Launch Vehicle Categorizations Made Simple: What You Need To Know

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Groupings/Categorizations
    1. Manufacturer
    2. Country of Origin
    3. Launch Authority
    4. Payload Flexibility
    5. Stages to Orbit
    6. Launch Mode
    7. Launch/Recovery Facility
    8. Propellant(s) Utilized
    9. Reuse Capability
    10. Reuse Landing/Recovery Mode
    11. Structure Material
    12. Innovation
    13. Vehicle History and Reliability
    14. Tactical Responsiveness / Responsive Launch
    15. Flight Regimes
    16. Payload Mass to LEO
    17. Launch Vehicle Risk Category
    18. Payload Class(es) Supported
    19. Payload Fairing
    20. Cost-effectiveness
    21. NASA Procurement Vehicle
    22. Operational Status
  3. Additional information for the curious
    1. Policies and directives
    2. NASA rideshare
    3. NASA small satellites

Introduction

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.

Groupings/Categorizations

Manufacturer

  • 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

Launch Authority

  • FAA licensed
  • NASA Launch Services Program
  • Department of Defense

Payload Flexibility

  • 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)

Launch Mode

  • Vertical launch, e.g. ULA Atlas V
  • Horizontal launch
  • Sea launch
  • Catapult, e.g. Spin Launch
  • Balloon
  • Air launch, e.g. Virgin Orbit LauncherOne

Launch/Recovery Facility

  • 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

Propellant(s) Utilized

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
  • Hypergolic
  • Monopropellant
  • Pressurized inert gas

Reuse Capability

  • 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

Structure Material

  • Carbon composite
  • Steel
  • Aluminum

Innovation

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

Flight Regimes

Launch vehicles have different capabilities relative to which orbits they are able to deliver payloads to.

  • Suborbital
  • 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.

Source: NASA

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:

Payload Fairing

  • Payload fairing usable volume
Source: ULA

Cost-effectiveness

  • Single manifest/dedicated launch price
  • Price per kilogram of mass to orbit (e.g. LEO, SSO)
  • Insurability

NASA Procurement Vehicle

Operational Status

  • Proposed
  • Planned
  • Development
  • Operational
  • Retired

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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

NASA rideshare

NASA small satellites

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