Rockets of Today

— introduction —

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 crewed spaceflight, boosters of a larger size than have been used for decades, the overtaking of traditional government-contractor launch companies by private startups, the construction of manned craft capable of flight beyond the moon, 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 mid-2023, only the first two of these exciting innovations are completed, though the others are all progressing.

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 supposed to be 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 governmental rockets which are not yet commercialized (of which there are surprisingly few). I emphasize coverage of 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, though some that looked promising are now dropping away, like the LauncherOne. (In old versions of this page, the filters were set so these small fry were hidden by default, as were government-exclusive rockets.) I usually include a photo of the rocket, unless it exists only on paper or is particularly boring.

The Russians (working with the Ukrainians in some cases, in the days before Putin ruined everything) have some rockets which have not flown for a decade, but are not officially retired: the Tsyklon (1967-2009) and the Volna (which never actually reached orbit). I omit these. The Kosmos was the most widely used Russian rocket to be be officially retired, launching hundreds of payloads from 1961 through 2010; this also is omitted. The START was retired but supposedly is now being called back into service, though no new flights have occurred yet. This one does have a page. The Tsyklon may be brought back by a Canadian venture, though I have my doubts. The Dnipr [or Dnepr or Dnieper], which is sort of an upgraded Tsyklon, is officially retired as of 2015, but the Russians are talking about bringing it back under a new name, Baikal, once they can replace the parts that were Ukrainian-made. No page for that one. The Rokot [or Rockot] retired in 2019, also because it needed parts from Ukraine. Plans are afoot to bring back an updated version... though I hope not, as it (like the Tsyklon and Kosmos and Dnipr) uses toxic hydrazine-based fuel, which ought to be getting phased out. The Rokot has an article as it was still in use at the time of publication. (Once an entry is written, I will leave it in place if it gets retired.) For the others, I will wait until there is solid evidence that something is going to fly, before including them. For the START I may have been fooled into adding an article prematurely.

No American rocket families have retired in that period since the Titan in 2005. Japan’s small Mu retired around that time also. These do not have pages.

For Russian rockets which have had major announcements but still exist only on paper, like the Soyuz-5 a.k.a. Irtysh, the Yenisei, and the Amur, I have incorporated descriptions of their stated plans into articles on the earlier rockets to which they would act as successors, namely the Zenit and the Angara. Don’t be surprised if these take a long time to come about. If you go by news releases and paper plans, Russia’s rocket builders remain as prolific as ever, but their finances are such that their practical capabilities today have become a shadow of what they once were, even before the economic catastrophe they brought down on themselves in 2022 by starting a war in Europe.

I have taken a similar approach with the announced followup rocket ideas of private companies, appending them to the articles on what they’re building currently, adding a separate article only after they show they’ve physically built something. If there’s one universal truth in rocketry which applies equally to authoritarian governments and scrappy startups, it’s that talk is cheap.

I skim briefly over several rockets developed in minor spacefaring nations which are not yet fully developed. The rockets of North Korea and Iran share a common article, as they share common designs. Minor efforts from Argentina, Brazil, and Turkey 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 plenty.

I had originally expected to be listing lots of “new space” ventures, and was disappointed to learn how few of them had 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 filter out light rockets. 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. Masten, a small company trying to develop moon landers, ran out of fuel in 2022. We even saw a startup failure in China, or seemed to at one point, with LandSpace. They actually launched a flight that just missed orbit, before running out of credit or something... but then they came roaring back with a completely different rocket from the failed one. Apparently it is rather difficult for unprofitable companies to actually fail in China.

Rocketry can be a sucker’s game: there are few feats so straightforward 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... but I will note that rocketry Youtuber Scott Manley, without naming names, has said “There are actually phantom rocket companies that, you know, are putting out photoshop rockets.”

(I once met a guy who was a founding partner in a rocket company. They had patented a “revolutionary” new type of engine with a spinning combustion chamber. They were convinced that they could build something tiny that could reach orbit. In hindsight it’s 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.)

In most cases, I don’t think it’s really a matter of scams. I think that a lot of people, when they start looking at the problem of launching spacecraft, have thoughts something like this: “It’s been done many times, and is basically a well understood problem. But look how slow everyone is and how expensive they make it all. With some sharp engineering, we should be able to make something more cost-effective, and do it pretty quickly. It can’t be that hard to do it faster and better than the fogies who still do everything the slow old NASA way.” Eventually they learn that it really is that hard.

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. And I suppose the Reaction Engines Skylon concept is also in that dubious-but-interesting group. The spacecraft concept is almost certainly never going to be built... but the engine that makes it plausible is in development and may have important uses.

Some companies and rocket proposals not yet included here are Aevum (Ravn-X), ASRI (Ausroc), Earth to Sky, Equatorial (Volanis), Exos/Armadillo, Generation Orbit, Gilmour (Eris), Green Launch, Independence-X (DNLV), Interstellar Technologies (Zero), Leaf Space (Primo), Lin (Taimyr), Lingkong Tianxing a.k.a. Space Transportation, Maritime (Tsyklon revival), Microcosm (Sprite), Pipeline 2 Space, Pythom, Radian, Vaya / Rocket Crafters (Dauntless), Skyroot (Vikram), Skyrora (Skylark), SpaceDarts, Space Engine Systems, SpaceLS (Prometheus), SpinLaunch, Stofiel (Boreas), Stoke, Vast / Launcher, 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 related 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 points out 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 in their early days, 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 Astra in California, Relativity Space (Terran) also in California, Britain’s Orbex (Prime), China’s LinkSpace (New Line) and Deep Blue (Nebula) and Space Pioneer (Tianlong), Taiwan’s TiSPACE (Hapith), South Korea’s Perigee (Blue Whale), Germany’s Rocket Factory Augsburg and Isar (Spectrum), and Dawn from the Netherlands and New Zealand. 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.

In the first four years after this page was first published in 2017, four interesting rockets went from hyped promises to putting satellites into orbit: the Electron, the Falcon Heavy, the Virgin Orbit LauncherOne, and the Astra Rocket 3... and the latter two are no longer in service. But starting in 2022, new rockets enter the arena at a furious pace: the Firefly Alpha, NASA’s SLS, India’s SSLV, Space Pioneer’s Tianlong, LandSpace’s Zhuque-2, and ULA’s Vulcan. (Many Chinese solid fuel models derived from military boosters have also had maiden flight attempts since 2017, five of them successfully.) Overall that makes one or two rockets per year for most of that period. Though it seems slow while you're waiting through it, this is a terrific surge — it had not been long since we were seeing one new rocket per decade. And the pace is accelerating. There are plenty more who hope to join that list within the next year or two, like SpaceX’s Starship, ABL’s RS-1, Japan’s H-3, the Ariane 6, Blue Origin’s New Glenn, and any number of small rockets whose announced schedules may or may not be plausible. The majority of those named have already flown, though not to put payloads in orbit yet (as did the Terran 1 from Relativity Space, though they’re not going to try that one again).

Yet despite the widely expected glut of innovative launch services that will supposedly soon be upon us, the Electron still stands largely alone in the smallsat market — the LauncherOne seemed ready to compete equally with it, and Astra did too for a while, not to mention the Chinese solids and India’s SSLV, but we are still waiting to see anyone other than Rocket Lab develop anything like a rapid cadence... except for the Ceres in China, which did six launches in 2023. (This is a solid rocket that uses military technology, so its status as a private development is debatable.) And there’s bad news for these me-too small rocket companies: after a long trend of satellites getting smaller, they’re now getting bigger again, and while medium and large launchers have waiting lists, Rocket Lab says they’re making as many rockets as they can sell, and have surplus production capacity.

And paradoxically, the situation is worse now with large rockets. Whereas with small rockets a shortage of competition was the norm for a long time, and is now being alleviated, with large rockets there was plenty of competition back when I first started this page, but it has now dried up. Workhorse rockets like the Atlas V, the Delta II and IV, the Soyuz, the Proton, the Zenit, the PSLV and GSLV, the Ariane 5, the H-IIA and B, the Antares, and the Falcon 9 were all available for customers to choose between. But now, the majority of those rockets are either discontinued, or close enough to discontinued that no new flights can be booked on them, while their replacements are struggling through inevitable delays. Combine that with the sanctions on Russia and the impact of the pandemic, and almost every launch provider except SpaceX has now got a long lead time before they can offer you any service, leaving SpaceX with a near monopoly in the US and European markets on anyone who needs a large object launched quickly. In fact, by the second half of 2022, even SpaceX was getting backed up, especially for rideshares. This situation should start easing once the Vulcan, the Ariane 6, and the New Glenn enter regular service, but it may take a while to reestablish competition. Of these new rockets, the Vulcan and the H3 have each had one successful launch. It doesn’t help that big customers like Amazon are buying up a lot of that future capacity in advance.

Some of those old-line carriers are already retired. Rockets that provided regular service which are no longer available since this page went up include the Zenit (though a revival is supposedly coming), the Delta II, the Delta IV (except the Heavy has one last launch left to do), Japan’s H-IIB (with two flights left for the H-IIA and only a dummy payload orbited by the H3), the Ariane 5 (with the 6 still facing delays and unanticipated expenses), and the Antares (with development barely started on a replacement). And though the Atlas V has lots of remaining launches — about twenty at this writing — that doesn’t help because every one of them is already sold. The only launch vehicles now able to compete in capacity with SpaceX are China’s old Long March family. Those are also in the process of being replaced with more modern stuff, but they avoided the trap of phasing out the old ones before the new stuff was up to tempo.

We will order the articles by age, with the oldest surviving rockets first, grouped into chronologically divided sections. In each section, the rockets are laid out as a set of horizontal tabs. In these tabs, rockets that are designed and build by nongovernmental initiative are highlighted with boldface names. To focus in on particular types of rockets, you can use the filtering options at the top of the page.

(For some possible alternatives to chemical rockets, see this additional article.)