Launch vehicle, in spaceflight, a rocket-powered vehicle used to transport a spacecraft beyond Earth’s atmosphere, either into orbit around Earth or to some other destination in outer space. Practical launch vehicles have been used to send crewed spacecraft, uncrewed space probes, and satellites into space since the 1950s. They include the Soyuz and Proton launchers of Russia as well as several converted military missiles; Russia is developing a new family of launchers called Angara. Europe operates the Ariane V and Vega launchers. The United States operated the space shuttle until its retirement in 2011. Current U.S. launch vehicles include the Atlas, Delta, Falcon, and Antares expendable boosters.
In order to reach Earth orbit, a launch vehicle must accelerate its spacecraft payload to a minimum velocity of 28,000 km (17,500 miles) per hour, which is roughly 25 times the speed of sound. To overcome Earth’s gravity for travel to a destination such as the Moon or Mars, the spacecraft must be accelerated to a velocity of approximately 40,000 km (25,000 miles) per hour. The initial acceleration must also be provided very rapidly in order to minimize both the time that a launch vehicle takes to transit the stressful environment of the atmosphere and the time during which the vehicle’s rocket engines and other systems must operate near their performance limits; a launch from Earth’s surface or atmosphere usually attains orbital velocity within 8–12 minutes. Such rapid acceleration requires one or more rocket engines burning large quantities of propellant at a high rate, while at the same time the vehicle is controlled so that it follows its planned trajectory. To maximize the mass of the spacecraft that a particular launch vehicle can carry, the vehicle’s structural weight is kept as low as possible. Most of the weight of the launch vehicle is actually its propellants—i.e., fuel and the oxidizer needed to burn the fuel. Designing reliable launch vehicles is challenging. The launchers with the best recent records have a reliability rate between 95 and 99 percent.
With the exception of the partially reusable U.S. space shuttle and the Soviet Buran vehicle (which was flown only once), all launch vehicles to date have been designed for only a single use; they are thus called expendable launch vehicles. With costs ranging from more than 10 million dollars each for the smaller launch vehicles used to put lighter payloads into orbit to hundreds of millions of dollars for the launchers needed for the heaviest payloads, access to space is very expensive, on the order of many thousands of dollars per kilogram taken to orbit. The complexity of the space shuttle made it extremely expensive to operate, even though portions of the shuttle system were reusable. Attempts to develop a fully reusable launch vehicle in order to reduce the cost of access to space have so far not been successful, primarily because the