• SpaceDotBiz
  • Posts
  • The Launch Landscape: Medium Lift Rockets

The Launch Landscape: Medium Lift Rockets

A survey of launch vehicles in the medium lift payload classes

With this newsletter, we’re coming back to rockets and this time we’re looking at those in the medium lift launch vehicle category. This includes vehicles capable of lifting between 2,000kg and 20,000kg to Low Earth Orbit. It’s a particularly interesting segment because it’s a highly international cohort of vehicles. It provides a great way to explore the international/geopolitical nature of the space industry and to consider the reasons for why nations choose to sponsor their own space programs.

The post will start with a survey of all the vehicles. Then we’ll focus on some of the patterns we see and discuss how we can think about the rockets in this payload lift class. The post will cover:

  • Rockets in the medium lift class

  • Why are there so many state sponsored rocket programs?

  • Why do some nations take outside customers

Notably, I’ve addressed vehicles that lift around 20,000kg to orbit and straddle the border between the medium and heavy categories in a previous post. That includes the Falcon 9, Atlas V, and Proton rockets and you can check out that post here.

The Rockets


Originating Nation: United States

Originating Entity: Northrop Grumman

Payload Class: Medium- 8,000 kg max to LEO

Maturity: Currently Flying

The Antares rocket was developed starting in 2008 with funding from the US government as part of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program and with investment from Orbital Sciences, a private entity later purchased by Northrop Grumman in 2018. The rocket was actually developed in part through a partnership with a Ukrainian company Yuzhnoye Design Bureau, and the rocket’s first stage utilizes a Russian RD-181 engine. The US government funding was provided for the purposes of creating a launch vehicle to send supplies to the International Space Station while the Space Shuttle Program was winding down. Since its first flight in 2013, Antares has flown successfully 14 times. Each flight has been a cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station. Antares is the largest rocket currently operated by Northrop Grumman. The price to customers of an Antares launch is estimated at around $80M.

Antares Launch GIF | Gfycat

Antares launch

Long March 3B

Originating Nation: China

Originating Entity: China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, the primary state-owned launch provider of the Chinese government

Payload Class: Medium- 11,500 kg max to LEO

Maturity: Currently Flying

The Long March 3B is the most prolific vehicle in the Long March rocket family having flown successfully 68 times. In 2013 the vehicle was priced at around $70M per launch (likely now reduced due to more recent pricing competition) and has flown most of its payloads for the Chinese government but has also carried satellites for commercial entities based in Indonesia, Africa, and elsewhere. A controversial aspect of Long March 3B is that from the vehicle’s inland launch site it passes over inhabited portions of China before achieving orbit. Consequently there have been documented cases of discarded first stage booster debris falling onto inland villages.

Rocket booster smashes home following Chinese Long March 3B launch - SpaceNews

Long March 3B. Source: SpaceNews.com

Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle

Originating Nation: India

Originating Entity: the Indian Space Research Organization, the national space agency of India

Payload Mass: 3,800 kg to LEO

Maturity: Currently Flying

The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle was first introduced by the Indian government in 1993 and since has had 49 successful launches. It is one of the most attractive vehicles in its payload category for commercial satellites due to the PSLV’s affordable pricing of around $18M per launch. The rocket also carries payloads for the Indian government, including some of Indian’s most famous spacecraft such as the nation’s first lunar probe in 2008 and its first multi-planetary mission to Mars in 2014. Up until SpaceX’s recent rideshare missions, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle had claimed the record for most satellites launched in a single rocket from when it successfully deployed 104 small satellites on a single mission in February 2017.

Next PSLV launch to carry 3 satellites made by Indian start-ups | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle


Originating Nation: Russia

Originating Entity: Roscosmos State Space Corporation, a state entity of the Russian government

Payload Class: Medium- 8,200 kg max to LEO

Maturity: Currently Flying

The Soyuz-2 rocket is the most current version of the larger Soyuz family of rockets that has been flying since the 1960’s. Soyuz-2 began flying in 2006 and has since had 116 successful launches while the full Soyuz family of rockets has flown over 1,700 times making it the most flown rocket family in history. From the last flight of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011 through SpaceX’s first crewed flights in 2020, Soyuz was the only means for taking people up to the International Space Station. As a result, during that time the US was limited to buying seats on Soyuz-2 rockets for its astronauts to reach the ISS. Given its fairly competitive pricing at around $45M per launch for commercial launches, the Soyuz-2 has also been an attractive option for commercial entities looking to get their satellites to orbit. Soyuz-2 rockets carrying payloads for the Russian government are managed by Roscosmos. Alternatively, a European company Arianespace regularly purchases Soyuz-2 rockets from Roscosmos and contracts out launches for commercial customers.

Latest Soyuz GIFs | Gfycat

Soyuz rocket launch. Source: National Geographic


Originating Nation: Japan

Originating Entity: developed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, the national space agency of Japan, and manufactured by Mitsubishi Heavy Industry

Payload Class: Medium- 15,000kg max to LEO

Maturity: Currently Flying

H-IIA is the largest currently flying launch vehicle originating from Japan and a member of the H-II rocket family. It has had 42 successful launches since its first flight in 2001 and costs an estimated $90M per launch. The H-IIA almost entirely launches payloads for the purposes of the Japanese government with the rare exception of paid launches for other governments or international commercial entities.

Medium Launch Vehicle Payload Lift Capacity to LEO

Why are there so many state sponsored rocket programs?

One thing interesting to note about the medium lift class is that by nationality, it is extremely diverse.

There are multiple reasons why nation states develop rocket launch capabilities. One is for national prestige. Nations take great pride in having the capability to explore space and being a space-faring nation theoretically elevates a country into an elite group of technological powers.

A second reason is that a nation decides it’s worth the cost of developing their own launch vehicle in order to not have to pay other nations to get satellites into space. This decision is made either because they plan to launch so many satellites that the cost will be cheaper to make the rockets in house or because they don’t want their national security satellites leaving the country’s borders before going to space. So developing a launch vehicle can also be a demonstration of the ambitions of a country to have a more consistent presence in space.

In addition, most governments are secretive about the technology on their satellites because they are often leveraged for military or espionage purposes. If for example India were to pay China to launch an Indian military satellite into orbit, could India know that when the satellite was on Chinese soil, no one would peak under the hood?

Why Do Some Nations Take Outside Customers

Developing a rocket is a huge fixed cost investment. In addition, maintaining the launch program requires a continual re-investment that must be made every year a nation wants to maintain the launch capability. If a country is capable of recouping some of that investment by making money on the side and selling launches to private companies or other nations, then they are often happy to do so.

Medium Launch Vehicle Payload Cost Per Launch in Millions

In fact, this balance between government and commercial customers is an interesting theme that is pervasive throughout the space industry. In the case of state run launch programs, we see capabilities developed for the service of government customers, sometimes with the expectation or hope that commercial markets will materialize to expand revenue. However beyond state programs, it is also the case that private corporations operating in the space industry will typically develop capabilities that they hope to sell to both government and commercial customers as well.

Some projects are capable of straddling this line between government and commercial customers but it is often a difficult endeavor. If you pursue an area where the commercial customers don’t materialize, you can become fully reliant on government customers and the organization may take the shape of a traditional defense contractor (for better or worse). If you target commercial customers at the expense of government customers, you run the risk of missing out on meaningful and often reliable government contracting opportunities. In addition, in down markets the government tends to be more a recession proof customer than commercial customers which sometimes pull back on spending in rough times.

Furthermore, launching satellites for other countries can be a means of developing geopolitical relationships or an illustration of relationships that are already entrenched. For example, commercial payloads launched by China’s Long March 3B vehicle have originated typically from countries where China is aiming to further extend its influence, including Indonesia, Nigeria, and Pakistan.

Ultimately, we are currently seeing a transition of the space industry into a more commercially driven and privatized sector. However, there will likely always be geopolitical and national security factors embedded in the space industry for as long as there are countries willing to vie for “the ultimate high ground”.

Additional Reading

Liked this read? Follow me on twitter for more frequent updates on the space world.

Want to read more about the small rockets enabling some of this more affordable satellite launch? Read more here.

Join the conversation

or to participate.