US regains title of space-launch world leader

Posted on 4 Jan 2018 by Michael Cruickshank

The United States has once again risen to become the country with the greatest number of space launches in 2017, buoyed by the strength of private launch companies.

The large number of US launches in 2017 was largely due to SpaceX. Image courtesy of SpaceX
The large number of US launches in 2017 was largely due to SpaceX. Image courtesy of SpaceX

All up, in 2017, the US managed to achieve 29 orbital space launches, a significant increase from the 22 achieved in the previous year.

The fact that the country managed to carry out so many launches to orbit was mainly achieved on the back of private-sector launch growth.

More than half of the launches came from a single company – SpaceX – which launched its Falcon 9 rocket a total of 18 times over the course of the year.

In comparison, Russia only managed 20 space launches in 2017, and China 19, both lower than in previous years.

In addition, US also suffered no launch failures over the past 12 months, whereas its primary competitors, China, Russia and India, all suffered significant costly accidents leading to the loss of their rocket payloads.

A transition in space launch capacity

The US has not held the pole position for space launches since 2003, when it retried the accident-prone Space Shuttle.

Now, however, it appears to be on the verge of regaining its capacity, mainly due to the government’s successful support for private spaceflight companies, most significantly SpaceX.

With new launch vehicles and a high launch rate, these companies have managed to provide a cheaper and comparably reliable alternative to Russian-made rockets.

As well in 2018, if all goes to plan the US will also regain the capability to launch astronauts into space with both Boeing and SpaceX ready to test their vehicles as part of the Commercial Crew Program.

China’s big plans

The US’s future competition, however, will come from China, not Russia. There the government has stated that it is planning around 40 launches next year, according to reporting by Ars Technica.

Of course, before this happens it will need to recover from several recent launch failures including one of its large Long March 5 rocket, which it will depend on to create its planned space station,