Launch vehicle, in spaceflight, a rocket-powered vehicle used to transport a spacecraft beyond Earth’s atmosphere, either into orbit around Earth or to some other destination in outer space. Practical launch vehicles have been used to send crewed spacecraft, uncrewed space probes, and satellites into space since the 1950s. They include the Soyuz and Proton launchers of Russia as well as several converted military missiles; Russia is developing a new family of launchers called Angara. Europe operates the Ariane V and Vega launchers. The United States operated the space shuttle until its retirement in 2011. Current U.S. launch vehicles include the Atlas, Delta, Falcon, and Antares expendable boosters.
In order to reach Earth orbit, a launch vehicle must accelerate its spacecraft payload to a minimum velocity of 28,000 km (17,500 miles) per hour, which is roughly 25 times the speed of sound. To overcome Earth’s gravity for travel to a destination such as the Moon or Mars, the spacecraft must be accelerated to a velocity of approximately 40,000 km (25,000 miles) per hour. The initial acceleration must also be provided very rapidly in order to minimize both the time that a launch vehicle takes to transit the stressful environment of the atmosphere and the time during which the vehicle’s rocket engines and other systems must operate near their performance limits; a launch from Earth’s surface or atmosphere usually attains orbital velocity within 8–12 minutes. Such rapid acceleration requires one or more rocket engines burning large quantities of propellant at a high rate, while at the same time the vehicle is controlled so that it follows its planned trajectory. To maximize the mass of the spacecraft that a particular launch vehicle can carry, the vehicle’s structural weight is kept as low as possible. Most of the weight of the launch vehicle is actually its propellants—i.e., fuel and the oxidizer needed to burn the fuel. Designing reliable launch vehicles is challenging. The launchers with the best recent records have a reliability rate between 95 and 99 percent.
With the exception of the partially reusable U.S. space shuttle and the Soviet Buran vehicle (which was flown only once), all launch vehicles to date have been designed for only a single use; they are thus called expendable launch vehicles. With costs ranging from more than 10 million dollars each for the smaller launch vehicles used to put lighter payloads into orbit to hundreds of millions of dollars for the launchers needed for the heaviest payloads, access to space is very expensive, on the order of many thousands of dollars per kilogram taken to orbit. The complexity of the space shuttle made it extremely expensive to operate, even though portions of the shuttle system were reusable. Attempts to develop a fully reusable launch vehicle in order to reduce the cost of access to space have so far not been successful, primarily because the propulsion system and materials needed for successful development of such a vehicle have not been available.
Having both its own launch vehicles and a place to launch them are prerequisites if a particular country or group of countries wants to carry out an independent space program. To date, several entities—Russia, the United States, Japan, China, European countries through the European Space Agency, Israel, India, Iran, and both North and South Korea—have successfully developed and currently maintain their own space launch capability. Other countries aspiring to such capability include Brazil and Pakistan. Historically, many launch vehicles have been derived from ballistic missiles, and the link between new countries developing space launch capability and obtaining long-range military missiles is a continuing security concern.
Most launch vehicles have been developed through government funding, although some of those launch vehicles have been turned over to the private sector as a means of providing commercial space transportation services. Particularly in the United States, there have also been a number of entrepreneurial attempts to develop a privately funded launch vehicle; one company, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), has successfully developed the Falcon family of launch vehicles.
Most space launch vehicles trace their heritage to ballistic missiles developed for military use during the 1950s and early ’60s. Those missiles in turn were based on the ideas first developed by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in Russia, Robert Goddard in the United States, and Hermann Oberth in Germany. Each of these pioneers of space exploration recognized the centrality of developing successful launch vehicles if humanity were to gain access to outer space.
Tsiolkovsky late in the 19th century was the first to recognize the need for rockets to be constructed with separate stages if they were to achieve orbital velocity. Oberth’s classic 1923 book, Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (“The Rocket into Interplanetary Space”), explained the mathematical theory of rocketry and applied the theory to rocket design. Oberth’s works also led to the creation of a number of rocket clubs in Germany, as enthusiasts tried to turn Oberth’s ideas into practical devices. Goddard was the first to build experimental liquid-fueled rockets; his first rocket, launched in Auburn, Massachusetts, on March 16, 1926, rose 12.5 metres (41 feet) and traveled 56 metres (184 feet) from its launching place.
While Goddard spent 1930–41 in New Mexico working in isolation on increasingly sophisticated rocket experiments, a second generation of German, Soviet, and American rocket pioneers emerged during the 1930s. In particular, a team led by Wernher von Braun, working for the German army during the Nazi era, began development of what eventually became known as the V-2 rocket. Although built as a weapon of war, the V-2 later served as the predecessor of some of the launch vehicles used in the early space programs of the United States and, to a lesser extent, the Soviet Union.
Early U.S. launch vehicles
With the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, rocket research in the United States and the Soviet Union focused on the development of missiles for military use, including intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) capable of carrying nuclear warheads over distances of approximately 2,400 km (1,500 miles) and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with transoceanic range. Braun and his team had been transported to the United States after the war, together with a number of captured V-2 rockets. These rockets were launched under army auspices to gain operational and technological experience. Braun’s team during the 1950s developed the Jupiter IRBM, which was in many ways a derivative of the V-2 rocket. A version of the Jupiter was the launch vehicle for the first U.S. artificial satellite, Explorer 1, launched on January 31, 1958. Another V-2 derivative, called Redstone, was used to launch the first U.S. astronaut, Alan Shepard, on his May 5, 1961, suborbital flight.
Another line of development within the U.S. industry led in the early 1950s to the Navaho cruise missile. (A cruise missile flies like an unpiloted airplane to its target, rather than following the ballistic trajectory of an IRBM.) This program was short-lived, but the rocket engine developed for Navaho, which itself was derived from the V-2 engine, was in turn adapted for use in a number of first-generation ballistic missiles, including Thor, another IRBM, and Atlas and Titan, the first two U.S. ICBMs. A version of Atlas was used to launch John Glenn on the first U.S. orbital flight on February 20, 1962, and Titan was adapted to be the launch vehicle for the two-person Gemini program in the mid-1960s.
After Pres. John F. Kennedy’s announcement in 1961 that sending Americans to the Moon would be a national goal, Braun and others in and outside of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) set about developing a launch vehicle that would enable a lunar mission based on rendezvous either in Earth or Moon orbit. The Braun team already had a less powerful rocket called Saturn I in development; their advanced design, intended for lunar missions, was configured to use five F-1 engines and on that basis was named Saturn V.
The Saturn V with the Apollo spacecraft on top stood 110.6 metres (363 feet) tall; its weight at the time of liftoff was over 3,000,000 kg (6,600,000 pounds). Its first stage provided 33,000 kilonewtons (7,500,000 pounds) of lifting power at takeoff. The second stage accelerated the rocket to 24,600 km (15,300 miles) per hour, or nearly orbital velocity. The third stage accelerated the spacecraft to a velocity of 39,400 km (24,500 miles) per hour, or over 10 km (6 miles) per second, sending the three Apollo crewmen toward the Moon. The Saturn V was used from 1968 to 1972 during the Apollo program and launched the Skylab space station in 1973.
The Saturn family of launch vehicles, which also included the Saturn IB, was the first American launch vehicle family developed specifically for space use. The less powerful Saturn IB was used to launch Apollo spacecraft on Earth-orbiting missions and during the U.S.-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975. After Apollo-Soyuz, the Saturn family was retired from service as the United States decided to use the space shuttle as the sole launch vehicle for future government payloads.
Early Soviet launch vehicles
A similar pattern was followed in the Soviet Union. Under the direction of the rocket pioneer Sergey Korolyov, the Soviet Union during the 1950s developed an ICBM that was capable of delivering a heavy nuclear warhead to American targets. That ICBM, called the R-7 or Semyorka (“Number 7”), was first successfully tested on August 21, 1957. Because Soviet nuclear warheads were based on a heavy design, the R-7 had significantly greater weight-lifting capability than did initial U.S. ICBMs. When used as a space launch vehicle, this gave the Soviet Union a significant early advantage in the weight that could be placed in orbit or sent to the Moon or nearby planets. There have been a number of variants of the R-7 with an upper stage, each with a different name, usually matching that of the payload, and each optimized to carry out specific missions. An unmodified R-7 was used to launch the first Soviet satellite, Sputnik 1, on October 4, 1957, and an R-7 variant, the Vostok, launched the first Soviet cosmonauts, among them Yury Gagarin, who on April 12, 1961, became the first human to orbit Earth. Other variants include the Voshkod, used to launch reconnaissance satellites, and the Molniya, used to launch communication satellites. A multipurpose variant, the Soyuz, was first used in 1966 and, with many subsequent variants and improvements, is still in service. This family of launch vehicles has carried out more space launches than the rest of the world’s launch vehicles combined.
In the early 1960s, Soviet designers began work on the N1, which was originally designed to undertake journeys that would require true heavy-lift capability (that is, the ability to lift more than 80,000 kg [176,000 pounds] to low Earth orbit). When the Soviet Union in 1964 decided to race the United States to a first lunar landing, that became the sole mission for the N1. The N1 was a five-stage vehicle. The N1 vehicle and the L3 lunar landing spacecraft mounted atop it stood 105 metres (344 feet) tall and weighed 2,735,000 kg (6,000,000 pounds) fully fueled. To provide the 44,000 kilonewtons (10,000,000 pounds) of thrust needed to lift the vehicle off of its launchpad, 30 small rocket engines, firing in unison, were required.
There were four N1 launch attempts between February 1969 and November 1972. All failed, and on the second test launch, on July 3, 1969, the vehicle exploded on the launchpad, destroying it and causing a two-year delay in the program. In 1974 the N1 program was canceled.
In 1976 approval was given for development of the Energia heavy-lift launch vehicle (named for the design bureau that developed it) and its primary mission, the space shuttle Buran. Energia could lift 100,000 kg (220,000 pounds) to low Earth orbit, slightly more than the Saturn V. Takeoff thrust was 29,000 kilonewtons (6,600,000 pounds). The Energia was 60 metres (197 feet) high. Its spacecraft payload was attached to the side of its core stage, not placed on top as with almost all other launch vehicles.
Energia’s first launch was in 1987 and had Polyus, an experimental military space platform, as its payload. In 1988 its second and final launch carried Buran to orbit on its only mission, without a crew aboard. Energia was deemed too expensive for the Soviet Union to continue to operate, and no other uses for the vehicle emerged.
Another contributor to the development of space launch capability in the post-World War II period was work on sounding rockets, which are used to carry scientific instruments and other devices to heights above those that can be reached by high-altitude balloons but which do not have the power to accelerate their payloads to orbital velocities. Rather, sounding rockets provide several minutes of data-gathering time above the atmosphere for the instruments they carry; those instruments then fall back to Earth. Most countries that have developed space launch capability have first developed sounding rockets as, among other factors, a way of gaining experience with the technologies needed for launch vehicle development. Sounding rockets remain in use for some areas of scientific investigations that do not require the more expensive and technically demanding access to Earth orbit.