Monday, January 2, 2023

The Top US Launch Companies - Who Are the Other Nine?

How would you rate the top ten US launch companies?  Ars Technica did this posting right before space reporter and author Eric Berger took off for a vacation, and it's an interesting thing to ponder on.  Eric is completely honest in saying it's clearly subjective and what he considered important.  

Please note this is a subjective list, although hard metrics such as total launches, tonnage to orbit, success rate, and more were all important factors in the decision. Also, the focus is on what each company accomplished in 2022, not what they might do in the future.

Since I think there could be no discussion that, in those terms as well as things like importance to the launch business and to the world, #1 has to be SpaceX.  Just on what they've done in '22, not counting anything in the future.  

For reference and as common starting point, let me list the top 10 in his order.  In the column he devotes a paragraph or two to each of them explaining why he chose them.  To save space, I'll list them here by the ranking and say to go read the original.  

2:  United Launch Alliance
3:  Rocket Lab
4:  Northrop Grumman
5:  Virgin Orbit
6:  Firefly
7:  Blue Origin
8:  Relativity Space
9:  ABL Space
10:  Astra

Let me more or less mimic his approach with my top 2-10.  

2: Rocket Lab

By tonnage to orbit, I believe ULA would be number two.  By accomplishments for a launch company I put Rocket Lab ahead of the ULA largely for one mission.  They launched NASA's CAPSTONE satellite (second story in that roundup) into its Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO) of the moon.  Part of the reason this is so important is that rocket they used, their Electron booster, is a small satellite lift vehicle and a lightweight upper stage called Lunar Photon propelled CAPSTONE to the moon over the course of the roughly four months it took to get there.  Rocket lab made that upper stage, too.

The combination has the potential to radically change the launch picture.  Small, single satellite missions to the moon or nearby places got cheaper with the trade of them taking longer to get there.

3: United Launch Alliance (ULA)

While ULA had a disappointing year in not launching their Vulcan rocket, it wasn't really their fault; the BE-4s for the first Vulcan mission arrived in '22, not '17 as originally anticipated.  The Vulcan program has been waiting for these engines for a long time.

Plus, to equal SpaceX's total of 61 launches in '22, ULA would have to count up every one of its launches since 2015.  Their Atlas V and Delta IV launches, along with winning a contract for Amazon's Kuiper constellation, which will put a large demand for Vulcans, all combine to give ULA a high rating.  

4: Northrup Grumman 

Here, I can't disagree with Eric Berger at Ars.  Northrup Grumman is a solid launch company; their Cygnus cargo supply missions to the ISS have been important, and have only been made more important by being the only US vehicle capable of boosting the altitude of the International Space Station at the moment, in the case of emergency.  

The future isn't necessarily going to be smooth; their final Antares 230 rocket will launch in the spring of 2023, after which time Northrop had to buy three Falcon 9 launches from SpaceX (!) to put its Cygnus spacecraft into orbit.  It's their last Antares for the same reason ULA is burning out their fleet of Atlas V rockets: they used Russian engines.  They've announced an agreement to buy Miranda rocket engines from Firefly to power an Antares 330 rocket. With luck, this booster will make its debut in late 2024.  

From here we get into more speculative territory because none of these companies have operational, orbital class capabilities.  

5: Relativity Space

Here I make a fairly large departure from Eric Berger's, which had these guys at number 8.  I think Relativity is close to an orbital attempt of their Terran 1 prototype, currently speculated to be this month.  It's currently stacked and undergoing testing at SLC-16 on the Cape Canaveral SFS.  It appears they're closer to orbit than the companies farther down in this list (with one exception - the one I rank #8).  CEO Tim Ellis has proven to be a prolific fundraiser, which is plays a big role in the launch business, with more than $1.3 billion raised.  

The Terran 1 is  a prototype designed to be more like the desired goal they're prototyping toward, the Terran R, than is typical in their field.  In October, reports were that Relativity has sold $1.2 billion worth of launches on Terran R and has a "few hundred" million more dollars' worth of contracts under negotiation with customers.  

6: Firefly

Firefly is the company that had that "mostly successful failure" back on October 1st. 

Subsequent to the launch, doubts grew about whether the launch truly was a “success” as the satellites, rather than being left in 300 km circular orbit as planned, were instead left in 270 x 210 km orbits inclined at 137 degrees.  The low perigee will mean that the satellites will re-enter much earlier than planned.

Firefly said the mission was a success, but I'm sure the people behind those satellites didn't think as much of it.  Still, they have up to four Alpha launches planned for '23, so it will be interesting to see if they manage to scale production and cadence in the coming year.  At the same time, Firefly is also working to complete development and testing of its Blue Ghost lunar lander, which could launch to the Moon in 2024 as part of NASA's Commercial Lunar Services Payload program.  Finally, as reported in #5, they've succeeded in selling engines to others in the industry.

7: Blue Origin

Blue origin, of course, has yet to reach orbit and their New Glenn rocket that has been talked about for years is still probably not going to launch for another year.  On the whole there's not much positive that can be said about them but the few are important.

First off, after years of schedule slippage they seem to have finally gotten their BE-4 engines through manufacturing and certification.  This is important not only for ULA but for Blue themselves as they'll power the New Glenn.  The other net positive has been their "space tourism" business on their New Shepard suborbital rocket and capsule.  That business is currently in limbo since the September flight, which was aborted when the booster failed explosively - but thankfully proved that their escape system for saving the crew worked.

8: Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit's drop in my ratings is for two reasons.  The first is that while they have achieved orbit, it's still more like a novelty than a repeatable thing.  They don't seem to be living up to the expectations for them.  For example, it's true they equaled the most launches they've had in a year in '22.  The negative is that was two launches.  That means they've launched four payloads in two years.  Their total of paying space tourists for a suborbital ride is: zero.  Blue Origin has launched 18.  

All in all it has been a stagnant year for them.  Part of the reason is that the company spent a lot of time and effort getting regulatory approval for a debut launch from Cornwall, England.  The goal is for the   Cosmic Girl aircraft to take off from there with rocket launches over the sea. This mission is now planned for early 2023.

This has led to concern about Virgin Orbit's financial viability, which was then reinforced by the company itself.  Virgin Orbit announced on the evening before Thanksgiving the "cessation" of a securities offering, saying, "Due to current market conditions, the company has elected not to proceed with an offering. Any future capital-raising transactions will depend upon future market conditions." In the short term, they have enough capital to keep going, but they need to dramatically increase their launch cadence to reach profitability.  

9:  ABL Space

Back in August, I reported on speculation ABL would attempt to join the "one metric ton to orbit" club with a launch in early September.  Three months later they still haven't completed that launch and are now talking about a new launch window on January 9th.   Frankly, this launch is getting to the point where it needs to happen.  They have investors and operating money, but they need to start reaching orbit successfully and repeatedly. 

10: Astra

Back in August (again!), Astra announced a pivot from their existing business model to a rather different approach.  Until that point, the company had been working on their Rocket 3 vehicle, a micro launcher said to be capable of putting small payloads of about 50 kg into low Earth orbit. Instead of sparing no expense to ensure highly reliable vehicles, they assumed their small satellite customers would accept a bit more risk, so they could cut down on their testing, analysis, and redundancy in design.  In return, Astra would pass those launch savings along to customers.  

The problem became that while they iterated quickly from Rocket 3.0 to 3.3, they had seven launches and only 2 were successful - 29%.  While customers might well settle for a bit less reliability in exchange for a more affordable launch, they probably envision something like dropping from 99% reliability to 95 or 90%, not 29.   

Their mission became a shift to Rocket 4.0, providing a launch capacity of 600 kg to low Earth orbit at a price of $5 million.  Given the amount of design work is far more like tearing it all up and starting over than tweaking the existing designs, it's highly unlikely they'll get Rocket 4.0 flying in '23.  

Stage one of the Relativity Space Terran 1 rocket undergoing testing at Launch Complex-16 on Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.  Relativity Space photo by Trevor Mahlmann.  

As always, it's just the way I see it.  Comments are always welcome (as long as they're about this and not how you're working from home making a million dollars a month ;-) ).




  1. Of course the first three have the lions share of launches, but the ones just behind them are nipping at their heels.

    One analysis I would like to see is launch costs, which is where SpaceX shines. How are the ones at the back of the pack gonna fare remains to be seen!

    Good luck, ALL!
    May 2023 bring much successes!

  2. Good synopsis of American Space Flight.

    How will Virgin going to England for launching affect your view of them being a US company for next year's run-down?

    As to BO, well, they have delivered 2, count them 2, certified pre-production versions of their BE-4s. Not production models, pre-production. IE: Test Articles that are being mounted on Vulcan and being treated as 'real' engines.

    In comparison, that would be like Starship 24 or Booster 7 with early versions of Raptor 1.0, like used on early test articles.

    Yeah... No.... ULA is putting all of their hard-earned reputation on basically a KIA engine, you know, the ones that still to this day melt at a very unacceptable rate, when they're expecting a big-block Chevy.

    1. Since they've been launching out of the Mojave area as long as I can recall I hadn't even thought of that. I know that Sir Richard himself is from the UK, but I assumed the company was staying here.

      The one I almost rejected was Rocket Lab because I still think of them as being from New Zealand. They have incorporated in the US and built that facility in Virginia, though, so since Berger at Ars included them, I figured "American enough."