By David Axe
For the first time ever, China has launched more rockets into orbit in a year than the U.S. In 2011, the Chinese sent 19 rockets into space. The U.S. sent just 18. Russia, the Walmart of space launches, fired off no fewer than 31 rockets.
The numbers, parsed in recent reports from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and the nonprofit Space Foundation, might seem to herald America’s orbital decline relative to its most bitter rival. In terms of sheer numbers of rocket launches, China has been steadily catching up to America for several years. In 2010, China fired off 15 rockets, matching the U.S. for the first time.
But the raw figures obscure the real trends. Beijing is not about to catch up to Washington in space. For starters, the U.S. government spends more money than any other country on space launches and spacecraft: nearly $50 billion, compared to just $25 billion or so for all other governments combined. With its huge financial advantage and technological edge, Washington is projected to possess the biggest space arsenal for decades to come.
American launch organizations, which include NASA, the military and several private companies, had a perfect success rate last year. China lost one experimental satellite when a Long March rocket veered off course in August. Russia had the worst record, with four failed launches.
U.S. rockets on average carried more satellites per launch than their Chinese counterparts. It’s not unheard of for a single rocket to deliver several satellites into orbit on a single boost. Last year, the 18 U.S.-launched rockets placed 28 satellites into orbit. Nineteen Chinese launches placed just 21 sats. Russia’s 31 launches delivered 53 spacecraft.
American companies and agencies owned the greatest proportion of the satellites, even if they didn’t launch all of them from U.S. soil. Some U.S. space companies prefer to hire Russian launch providers, which can be considerably cheaper than American providers. Last year, Louisiana-based communications company GlobalStar alone paid a Russian firm to launch 12 new satellites. By contrast, all of America’s launches last year carried spacecraft belonging to American space agencies.
During the Cold War, the U.S. steadily built up an arsenal of more than 100 government-owned satellites plus another 300 commercial satellites, many of which have military uses. Russia’s space force suffered from 20 years of post-Cold War neglect and is only now beginning to recover. China possessed just a handful of satellites until beginning its own build-up 10 years ago. Despite rapid advancements, the roughly 50 Chinese-built satellites currently in orbit are still considerably flimsier than American sats and don’t last nearly as long.
China’s 19 rocket launches last year is an impressive feat, but Beijing would have to launch probably twice that number for years on end just to begin erasing America’s huge advantage in orbit.