacity.
Heavy-Lift Class Vehicles, originally published November 23rd, 2021
When I wrote about vehicles in the heavy-lift class category, I discussed how those rockets had been optimized not for price, but for performance. They were intended to enable one-off missions with highly precise orbits, often at higher energy GTO or direct insertion into GEO. For that reason, they were all incorporating engines using high-performing hydrogen rocket engines that are more challenging due to the need to work with cryogenic hydrogen in liquid form. For these reasons, the heavy launch rockets tend to be expensive and serve less price-sensitive customers, such as civilian space government agencies or defense-related national security agencies.
This was recently exemplified by the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in December 2021 aboard an Ariane 5 rocket. Due to the high-precision, high-energy nature of the Ariane 5, Webb was placed into such a perfect trajectory that the telescope needed very little of its own propellant to make additional orbital corrections. Consequently, the James Webb Space Telescope ended up with significant "extra" fuel onboard, effectively doubling the fuel-limiting lifetime of the telescope. Given that there are fewer such applications that require this type of high-energy launch, we can see why the heavy launch vehicles tend to be in a price category that often makes them uncompetitive for commercial satellite customers.
In contrast to my categorizing these vehicles specifically towards high-energy orbits, one recent launch deal showed that these rockets might be used toward price-sensitive launches to low Earth orbit as well. This was Amazon's bulk purchase of 38 Vulcan launches to carry Project Kuiper satellites to LEO. The deal will tie up a considerable chunk of launch supply over the coming years and shows that these heavy lift vehicles may be more versatile than we've previously seen.
Super Heavy-Lift Class Vehicles, originally published March 10, 2022
The Super Heavy-lift launch class was the rocket category that I covered most recently and for that reason, it is the category that has changed the least.
Perhaps the most exciting part of this lift class is that we may soon be seeing the first orbital flights of both NASA's Space Launch System and SpaceX's Starship. In fact, SLS scrubbed the first launch attempt in recent weeks and currently has another launch window scheduled for September 23rd. That first flight has been over a decade in the making and It will also likely mark the end of NASA's legacy of developing rockets themselves, as the agency has chosen going forward to primarily purchase launch services from commercial industry.
While the first launch of SLS will be a triumphant feat for NASA, Starship is expected to have a far more profound impact over time. While SLS is aiming to scale towards a launch rate of every year or so, Starship has ambitions to eventually fly multiple times per day. Before even its first orbital attempt, Starship has inspired numerous articles about the pending transformational change it will have on the launch industry. There are youtube channels with tens of thousands of viewers that show 24-hour coverage of vehicle development at Boca Chica. Perhaps most importantly though, it has attracted to this industry a generation of enthusiasts who might otherwise have never been exposed to space.
Wrapping It Up
The diversity of vehicles in this post is a testament to the growing robustness of the launch sector, led by venture-funded companies proving to be critical enablers of space access. This was recently emphasized in the U.S. Department of Defense's State of the Space Industrial Base released in August 2022, which stated, "After a decade of innovation and significant private investment, the U.S. has begun to recover and is once again resurgent as a leader in space launch services."
Furthermore, while an impressive set of commercially developed vehicles is already servicing customers or seeking to imminently do so, there are a handful of rockets that I did not include because they will likely not launch for another two to three years at least. Those rockets may themselves reshape the market in the not-too-distant future. They include Rocket Lab's Neutron, Relativity's Terran R, Phantom's Daytona, Astra's Rocket 4, and Stoke Space's yet-to-be-named vehicle.
All this leads to an optimistic future for satellite and spacecraft operators, who will be looking forward to increasing launch rates and decreasing launch prices over the horizon.