Insights into Operational Orbital Launch Vehicle Types

There are 60 operational orbital launch vehicle types on a global basis. This article characterizes those launch vehicles in the following areas:

  • Launch vehicle types by country
  • Responsive launch
  • Reusability
  • Flight heritage
  • Payload mass to LEO

Launch Vehicle Types by Country

China has the largest number, accounting for 38.3% of global operational orbital launch vehicle types.

Responsive Launch

96.7% of launch vehicles do not support responsive launch. The only responsive launch vehicles currently operational are the SSLV and Electron.

Responsive launch is characterized by the ability to launch a payload on short notice. Interest in responsive launch is primarily driven by national defense agencies. If a critical satellite is disabled, either due to technical reasons or due to an opponent’s counter-space activities, it provides a quick way to react to restore the mission. A responsive launch capability requires: orbital launch vehicles to be kept in stock and ready to deploy; fast payload integration; and on demand access to launch facilities.


96.7% of global launch vehicles are expendable. The only partially reusable launch vehicles are Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. Note that Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy can both be used in expendable mode to deliver larger payloads into orbit.

Flight Heritage

The Long March 2C launch vehicle has the longest flight heritage with its first flight occurring in 1982.

Payload Mass to LEO

Medium-lift launch vehicles are the majority, representing over 46% of vehicles.

Launch vehicles are categorized by NASA according to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) payload capability:

Launch Vehicle Categorization Playload Mass to LEO
Small-lift launch vehicle< 2000 kg
Medium-lift launch vehicle 2000 to 20,000 kg
Heavy-lift launch vehicle> 20,000 to 50,000 kg
Super-heavy lift launch vehicle> 50,000 kg

Across all launch vehicle types, the payload mass to LEO ranges from a low of 4 kg to a high of 63,800 kg.

For information on new orbital launch vehicles, and their upcoming maiden launches see New Orbital Rockets on the Horizon. For more information on operational launch vehicles see Orbital Launch Vehicles Compendium 2022.

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