Launch Industry

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Launch Industry

The process by which satellites, space probes, and other craft are launched from the surface of Earth into space requires equipment, machinery, hardware, and a means, usually a rocket vehicle of some sort, by which these materials are lifted into space. The businesses that exist to service these launching needs form an international space transportation industry. That launch industry, also referred to as space launch service providers, has been estimated to generate $8 billion in total annual sales, with the United States earning about half of that amount. By comparison, the total U.S. sales of all aerospace equipment, including aircraft, missiles, and other space equipment amounted to $151 billion in 1999.

The space launch services industry is currently dominated by three firms: Arianespace in Europe, Boeing Launch Services in California, and International Launch Services of Reston, Virginia, which is owned by Lockheed Martin Corporation of Littleton, Colorado. While the three firms account for more than 80 percent of the world's commercial space launches, they are by no means the only firms in the business today. While the types of satellites being launched remain mainly civil, military, and large commercial communications craft, the evolution of the use of space may change that makeup in the decades ahead. Should that mix of cargo change, so too may the dominant launch service providers. There is a saying in the launch industry"You are only as good as your last launch"that may apply to this shifting outlook.

Complicating the degree to which specific businesses have specialized in the launching of different types of spacecraft is the nature of the competition itself. Experts and analysts in space transportation suggest as the twenty-first century begins that there are too many launch firms seeking too few satellites that need launching. Should such a trend continue, several of the smaller firms, and possibly elements of the larger ones, may go out of business in the years ahead.

The Origins of the Industry

The commercial launch industry has its roots in the Cold War missiles that formed the launching rockets of the early space age. Following the launching of the world's first artificial satellite of Earth, Sputnik 1, by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957, the governments of the USSR and the United States were the only entities that possessed space launch vehicles. The fleets of intercontinental ballistic missiles developed by the two nations served as the basis for the only rockets big and powerful enough to orbit satellites into space. The launching rockets were mainly used to place government spacecraft into Earth orbit or towards the Moon or other planets. During the period of the late 1950s to early 1960s there were no commercial satellites in existence for which commercial launchers were needed. All spacecraft were owned by the civil or military part of the governments of the Soviet Union and the United States.

When foreign nations that were aligned with either country needed a satellite launch in the mid-1960s, the satellite was shipped to the launching site of the United States or USSR and launched. But eventually the technology of satellites matured to the point where other nations sought to have their own space programs. In Europe, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany each developed varying types of spacecraft that were launched by the United States from its existing sites at either Cape Canaveral in Florida or Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California. Japan, Brazil, and China also developed satellite technology. Nations aligned with the USSR included Mongolia, China, and other Southeast Asian nations. France and China were among the first nations other than the United States and USSR to develop their own independent space-launching rockets. Japan developed a version of the U.S. Delta space booster under a licensing agreement with McDonnell Douglas Corporation, although the technology of the launching rocket was carefully protected by the United States.

The Development of Arianespace

Eventually, by the mid-1970s, Europe sought to develop a commercial means of launching European-made military, civil, and commercial satellites. The United States had begun the development of the partially reusable space shuttle during this period, and France was left out of the shuttle's development. In partial response, France and several European countries came together to establish the European Space Agency and an entity called the European Launch Development Organization. Among their first objectives was the development of a commercial space-launching rocket that would be entirely made within the nations that were part of the space organization. The company that emerged from that effort was named Arianespace, and its family of throwaway expendable rockets was called Ariane.

Ariane was unlike the Soviet R-7 and Proton rockets and U.S. Delta and Atlas rockets because it was not based on an existing ballistic missile design but was instead created from the start as a commercial launching vehicle. The company was established in March 1980 and conducted its first launch on May 24, 1984.

Arianespace has evolved to capture about half of the existing market for space launch services, conducting more than 130 commercial launches of different types of Ariane rockets by 2000. The company, based in France with a staff of 350 employees, launched forty-four satellites during a three-year period from 1995 to 1997, a world's record. In the first years of the twenty-first century, Arianespace was in the process of phasing out a smaller rocket called Ariane 4 and phasing in a larger replacement rocket called Ariane 5. At the end of 2001, Arianespace reported that it had contracts for the launch of 216 satellites and nine automated flights of cargoes to the International Space Station. Its launching base is in Kourou, French Guiana, on Earth's equator.

The Rise of Delta and Atlas

In the United States, government-controlled launches of expendable rockets were to end in the early 1980s as the space shuttles became operational. By a national decision made by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1972, the shuttles were to become the sole means by which U.S. satellites of any type could be launched into orbit. The throw-away expendable rockets, all based on earlier generations of ballistic missiles, were to be completely replaced by the shuttles. But the development of the shuttle took longer and was both more expensive and less reliable than was promised. By the mid-1980s the U.S. Department of Defense, a major customer for space shuttle launches, elected to continue production of the Delta and Titan launching rockets as alternates to the shuttles for launches of military spacecraft. In 1985 President Ronald Reagan announced a shift in U.S. space policy that would allow both civil and government satellites to be launched on these expendable rockets as well as the shuttles.

Following the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in January 1986, a further shift in policy diverted satellite launches away from shuttles entirely. The shuttles would launch only those satellites that could not be flown aboard any other vehicle. This policy shift in the mid-1980s would serve to reinvigorate the U.S. space launch industry, which had lost most of its share of space-launching services during the period when the shuttles were taking over the launching of all U.S. satellites.

Commercial versions of the Delta and Atlas rockets, partially funded by the Defense Department and NASA, soon entered service to compete against the Arianespace vehicles. McDonnell Douglas began offering a commercial Delta II rocket as a launching vehicle. General Dynamics Corporation and Convair Astronautics began selling larger Atlas rockets. A third commercial rocket based on the huge military Titan III booster was also sold commercially but only for a brief period. Its builder, Martin Marietta Corporation, could find only two customers before it was phased out. Titans were relegated to missions for the U.S. military.

Following the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the U.S. aerospace industry contracted through a series of mergers and acquisitions. Martin Marietta acquired the line of Atlas rockets, adding them to its stable of military Titan boosters. The Boeing Company acquired McDonnell Douglas and its Delta boosters. Eventually, Martin Marietta was itself acquired by Lockheed Corporation, forming Lockheed Martin Corporation. By the mid-1990s the U.S. launch industry was comprised of Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and a smaller firm called Orbital Sciences, which sold two smaller rockets, the winged Pegasus and the Taurus.

Russian Launchers

The changes wrought by the end of the Cold War affected the Soviet Union's space-launching programs as well. Commercial sales of the Proton rocket were conducted initially by a government-industry partnership called Glavcosmos in the early 1980s. But after the Cold War ended, Protons were made commercially available as part of the rocket catalog being assembled by Lockheed Martin. A separate firm called International Launch Services (ILS) was established in June 1995 to sell both Atlas and Proton rockets on the world's commercial market. ILS, jointly owned by the U.S. firm Lockheed Martin and the Russian rocket design companies Khrunichev, and Energyia, reported a backlog of $3 billion worth of rocket contracts in 2000 and conducted six Proton and eight Atlas launches during that year.

But the Proton rockets were not the only commercial launching vehicles available from Russian space factories. A modified version of the Russian Zenit rocket was being sold by a consortium comprised of Boeing, Ukrainian rocket firms, and a Norwegian company that builds drilling ships. The resulting company, called Sea Launch, launches the Zenit rockets from a floating launching pad towed to the mid-Pacific Ocean. Starting in 1999, Sea Launch began conducting annual launches with only one failure through 2001.

Yet a third commercial rocket is being marketed from Russia, and this one has an historic pedigree. The R-7 space booster, which launched the Sputnik 1 in 1957 and the world's first human in space, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961, is also for sale today. Starsem, a company partly owned by Ariane-space, is selling the R-7 in various designs and launching them for customers from the same launching pads used in 1957 and 1961. Starsem officials say their business plan requires only one launch per year to be viable. Through 2001 the Starsem R-7 rockets, called Soyuz, have been commercially launched without any failures. Other versions of the Russian Soyuz rockets used by the Russian government carry cosmonauts to the International Space Stationand also carried space tourist Dennis Tito to the space station in April 2001.

Japan in Space Launch

Following the use of a licensed version of the Delta rocket, the Japanese government developed its own series of space launchers. In 1977 Japan began a series of studies aimed at creating a wholly Japanese-made commercial rocket. The first of the resulting rockets, called H-I, was flown in 1986, and eventually nine of the boosters were flown until 1992. A much larger rocket, called H-II, was developed for the Japanese government. While chiefly intended for Japan's own government satellites and other payloads , a commercial version was planned. Development of the H-II, however, was slowed by launch failures, and the program was terminated in 1999. It was replaced by the more advancedand cheaperH-IIA. The H-IIA made its first test flight in 2001 with commercial sales planned by 2003. This rocket would compete against the larger series of Delta, Atlas, and Ariane launchers.

China Tries to Compete

China also has sought to develop commercial launching vehicles, with all of them based on the nation's early missile design programs. The Long March series of rockets, available in different sizes, each capable of lifting different types of satellites, became available in July 1990 following the first test flight of the Long March 2E. A second commercial vehicle, the 3B, was also offered for commercial flights. American satellites using the Long March as launching vehicles require special export licenses. Geopolitical issues have also occasionally made sales of the rocket difficult or impossible for Western customers. Several spectacular failures of the vehicles have also hampered sales. By 2001, however, advanced systems had restored the Long March to flight without failure, and a larger version began launching test versions of a future Chinese piloted space capsule. Chinese government officials have indicated that systems from the space capsule versions will be used on commercially available craft, further strengthening China's position as a provider of space launch services.

India Enters the Fray

The Indian government has also been developing a family of space launch vehicles that will also be offered for commercial sales. The PSLV and GSLV expendable rockets have been tested for launching satellites into polar orbits as well as launching larger commercial communications craft. A successful flight of the GSLV occurred in 2001. India has created a commercial company to market the GSLV, but a flight rate of only one or two a year is expected by around 2005.

Other Competitors in the Industry

Brazil planned to also develop and market a smaller commercial rocket called the VLS. A launch failure, however, placed the project's future in doubt. Israel also has developed a commercial rocket, adapted in part from its ballistic missile program. Thus far, launches of the rocket, called the Shavit, have been limited to Israeli satellites. Efforts to base the Shavit at launch sites other than in Israel have not been successful. Pakistan and Indonesia have expressed interest in developing space-launching rockets, but neither has yet developed a final configuration for commercial sales. The Indonesian government made an announcement in 2000 that development of a commercial space booster was a major priority, but no reports have been seen as to the project's fate. North Korea claimed a test flight of a satellite launcher in 1998. Many Western observers believe, however, that the rocket is a ballistic missile and is not yet in a launch vehicle design configuration.

Russia has several new designs of expendable rockets on the drawing boards, including a rocket called Angara that may replace the Proton for commercial sales late in the new century's first decade. In 2001 the United States began fielding a new family of rockets called the evolved expendable launch vehicle (EELV). Both Boeing and Lockheed Martin were selling EELV versions, called the Delta IV and Atlas V, respectively.

Since the failed attempt at selling commercial launching services aboard the space shuttles, no nation has yet offered launches aboard a reusable launch vehicle. Many companies are hard at work in the United States and Canada, trying to be among the first to offer commercial launching services for space tourists or others aboard a reusable craft. With changes continuing to affect the space industries of the world, and new technologies in development, no one can predict the future direction of the space launch industry. The people and equipment seeking rides to space are as variedand unpredictableas the evolution of the rocket itself.

see also Augustine, Norman (volume 1); Global Industry (volume 1); Launch Facilities (volume 4); Launch Sites (volume 3); Launch Vehicles, Expendable (volume 1); Satellites, Types of (volume 1); Spaceports (volume 1).

Frank Sietzen, Jr.


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Ley, Willy. Rockets, Missiles, and Men in Space. New York: Viking Press, 1967.

Ordway, Frederick, III, and Mitchell R. Sharpe. The Rocket Team. Cambridge, MA:MIT Press, 1982.

van Fenema, Peeter. The International Trade in Launch Services: The Effects of U.S. Laws, Policies, and Practices on Its Development. Leiden, Netherlands: Author, 1999.