. The Space Transportation Industry

. Operational Orbital Launch Vehicles

. Launch and reentry sites

. Launch Vehicle Integration and Processing

. Countdown milestones and key events before lift-off

About the Video: Apollo 11 was the spaceflight which landed the first humans, Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, Jr, on Earth's Moon in 1969.

Credit: sonicbombHD





The Space Transportation Industry

At $5.4B in revenues in 2015, the global space transportation industry is a relatively small part of the overall $335B global space industry. However, without space transportation, space-based services would be impossible.

About $208B (62%) was revenue generated by companies providing services like television; mobile, fixed, and broadband communications; remote sensing; satellite systems and ground equipment manufacturing and sales; and, of course, launch services. The remaining $127B (38%) constitutes government space budgets and global navigation satellite system (GNSS) chipsets and services.

This figure includes $89B in revenues generated by satellite services, satellite manufacturing, satellite ground equipment, and launch services, as well as $37B spent on space programs by the U.S. government. U.S. launch service providers accounted for about $1.8B in total revenues or 34% of global launch services. FAA AST-licensed launches accounted for $839M of the $1.8B.

Credit: Federal Aviation Administration, FAA


Operational Orbital Launch Vehicles

By the end of 2016, there were 82 different orbital launch vehicles operating around the world. This figure includes variants of a family of vehicles. For example, there are 10 Atlas V variants defined by the number of solid rocket boosters used, type of fairing by diameter, and type of Centaur upper stage (single or dual engine). Not all of these vehicles are available for commercial use, whereby a payload customer can “shop around” for a ride into orbit.

There are six expendable launch vehicle types available for commercial use by launch providers in the United States. The Delta II will fly two more times (JPSS-1 and ICESat-2) before being retired in 2018. U.S. launch service providers include Maryland-based Lockheed Martin, Virginia-based Orbital ATK, California-based SpaceX, and Colorado-based ULA. ULA has historically only served U.S. government customers but has indicated plans to open its Atlas V, Delta IV, and future Vulcan vehicles for international competition. Another U.S. vehicle, the Super Strypi, developed and built by the University of Hawaii (UH), Sandia National Laboratory, and Aerojet Rocketdyne, was launched for the first time in 2015; however, the vehicle was destroyed shortly after launch. The availability of this vehicle for commercial use in the future remains uncertain.

Several orbital launch vehicles are under development with inaugural launches planned during the next two to five years. Some of these are operated by non-U.S. companies but are expected to fly from U.S. sites. Other U.S. vehicles are under various stages of development, including CubeCab’s Cab-3A, Generation Orbit’a GOLauncher-2, and others. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is also sponsoring development of a vehicle that may be available for commercial use, the XS-1.

Artistic view of the Spaceplane XS-1 of DARPA 

There are 15 expendable launch vehicle types available for commercial use outside the United States: Angara, Ariane 5, Dnepr, GSLV, H-IIA/B, Kuaizhou 1 and 11, Long March 2D, Long March 3A, Long March 3B, Proton M, PSLV, Rockot, Soyuz 2, and Vega.

Launch and reentry Sites

Launch sites are sites dedicated to launching orbital or suborbital vehicles into space. These sites provide the capability to integrate launch vehicle components, fuel and maintain vehicles, and integrate vehicles with payloads. Launch sites can facilitate vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) vehicles or horizontal takeoff, horizontal landing (HTHL) vehicles. From the launch site, a launch vehicle travels through an area called the launch range, which typically includes tracking and telemetry assets. These range assets monitor the vehicle’s performance until it safely delivers a payload into orbit or returns to Earth. Tracking and telemetry assets may also facilitate recovery of reusable stages.

FAA AST licenses commercial launch and reentry sites in the Untied States. As of the end of 2016, FAA AST issued 10 launch site operator licenses. Table 4 lists the FAA AST-licensed launch sites. Table 5 identifies the locations of all federal and non-federal launch sites in United States territory. FAA AST-licensed launch and re-entry sites are often co-located with federal locations, including Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) in Florida, Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) in California, and WFF in Virginia.

Of the 19 active launch and reentry sites, the U.S. government manages eight, state agencies manage ten FAA AST-licensed commercial sites in partnership with private industry, and a university manages one (Alaska’s Poker Flat site, which is not licensed by FAA AST). Four sites are dedicated to orbital launch activity, nine facilitate suborbital launches only, and five can host both types of operations.

In addition to these sites, there are three non-licensed sites where individual companies conduct launches using a licensed or permitted vehicle. Because the companies own and operate these sites using their own vehicles exclusively, a site license is not required. The Odyssey Launch Platform exclusively supports Sea Launch’s Zenit 3SL vehicles on the Central Pacific Ocean. SpaceX conducts flight tests of its Falcon 9R vehicle at its McGregor, Texas site. Blue Origin conducts FAA permitted flight tests from its site near Van Horn, Texas.


There are many active orbital and suborbital launch sites across 10 different countries and territories. The most significant of these sites are described briefly in the following paragraphs.

Russian service providers launch vehicles from three primary sites: Baikonur Cosmodrome, located in Kazakhstan as a byproduct of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991; Plestesk Cosmodrome, in the western part of the country; and Dombarovsky Air Base near the western Kazakh border. Virtually all Russian vehicles launch from Baikonur, including the Angara, Dnepr, Proton M, Rockot, Soyuz (including missions to ISS), and Zenit, among others. The Soyuz and Rockot vehicles launch from Plestesk, and only the Dnepr launches from Dombarovsky. The Russian government is also completing construction of a new site in the eastern part of the country called Vostochny Cosmodrome. This site, which is expected to launch Soyuz and possibly Angara vehicles, was inaugurated in 2016.

China is home to three launch sites. The Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center is located in Inner Mongolia and is the most active site, with launches of the Long March 2C, 2D, and 2F typically taking place. Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center is located in the northeast of the country, with Xichang Satellite Launch Center located further south. Polar-bound Long March 4 vehicles tend to launch from Taiyuan, whereas GEO-bound Long March 3B vehicles launch from Xichang. The Chinese government is building a site on Hainan Island called Wencheng Satellite Launch Center; the first orbital launch from this site took place in 2016.

The French space agency Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES), together with the European Space Agency (ESA), operates the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana. This site is used to launch the Ariane 5, Soyuz 2, and Vega, provided by Arianespace.

Japan has two active launch sites: The Tanegashima Space Center and the Uchinoura Space Center. The Tanegashima Space Center is the larger of the two and where the H-IIA and H-IIB vehicles are launched. Previously known as Kagoshima Space Center, the Uchinoura Space Center is the launch site for the newly introduced small-class vehicle called Epsilon.

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) operates India’s sole launch site, the Satish Dhawan Space Center located near Sriharikota. Inaugurated in 1971, this is the launch site for ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). ISRO’s next vehicle, the more powerful LMV-3, will also launch from this site.

The Israeli Defense Force operates an orbital launch pad from Palmachim Air Force Base, from which the country’s Shavit vehicle is launched. Iran launches its Safir orbital vehicle from Semnan located in the north of the country near the Caspian Sea. North Korea’s Unha launch vehicle is launched from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station located in the country’s northeast. Finally, South Korea’s launch site for the Naro-1 vehicle is located at the Naro Space Center.

Launch Vehicle Integration and Processing

Since there are many different types of launch vehicles, there are many different ways to integrate and launch them. In general, however, vehicle assemblies and subsystems are manufactured in several locations and then transported via rail, air, or sea to the launch site where the parts come together as a complete launch vehicle. 

United Launch Alliance technicians inside the Space Launch Complex 37 Horizontal Integration Facility monitor progress as the second stage of a Delta IV Heavy rocket

Once the launch vehicle is fully integrated, it is then joined with its payload. This process is called payload integration. The payload arrives at the launch site from the manufacturing or checkout site to a specialized facility designed to handle the unique needs of the payload. For example, payloads may require fueling, last-minute integration with components, or final testing and checkout.

The payload is then attached to a payload adapter. The payload adapter is the physical connection between the payload and the launch vehicle and can be integrated with the launch vehicle either horizontally or vertically depending on the vehicle. Once integrated, the payload fairing is installed. The vehicle and payload then make their way to the launch pad, where the combination continues to be monitored during a technical checklist called a countdown. Fueling of a vehicle using liquid propellants takes place at the pad, usually immediately prior to launch.

Soyuz MS-03 Undergoes Prelaunch Integration

While the launch vehicle and payload are handled at the launch site, other operations take place to support launch activities. These are handled by a launch range, which is tasked with ensuring that the launch is conducted efficiently and safely. Typically, the range arranges for the the appropriate control or warnings necessary to protect aircraft, waterborne vessels, and the public.


Countdown milestones and key events that take place after the begins. Keep in mind that event times and lengths are approximate and subject to change. 

T-720 minutes (12 hours until launch)

.Verify countdown clock is set with applicable holds

.Countdown begins

.Clear all non-essential personnel from Mobile Launcher Platform (MLP) for jacking .Pad Environmental Control System (ECS) preparations, including air-conditioning and gaseous nitrogen purge, are performed .Weather briefing

.Complex 41 and Vertical Integration Facility Area amber warning lights are turned on, indicating hazardous operations are underway

.Power on searchlights (if launch is set for night or early morning)

.Complex 41 and VIF track is cleared of non-essential personnel for MLP/Vehicle transport

T-510 minutes

.MLP transported to launch pad

.MLP hard down at pad

.Start Atlas system preparations to support cryogenic tanking

.Instrumentation checks are completed .Atlas liquid oxygen (LO2) system preparations are complete

.Hazardous Gas Detection System preparations are complete

.Internal battery checks are performed .Centaur liquid hydrogen (LH2) system preparations are complete

.Public Affairs announcement: All personnel clear complex 41 for cryogenic tanking

T-120 minutes and holding (30 minute hold)

.Launch Conductor receives reports on vehicle readiness for cryogenic tanking .NASA Launch Manager polls team to proceed with tanking

.Launch Conductor holds a pre-test tanking briefing

T-120 minutes and counting

.Start chilldown procedures on Centaur upper stage's liquid oxygen storage tank

.Start chilldown procedures on Atlas V's liquid oxygen vault and Mobile Launcher Platform

.Start Centaur helium bottle charge to flight pressure

.Begin raising Atlas Pressure Vessels to flight levels

.Raise Atlas V RP-1 fuel tank to higher pressure

T-115 minutes and counting

.Safe Arm Device (SAD) cycle test is performed

T-110 minutes and counting

.Start Centaur liquid oxygen transfer line chilldown

T-103 minutes and counting

.Start Centaur LO2 tanking

T-93 minutes and counting

.Pressurize Centaur liquid hydrogen storage tank to chilldown level

T-90 minutes and counting

.Start filling Atlas V with liquid oxygen

T-85 minutes and counting

.Start Centaur liquid hydrogen transfer line chilldown

T-60 minutes and counting

.Start Centaur engine chilldown

T-55 minutes and counting

.Start flight control final preparations to raise hydraulic pressures

T-45 minutes and counting

.Pressurize Main Engine Pneumatic System to flight pressure

T-16 minutes and counting

.Initiate fuel fill sequence

T-10 minutes and counting

.Weather briefing with Atlas Launch Weather Officer

T-5 Minutes and counting

.Fuel fill sequence is complete

.Water deluge system actuation pressure adjustment is performed

.Atlas L02 at flight level

.Centaur L02 at Flight level

.Centaur LH2 at flight level

T-4 minutes and holding (10 minute hold)

.NAM and NLM final launch polls - go to continue countdown

.Spacecraft transfers to internal power

T-4 minutes and counting

.Hazardous gas monitoring is complete

.Automatic computer sequencer takes control for all critical events through liftoff

.Atlas first stage LO2 replenishment is secured, allowing the tank to be pressurized for flight

T-3 minutes and counting

.Atlas tanks reach flight pressure

T-2 minutes and counting

.Atlas first stage and Centaur upper stage switch to internal power

.L02 and LH2 topping for Centaur will stop in 10 seconds

T-90 seconds and counting

.Launch control system is enabled