Table of Contents
This article provides a concise overview of the different groupings/categorizations for launch vehicles.
For information on specific launch vehicles see this article Orbital Launch Vehicles 2022 Compendium.
This article will be updated as additional information is available.
Article last updated on July 8, 2022.
- Manufacturing organization, e.g. Northrop Grumman
- Years in operation
- Organization type, e.g. commercial, government
- Financial status, e.g. cash flow positive, cash flow negative
Country of Origin
NASA payloads and NASA sponsored payloads will typically require a US domestic launch vehicle. National Security Space Launch payloads require a US domestic launch vehicle.
- Country of origin
- FAA licensed
- NASA Launch Services Program
- Department of Defense
- Single manifest/dedicated
- ESPA rideshare
- Non-ESPA shared payload adapter rideshare
Stages to Orbit
- Single Stage to Orbit (SSTO)
- Two Stages to Orbit (TSTO)
- Multiple Stages to Orbit (MSTO)
- Vertical launch, e.g. ULA Atlas V
- Horizontal launch
- Sea launch
- Catapult, e.g. Spin Launch
- Air launch, e.g. Virgin Orbit LauncherOne
- FAA licensed spaceport
- Private spaceport, e.g. SpaceX Starbase
- US Federal site
- Commercial airport, e.g. Virgin Orbit
- Mobile sea platform, e.g. SpaceX drone ship landing pad
Some launch vehicles will use different types of propellants for different stages of the launch vehicle.
- Solid, e.g. IRSO SSLV
- Hybrid, e.g. Virgin Galactic VSS
- LOX and RP–1, e.g. ULA Atlas V
- LOX and Methane, e.g. SpaceX Starship
- LOX and Hydrogen, e.g. NASA’s Space Launch System
- Pressurized inert gas
- Expendable, e.g. ULA Atlas V
- Partially reusable, e.g. SpaceX Falcon 9
- Fully reusable, e.g. SpaceX Starship
Reuse Landing/Recovery Mode
- Horizontal landing
- Vertical landing (propulsive landing on spaceport landing pad, drone ship) e.g. SpaceX Falcon 9
- Parachute recovery, e.g. Rocket Lab Electron
- Carbon composite
Innovation which increases the access to space by contributing to one or more of more of the following:
- Development testing cost reductions
- Learning curve time and cost reductions
- Launch vehicle cost reductions
- Production cost reductions (e.g. mass manufacturing versus bespoke)
- Launch operations cost reductions
- Reusable vehicle lifecycle cost reductions (e.g. increase number of launches before end of life, recovery and refurbishment cost reductions)
- New capabilities
Vehicle History and Reliability
- Years in service
- Total launches
- % successful
Tactical Responsiveness / Responsive Launch
This is an area of interest for the US Space Force.
- Time to orbit after receiving tasking order
- Launch location/deployment flexibility
- Average launch cycle
Launch vehicles have different capabilities relative to which orbits they are able to deliver payloads to.
- LEO (low Earth orbit)
- SSO (Sun-synchronous orbit)
- Polar (polar orbit)
- MEO (medium Earth orbit)
- GTO (geostationary transfer orbit)
- GEO (geostationary orbit, direct injection)
- HEO (high Earth orbit)
- HCO (heliocentric orbit)
- TLI (trans-lunar injection)
- TMI (trans-Mars injection)
Payload Mass to LEO
One of the most common NASA categorizations of launch vehicles is based on the payload mass they are able to carry to LEO.
CATEGORY LEO PAYLOAD CAPACITY
Small < 2,000 kg
Medium 2,000 to 20,000 kg
Heavy > 20,000 to 50,000 kg
Super-heavy > 50,000 kg
Launch Vehicle Risk Category
NASA also assigns a “risk category” to all launch vehicles according to their level of quality assurance and track record.
Launch vehicles are qualified to carry specific payload classes based upon the launch vehicle’s assigned risk category as shown in the following table.
Payload Class(es) Supported
NASA assigns a “payload class” to all NASA payloads and NASA sponsored payloads according to their risk tolerance level.
Launch vehicles will have different levels of safety and mission assurance capabilities (which is indicated by the launch vehicle’s risk category previously described). These levels dictate what types of payloads the launch vehicle can support, as identified below:
- Human-rated, i.e. ULA Atlas V, SpaceX Falcon 9, NASA SLS
- Payload Class (risk tolerance):
- Class A payload, e.g. ULA Atlas V
- Class B payload
- Class C payload
- Class D payload, e.g. Rocket Lab Electron
- Do No Harm (DNH)
- National Security Space Launch payload, i.e. SpaceX, ULA
- Payload fairing usable volume
- Single manifest/dedicated launch price
- Price per kilogram of mass to orbit (e.g. LEO, SSO)
NASA Procurement Vehicle
- NASA Launch Services Program procurement vehicles:
- NASA Launch Services (procurement vehicles: NLS I, NLS II)
- Venture Class Launch Services (procurement vehicles: VCLS, CAPSTONE, VCLS Demo 2, TROPICS, VADR (includes dedicated and rideshare launches))
- Mission Integration Services 3
- NASA SMD Ridesharing Office (coordinates available ESPA capacity on NLS, NSSL, international partners, and commercial market)
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Additional information for the curious
Orbital Launch Vehicles 2022 Compendium
Policies and directives
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly… “Class D” Payload Explained
NASA Venture Class Launch Services Made Simple: What You Need to Know
How did the TROPICS smallsats end up using a launch service provider with a 100% failure rate?
NASA Online Directives Information System