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The Launch Landscape: Heavy-Lift Vehicles

When we think of “commercial” rockets, the ones that are enabling new types of business cases that empower the emerging space industry, it’s usually the small or medium-lift class vehicles that come to mind. Those are the ones that are built to be pumped out repeatedly off an assembly line. They’re not perfect at the start but are iterated such that each is a little improved over the last. For these rockets, affordability is often a higher priority than squeezing the last bit of performance out of the engines. I’m talking about vehicles like the RocketLab Electron, Virgin Orbit LauncherOne, or even at the larger end, the SpaceX Falcon 9.

The vehicles in this post are not those rockets. In the heavy-lift category, rockets have been designed to be more like the Ferrari’s of the rocket world. They are meant to be performance-driven machinery that lift huge amounts of payload into higher orbits (or even beyond Earth orbit), with little or no room for failure. Historically, this has meant that price was not the primary driver in the design of these rockets, because customers (typically governments) would pay whatever the cost.

This post will cover the below topics, starting with a survey of those rockets, and then discuss how this is slowly starting to change as the commercial segments of the market are creating pricing pressure on even these massive feats of engineering.

  • Rockets in the heavy-lift class

  • Why Are These Rockets Historically So Pricy?

  • How Are Newer Commercial Vehicles Affecting this Class of Rockets?

Before I dive in, a quick note: This post is about heavy-lift class rockets, but I’ve made a previous post about rockets that straddle the line between the medium and heavy-lift classes. That includes the Falcon 9 and Atlas V. You can check out that post here.

The Rockets

Side Note: Why Not Falcon Heavy?

As for why the Falcon Heavy isn’t on this list, that vehicle is capable of lifting a colossal 141,000 lbs to LEO. That puts it into the category of a super heavy-lift class rocket (those that can carry over 110,000 lbs to LEO). I’ll be covering those rockets in a future post.

Ariane 5

Originating Entity: European Space Agency

Payload Capacity: 21,000 kg to LEO

Maturity: Currently Flying

The Ariane 5 is the largest rocket developed by the European Space Agency. Its first successful launch took place in 1998 and it has flown successfully 104 times since. The vehicle’s central core stage, which uses a combination of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, has two solid rocket boosters attached to the sides. These boosters offer additional thrust to the rocket’s initial ascent from the launch pad. At a cost of around $150M per launch, Ariane 5’s pricing is fairly competitive for the heavy-lift category. This explains why it is such a frequently flying vehicle, with customers both inside and outside the European Union. Customers range from high-value European national security projects like the Galileo global navigation system, to international commercial ventures like Koreasat 6, and even one-of-a-kind scientific projects like NASA’s upcoming James Webb Telescope scientific missions. While the Ariane 5 rocket has launches scheduled at least through 2022, the European Space Agency is looking to introduce the next-generation Ariane 6 in the coming years which, when originally planned, was hoping to cost just half as much per launch as the Ariane 5 while maintaining a similar payload capacity.

giphy.com An English term for this is the use of countdown. A satellite is set at a time before launch, and many processes have… | Missions, Countdown, Satellites

Ariane 5 launch.

Long March 5

Originating Entity: China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology

Payload Capacity: 25,000 kg to LEO

Maturity: Currently Flying

The Long March 5 is developed by state-owned launch vehicle manufacturer the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology and is currently the largest rocket produced out of China. The Long March 5 is a newer vehicle, its first launch was in 2016 and it has only had seven launch attempts in total. The recent development of the Long March 5 is itself a demonstration of China’s desire to invest further in high-value scientific projects as well as human exploration. Without such a powerful rocket, China would not have been able to launch its Tianwen-1 spacecraft to Mars in 2020 and subsequently become the second nation to successfully put a rover on Mars. Furthermore, the rocket has most recently been used to launch Tianhe, the core module of its in-construction permanent space station in low Earth orbit. With almost all of its upcoming launches planned for assembling its space station or sending payloads to the Moon, the Long March 5 is a key component of China’s ambitions for becoming a leader in human and robotic space exploration.

Best Long March 5 B GIFs | Gfycat

Long March 5 launch.

Vulcan Centaur

Originating Entity: United Launch Alliance (ULA)

Payload Capacity: 27,000 kg to LEO

Maturity: In Development

In 2014, the United States Congress imposed a ban on US launch vehicles using Russian purchased engines. This had the primary effect of requiring United Launch Alliance to phase out its successful Atlas V vehicle which uses first stage RD-180 engines purchased from Russian company Energomash. Consequently, development began in 2014 on ULA’s next-generation vehicle, Vulcan Centaur. ULA decided it would purchase BE-4 engines from Blue Origin as the first stage engines for the Vulcan Centaur rocket, the same engines that Blue Origin will use for its New Glenn rocket. With a lift capacity well above the Atlas V and similar to the Delta IV heavy, Vulcan Centaur is planned to replace both of those ULA rockets. Meanwhile, Vulcan is intended to reduce costs significantly, with costs anticipated anywhere from $80M to $200M while Delta IV Heavy currently costs closer to $350M. Vulcan has been largely funded by government contracts and the company has received almost $1.2B in funding towards Vulcan development from the US Air Force and the National Security Space Launch program. Vulcan Centaur’s first launch had previously been planned for 2021 but the timing has been pushed back to 2022, likely due to delays in delivery of the BE-4 engines from Blue Origin.

Rendering of Vulcan. Source: ULA

Delta IV Heavy

Originating Entity: United Launch Alliance

Payload Capacity: 28,000 kg to LEO

Maturity: Currently Flying

The Delta IV Heavy is the most powerful launch vehicle in the Delta family of rockets. It has a fairly low launch cadence, averaging just under one launch per year, but since its first fully successful flight in 2007, the Delta IV Heavy has not had a single failure. The rocket’s most frequent customer is the National Reconnaissance Office, with 9 of its 12 successful launches used to put send US surveillance satellites to space for the NRO. The Delta IV Heavy has one central Common Booster Core, as well as an additional booster core on each side. At a price of over $350M to the US government for an NRO launch, the Delta IV Heavy is probably the most expensive vehicle flying today. The Delta IV Heavy is anticipated to be retired in around 2023 and replaced by ULA’s next-generation vehicle, Vulcan Centaur, which is planned to be priced significantly lower per launch.

A ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket

Delta IV Heavy launch. Source: Aerojet Rocketdyne

New Glenn

Originating Entity: Blue Origin

Payload Capacity: 45,000 kg to LEO

Maturity: In Development

New Glenn is the first orbital launch vehicle to be developed by Blue Origin, the space company founded by Jeff Bezos. It is the only vehicle in this lift class that was funded primarily through private investment, rather than government funding. New Glenn is an ambitious way to start an orbital launch program as it has a very large payload capacity, leverages high-performing cryogenic propellants in its engines, and is intended to be reusable from day one. It is for all of those reasons that New Glenn’s initial launch has been pushed back a number of times. Development began around 2012 and the vehicle’s first launch was intended to be around 2018, but that timing now seems more likely to be no earlier than 2023. New Glenn’s first stage uses seven BE-4 engines, the same powerful engines that Blue Origin is selling to ULA for use in its Vulcan Centaur vehicle. Both selling the engines and using them in New Glenn allows Blue to take advantage of scale effects on costs. It may also prove a challenge though as Blue has struggled to scale up the engine production rate and supply both ULA and its New Glenn with engines on the previously anticipated timelines.

Rendering of New Glenn rocket. Source: Blue Origin

Why Are These Rockets Historically So Pricy?

While information is not available for all of these rockets, the prices for launch vehicles in this category range from about $150M to $350M per launch to put anywhere from around 21,000kg to 28,000kg to LEO (excluding New Glenn, which will lift significantly more payload but has not released any indications of pricing). If we compare that pricing to say a Falcon 9 which typically lifts around 18,000kg to LEO for a price of about $60M, we can see that the rockets in the heavy-lift category are priced expensively. Which leads us to ask, why is that?

Well, the high cost of these rockets has typically been due to their applications. Rather than placing large numbers of satellites into low Earth orbit, heavy-lift class vehicles are typically used for lifting extremely high value, one-off pieces of equipment into higher orbits or to other planets. When your payload is an extremely expensive and unique piece of technology, like for example a giant NASA telescope that took a decade to build, customers are less price-sensitive and will pay more to make sure the launch has an extremely high likelihood of success.

Furthermore, while I used kilograms of payload to LEO as a way of comparing these rockets’ lift capacities, they are almost never used to put satellites into LEO. Nearly every launch by these rockets is actually used to place payloads into a higher geostationary transfer orbit (GTO). In order to get payloads into higher orbits, they often use more sophisticated propellents. Rather than using room-temperature storable fuel like kerosene or RP-1, these higher-performing vehicles all use hydrogen (or methane in the case of New Glenn). Those fuels are gaseous at room temperature and so they must be kept at cryogenic temperatures to remain liquid in the rocket tanks. These cryogenic fuels have higher Specific Impulse (the rocket equivalent of miles per gallon) than kerosene, but result in more sophisticated engines. This in turn makes the rocket more complicated and expensive.

How Are Newer Commercial Vehicles Affecting this Class of Rockets?

As was mentioned previously, the rockets in the heavy-lift class have typically been developed in a separate manner (with government funding upfront) and with separate priorities (performance over price) than the vehicles that would be considered “commercial rockets”. However, that doesn’t mean that privately funded rockets aren’t having an impact on the heavy-lift category as well. Legacy rocket companies building larger rockets can no longer ignore the disparity in their launch prices compared to competitors. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has created significant pricing pressure on the industry, with its pricing of around $60M. The next generation of heavy rockets built by legacy providers, such as the Vulcan Centaur (27,000kg to LEO) and the Ariane 6 (21,000 to LEO) will not lift significantly more payload than the vehicles they are replacing, but rather aim to be significantly more affordable.

In addition, customers are understandably reacting favorably to more affordable options. While SpaceX has already captured almost the entirety of the launch market for large commercial satellites, they are serving an increasing amount of the government launch business as well. In a recent National Security Space Launch contract awarded in 2020 for approximately 30-40 US government launches from 2022-2027, ULA won 60% of the launches and SpaceX 40%. While ULA maintains the majority of the US national security launch market, this is a significant change to the status quo as SpaceX only launched its first national security space mission in 2017. Furthermore, it seems likely that SpaceX’s market share of large national security payloads will only grow going forward.


Ultimately these heavy launch rockets are incredible pieces of high-performing technology that have typically operated in a class of their own, demanding extremely high prices. However, it seems like they are no longer able to insulate themselves from forces that are spreading through the launch market and it will be exciting to see how these companies try to adapt to remain competitive.

Additional Reading

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Want to read more about the small rockets putting pricing pressure on the larger launch vehicles? Read more here.

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