Thanks to billionaire Elon Musk, Washington & Beijing corner more than 80% of the world's space launches

U.S. recaptures top position in outer space transportation from China

PHOTO/Karolin Kasper - The record for space launches has passed from Xi Jinping's China, with 64 liftoffs (three failures), to Joe Biden's, who with 87 flights (also three failures) once again holds the position of honour

A brief qualitative and quantitative analysis of what the year 2022 has meant for the race between the major powers for the domination of outer space places the United States as the winner and renews its position as the undisputed leader.

In the unbridled competition between the government agencies of the world's most powerful nations to lead the way in the exploration of the cosmos, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, has confirmed its absolute hegemony over those that seek to overshadow it.

As the facts and figures of the year just ended show, President Xi Jinping is still far from the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) being able to emulate the milestones recently achieved by NASA, President Vladimir Putin is unable to keep pace with the White House, and old Europe, as well as India and Japan are at an insurmountable distance.  


NASA took its first effective step on 16 November - the Artemis I mission - to return astronauts to the moon, an ambition that is still too far away from Beijing. But Xi Jinping knows this, is patient and has chosen an alternative approach.  In just a year and a half he has single-handedly managed to build his first manned orbital complex, Tiangong - the Mandarin-language Heavenly Palace - where two crews of three astronauts, one after the other, have already been housed for three months.

In the growing sphere of large private commercial ventures, it is safe to say that entrepreneur Elon Musk is the champion of the global space industry. The billionaire with three nationalities - South African, Canadian and American - is by his own merit and that of his company SpaceX the undisputed major player in global space transportation in 2022. 

elon musk
Elon Musk is once again the champion of the space industry  

Throughout 2022, SpaceX has launched 34 Falcon 9 rockets, which have deployed into orbit no less than 1,722 small platforms of the Starlink constellation - a project also led by Musk - that provides Internet and broadband connectivity across the planet. But in total, it has launched no fewer than 60 Falcon 9s in response to various contracts with NASA, the Space Force, federal institutions and private companies.

Owner of Twitter since the end of October, Musk had the satisfaction of inaugurating the launches of the year just ended on 6 January. It was with his star recoverable vector, the Falcon 9, which with a flight from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida put the first batch of Starlink satellites of 2022 into orbit at an altitude of 540 kilometres.

The tycoon also wanted to be the architect of the last liftoff of the year. He did so on 30 December, this time from the Vandenberg base in California. Another Falcon 9 rocket placed the Eros C3, Israel's very high resolution electro-optical spy satellite, at an altitude of 500 kilometres. Weighing about 400 kilograms, its manufacturer, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), says it will also provide images "for commercial purposes". 


The number of launches into outer space is increasing every year. In 2022, there were 186, which is 28.3 & 28.3 per cent more than in 2021 (145), which is a very high rate: one launch every two days. The vast majority of these were to position satellites and only seven missions - three American, two Russian and seven Chinese - to transport astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) or the new Chinese orbital complex. And of the unmanned vectors, 9 were unsuccessful.

The contribution of Elon Musk and his Falcon 9 rocket has been decisive for the United States. The 2022 place of honour in world space transport is no longer held by Xi Jinping, who has achieved 64 liftoffs, but by Joe Biden, who with 87 - nine of them from New Zealand - has regained the leadership he lost to China in 2021. The combined power of Washington and Beijing is overwhelming. Between them, the two countries have carried out 151 orbital launches, representing 81.2% of the annual total. 

The facts and figures for 2022 

The vast majority of US launches (57) have been from civilian NASA or military Space Force facilities in Florida. Only 16 have come from the California base at Vandenberg on the West Coast. In China, almost half of the flights (25) have departed from Jiuquan, one of its six space centres.

Moscow remains stuck in third place, far behind Washington and Beijing. The negative impact of the war in Ukraine on its production lines has been reflected in a decline in its ultra-terrestrial missions. Russia has divided its launches between its three cosmodromes: Plesetsk (13), Baikonur (7) and Vostochny (2), the latter in Siberia. 


Fortunately, the tensions between Washington and Moscow have not affected the joint missions to and from the ISS. Western astronauts and Russian cosmonauts continue to travel in each other's capsules. Where the warlike confrontation has transcended is in the cooperation of the Russian Space Agency - Roscosmos - with the European Space Agency (ESA).

The breakdown of good relations between the two agencies has led the new Roscosmos director general, Yuri Borisov, to ground the Euro-Russian ExoMars 2022 mission. Its main cargo, the Rosalind Franklin rover, is awaiting a new partner to travel to the Red Planet. Europe holds fourth place, but with only five liftoffs from French Guiana, one less than in 2021: three from Ariane 5 and two from the smaller Vega-C, the second of which has been a fiasco, leaving ESA without space transportation and forcing it to contract out future launches to third parties.  


India is on a par with Europe in fifth place among spacefaring nations. Its three model delivery vehicles have made five launches, one of which failed. Japan with its Epsilon vector and South Korea with its new KSLV-II Nuri have succeeded in their only launches. Iran has also tried with its Qased rocket, but failed.

The year just ended has seen NASA become the only space agency to have a new super-heavy launcher - SLS - and a space capsule - Orion - operational that can carry out manned lunar missions and place up to a hundred tonnes of payload into low orbit. But both SLS and Orion have yet to prove their reliability to carry and return humans safely to Earth, which will not be achieved until 2024.