Commercial Rockets

— introduction —

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I feel like running down the list of rockets available for orbital launch services, to see where we stand. I started on this at an exciting time: 2017 was a year when a whole lot of cool changes were coming along but hadn’t quite arrived yet, and that’s still the situation now. These included the return of the USA to manned spaceflight, the overtaking of traditional government-contractor launch companies by private startups, the construction of manned craft capable of flight beyond the moon, boosters of a larger size than have been used for decades, a booming market for very small launchers, and most of all, we hope, a dramatic lowering of launch costs through reuse of vehicles. This page is updated from time to time as progress is made on these goals. As of 2021, only the first of these exciting innovations can be fully checked off as done.

In 2017, only three surviving rocket families on this list had ever carried humans to orbit: R-7/Soyuz (hundreds), Atlas (four in the old days, with more coming soon), and Long March 2 (fourteen at that time). 2020 added the Falcon 9 to that list, and the next year it even started taking tourists to orbit. But that list could double in the next few years, with the Vulcan, the New Glenn, the Starship, and even India’s GSLV III all preparing to carry passengers, plus the Russian and Chinese space agencies both working on new spacecraft, without yet having specified the rockets to go under them.

Let’s begin with the old-line aerospace contractors and then move on to the new startups. Originally, I listed here only orbital rockets which are in active use today, or should be soon, with flights available to commercial buyers on the open market. Later, I added some governmental rockets which are not yet commercialized (of which there are surprisingly few), but they are hidden by default. I put some emphasis on rockets capable of launching crewed missions. These are generally medium or large sized rockets: of necessity much bigger than a smallsat launcher, but usually much smaller than, say, a Saturn V. There are small rockets of interest too, such as the Electron and the Astra; these are hidden by default, so to see them you must check the “Light” chechbox in the filters below.

The Russians (working with the Ukrainians in some cases) have some rockets which have not flown for a decade, but are not officially retired: the Tsyklon and the Volna. I omit these. The START was on that list but recently has been called back into service. The Tsyklon may be brought back by a Canadian venture. The Dnipr [or Dnepr or Dnieper] is officially retired, but the Russians are talking about bringing back under a new name, Baikal. This makes sense politically if not technically, because Dnipr is Ukrainian and for obvious reasons they are no longer on good terms with Russia. The Rokot [or Rockot] retired in 2019 for the same reason, but plans are afoot to bring back an updated version. For the others I will wait until there is solid evidence that something is going to fly. For rockets which have had major announcements but still exist only on paper, like the Irtysh [or Soyuz-5], Yenisei, and Amur, I have incorporated descriptions of their stated plans into articles on the earlier rockets to which they would act as successors, the Zenit and the Angara.

I skim briefly over several rockets developed in minor spacefaring nations which are not yet to the point of commercialization. The rockets of North Korea and Iran share a common article, as they share common designs. Minor efforts from South Korea, Argentina, and Brazil are described only as asides in other articles. I skip some small aerospace startups whose ambitions for orbital flight are still many years off, of which there are many. Once an entry is written, I’ll leave it in place if it gets retired.

I had originally expected to be listing lots of “new space” ventures, and was disappointed to learn how few of them have yet shown any signs of being competitive. But the number of such entries continues to gradually increase, though you won’t see most of them if you leave light rockets unselected. This list might look a lot different five years from now. But a lot of these new companies are likely to go bust; the road to space is already dotted with the wrecks of several ventures which have discovered firsthand how difficult rocketry really is. For instance, the exciting startup XCOR went broke shortly before the time I started writing this, and John Carmack’s Armadillo Areospace ran out of gas a year earlier (but a remnant is still active under the name Exos). Firefly also went bust but then revived, and now has an entry; we’ll see if it lasts. Apparently they absorbed another marginal startup, General Astronautics. The once very promising Vector Launch became another casualty in 2019. We’ve even had a startup failure in China, it looks like, with LandSpace, who actually launched a flight that just missed orbit, before running out of credit or something — the issues have not been made public. But they are apparently now coming back, abandoning their nearly-successful solid rocket and starting on a liquid one.

Rocketry can be a sucker’s game: there are few feats so simple on paper yet so difficult in practice as spaceflight. Those who have taken these lessons to heart have a saying: “In rocketry, you have to spend a billion to make a million.” And it can be a sucker’s game for backers too: it’s easy for entrepreneurs to talk a big game without actually managing to get any hardware up into the sky. I won’t speculate on how many new-space ventures might be outright scams.

(I once met a guy who was a founding partner in a rocket company. They had patented a “revolutionary” new type of engine. They were convinced that they could build something tiny that could reach orbit. In hindsight it was obvious that they had zero chance of success, but these highly intelligent people had allowed themselves to become converted into true believers despite the very clear obstacles in front of them... which may have included a fallacy in their basic math — I’m not sure. It was that experience, and trying to understand their patent, which eventually led to creating this page.)

I have included two examples of dubious companies’ promised rockets: the Haas by ARCA and the Neptune by Interorbital Systems, not because they have earned a legitimate place on this list but just because they bring up interesting topics. The Bloostar by Zero 2 Infinity might be another such case. All of these are in the “Light” category not shown by default. And maybe the Reaction Engines Skylon concept is also in that dubious-but-interesting group.

Some companies and rocket proposals not yet included here are Aevum (Ravn-X), ASRI (Ausroc), Dawn (Aurora), Earth to Sky, Equatorial (Volanis), Exos/Armadillo, Generation Orbit, Gilmour (Eris), Green Launch, Independence-X (DNLV), Interstellar Technologies (MOMO), Isar, Leaf Space (Primo), Lin (Taimyr), Lingkong Tianxing a.k.a. Space Transportation, Maritime (Tsyklon revival), Microcosm (Sprite), OHB’s Rocket Factory Augsburg (RFA 1), Pipeline 2 Space, Pythom, Rocket Crafters (Intrepid), Skyrora (Skylark), SpaceDarts, Space Engine Systems, SpaceLS (Prometheus), SpinLaunch, Stofiel (Boreas), VSAT, Wagner, and X-Bow. Most of these would also be in the “Light” category, aiming for the smallsat market. There are plenty more which are so obscure I know nothing about them yet. A few of them are briefly described in passing within other articles.

The SpaceFund Reality Index is one way to track minor companies and see which are emerging into serious status, but unsurprisingly, their coverage of companies in Asia can be spotty. The manager of that index, Megan M. Crawford, expects most of these ventures to fail, and further argues that they are all overestimating the size of the small launch market.

Around 2020, a new trend began: small rocket companies starting to emerge without warning, announcing that they are just months away from their maiden orbital launch when we’d previously heard nothing from them. Astra, the most secretive American company, was only the first to follow this pattern. When the Ceres-1 and Nebula 1 from China, the Blue Whale from South Korea, and the Hapith from Taiwan announced upcoming launch dates, I had never heard of any of them beforehand. This combination of surprise and urgency made it difficult to separate the serious contenders from the long shots. I may have been suckered into adding articles for some which are just hype and hope.

Some companies which have successfully gained entries from the list above are the then-secretive Astra in California, Relativity Space (Terran) also in California, Britain’s Orbex (Prime), China’s LinkSpace (New Line) and Deep Blue (Nebula), Taiwan’s TiSPACE (Hapith), and South Korea’s Perigee (Blue Whale). Some of the later names on that list may not be all that well qualified; I may have fallen for hype. We shall see. All of these hope to compete with the Electron in the low budget microsat market, but none have yet managed to do so.

Since this page was first published in 2017, only three interesting rockets have gone from hyped promises to actual orbital service: the Electron, the Falcon Heavy, and the LauncherOne. (Many Chinese solid fuel models have also had maiden flight attempts, three of them successfully.) There are plenty who hope to join that list within the next year or so, most immediately the Astra and the Firefly Alpha. Yet despite the supposed glut of innovative small launch services that will supposedly soon be upon us, in 2021 the Electron still stands largely alone — the LauncherOne is in theory now ready to compete equally with it, but we are still waiting to see them develop a regular cadence.

We will order the list by age, with the oldest surviving rocket families first.