Space Launches Over Time

By Sean Carroll | October 11, 2011 9:15 am

Technology Review has temporarily made their archives openly available, and one of their recent features is this fascinating plot of the number of space launches over time. (Via FlowingData.) This is a cropped and shrunk version; see the original article for the full glory.

The authors offer an explanation for why the Soviet Union had so many more military launches in the 70’s and 80’s than the US did: their satellites tended not to last as long. I didn’t find a reason for the uptick and subsequent downturn in US commercial launches in the late 90’s.

There’s no danger that we’re going to stop going into space altogether, but we don’t go as often as we once did. We’ll probably need a phase transition of some sort to change that situation dramatically. That could be sparked by private companies, or if China lands someone on the Moon. (Not equally good reasons to re-commit to space, but reasons nonetheless.)

  • Joe

    >I didn’t find a reason for the uptick and subsequent downturn in US commercial launches in the late 90′s.

    Maybe the Iridium satellite constellation? Or in general, the extravagant exuberance of late 90’s.

  • BaronGrim

    Wasn’t the late ’90s the peak of the satellite phone boom with companies like Iridium launching dozens of satellites?

  • Becca Stareyes

    You can see the Challenger disaster in the data — 1986-87 is a notch on the graph. 2003-5 (post Columbia) don’t look nearly as dramatic, perhaps because we had other rockets and the commercial launches were larger.

  • Brian Fane

    According to Wikipedia, Iridium consisted of 66 satellites launched in 1997 and 1998.

  • Izzy

    Anyone else find the presentation of these graphics unnecessarily cryptic? You have to mentally move the x-axis to the middle of the mirrored data. A standard layered bar chart would have worked nicely.

  • Phillip Helbig

    The fact that “amateur” includes “universities” says it all. :-)

    Yes, a standard layered bar chart would have been better. Charts like those above are generally shown for population as a function of time or of age (with time or age showed on the y axis since left-right symmetry is more fundamental than up-down symmetry (which is why, in cosmology, I have lambda on the x axis and Omega on the y axis) and would make sense here if there were two things being shown simultaneously, but that’s not the case here.

    Will the “phase transition” be a space elevator? (Maybe a private company from China will build the first one.)

  • Gregory Ruderman

    Commercial launches decreased by a combination of factors, but mostly it turns out that the capacity of comsats to deal with much larger throughput over that time, as well as the fact that existing satelites turn out to last much longer than anyone expected they really would.

  • Jonathan McDowell

    Hi Sean – this graphic was made based on a database that I provided. The late 90s uptick/downtick is Iridium and its cousins Globalstar and Orbcomm, followed by their bankruptcies.

    In the nearish future I’m planning to generate some new graphs that may be more illuminating (if less pretty that the TechReview version) – active satellites versus time, and tons to orbit versus time (still finishing the data entry for the end-of-life dates and masses) – stay tuned to Jonathan’s Space Report :-)

    cheers J

  • chris

    the only phase transition possible would be going nuclear (remember, that’s the payload plotted). now that’s not going to happen.

    so the other option will come into effect: the space age ends. barring the turnaround on communication/military satellites. but these will get more lightweight and that will be it.

  • Phillip Helbig

    @#9 What’s wrong with a non-nuclear space elevator?

  • Eccentric & Anomalous

    To Jonathan #8: Great work! Looking forward to your other upcoming plots…

  • sebastian


    It is very unlikely to work. (now if g were just half of its actual value)

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  • Rich

    From the data available, would it be possible to derive a graph that shows the payload volume remaining in space over time? Accounting for failure as well as planned reentry?

    As far as the charting goes, a simply multi-line graph would probably be the easiest to follow.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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