Wall-to-wall launches –
Through Sunday, the country has launched 27 orbital missions this year.
In recent weeks, China’s space program has made news by revealing some of its long-term ambitions for spaceflight. These include establishing an Earth-Moon space economic zone by 2050, which, if successful,could allowthe country to begin to dictate the rules of behavior for future space exploration.
Some have questioned whether China, which has flown six human spaceflights in the last 16 years, can really build a large low-Earth space station, send taikonauts to the Moon, return samples from Mars, and more in the coming decade or two. But what seems clear is that the country authoritarian government has long-term plans and is taking steps toward becoming a global leader in space exploration.
By one important metric — orbital launches — China has already reached this goal.
In 2018, the countryset a goalof 35 orbital launches and ended up with 39 launch attempts. That year, the United States ( (flights) and Russia (20) trailed China, according toSpace Launch Report. It marked the first time China led the world in the number of successful orbital launches.
This year, China is set to pace the world again. Through Sunday, the country has launched 27 orbital missions, followed by Russia (19), and the United States ( 16). Although nearly a month and a half remain in this year, a maximum of six additional orbital launches are likely from the United States in 2019.
To be fair, China’s space launch program has not been without hiccups. The country space program is still trying to bring itslarge Long March 5 vehicleback into service after a catastrophic failure during just its second mission, in July 2017. And the country had three failures in 2018 and 2019, compared to just one in the United States and Russia combined.
US launches down
The United States has taken a step back this year in part due to decreased activity by SpaceX. The company launched a record 21 missions last year but has so far launched (rockets in) . A flurry of missions remains possible in the next six weeks for the company, including a space station resupply mission in early December, a commercial satellite launch, and additional Starlink flights.
Another big factor has been a slow year for United Launch Alliance. The Colorado-based company has launched just two Delta IV-Medium rockets this year, one Delta IV-Heavy, and a single Atlas V mission. The company may launch Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft before the end of 2019, giving the Atlas V rocket a second launch.
It is possible that Rocket Lab, which has flown its Electron rocket from New Zealand five times in 2019 and is planning at least one more mission before the end of the year, will have more launches than United Launch Alliance for the first time. Sometime next year, Rocket Lab should also begin to add to the US tally for orbital launches as it opens a new facility at Wallops Island, Virginia.