[ARTICLE] How long does it take Americans to build an orbital space rocket?

Hello Fellows!

Recently, we read an very interesting and objective article published on LinkedIn titled "How long does it take Americans to build an orbital space rocket?", written by Chris Lamour, founder and former CEO of Orbex. The article analyzes 11 orbital launch vehicle projects in the USA, highlighting that the size of the vehicle influences the construction time. Smaller vehicles are completed more quickly than larger ones, with an average of 7.4 years to the first flight and an additional year to reach orbit.

Image from https://www.dreamstime.com/ (free download)

Chris Lamour also points out that projects with more resources can take longer and that unrealistic expectations about timelines can lead to criticism. The analysis serves as a reference to compare with European projects, offering insights into the impact of resources, team experience, and vehicle scale on development timelines.

After obtaining the author's permission to publish the article on BS, exclusively in Brazilian media, we noticed that many news articles have been published in Brazil in recent days about small launch vehicle projects (VLPP), both from the CENIC Group (see here) and Akaer (see here). In response to a question from our reader and supporter "André" (see image below), we decided to bring this article to help understand what is real or fantasy in the world of launch vehicles.

Print screen from BS e-mail, message received from a enthusiast questioning: "Is it really believable that it's possible to do in 3 years what hasn't been done in the last 30...?" (translated to english)

Lets see part of the answers below...


How long does it take Americans to build an orbital space rocket? 

by Chris Lamour*
July 10, 2024

One of the interesting things about the recent increase in the number of private companies attempting to build orbital space launch vehicles is that we can start to assess how much time (and resource) it takes to actually build one successfully.

In the chart below I've tracked 11 projects taking place in the USA, & the time it's taken various organizations to move from the start of a project (either in terms of founding a new company or within an existing organization) before getting a launch vehicle to 1st flight & then orbit.

What's clear from this diagram is that, as a rule of thumb, scale drives the amount of time it takes to build one of these systems. The shortest timeframes are for those organizations building smaller vehicles, such as Astra and Rocket Lab, and the longest timeframes are those building larger and typically more complex vehicles, such as SpaceX & United Launch Alliance (ULA). 

The second thing we can calculate is that there's an average time of around 7.4 years to build a launch vehicle & get it to first flight, and an average of around another year to take it from that first flight to achieving orbit. That's across all classes; large vehicles take 10-12 years - seemingly regardless of "fail-fast" or "ultra-cautious" methodologies - and the smallest 4-6 years. It's also notable that the more cautious programmes achieved orbit on 1st launch.

It's also clear that some organizations take longer than others to do approximately the same thing - often, paradoxically, those with an abundance of resources. 

Another comment that could be made when looking at delays - a problem endemic to the launch sector - is that perhaps the fault is not one of actually being delayed, but one of setting the right expectations about the general timeframes of launcher development programmes. 

Chart from the original post by Chris Lamour on his LinkedIn profile.

If it typically takes even experienced American prime contractors 9-10 years to build a heavier launcher from scratch, why set yourself up for criticism by saying you only need 6? Probably the pressures of investors or politics are a factor, but perhaps just being aware of the envelope of these projects would bring more programmatic accuracy, and perhaps more charitable scrutiny.

These timelines offer yardsticks to judge other programmes such as ArianeGroup's Ariane 6, Isar Aerospace's Spectrum, Orbex's Prime and Rocket Factory Augsburg - RFA One. Are these projects late or on track? Has raising lots of money helped them? Has a lack of resource held them back? Have inexperienced teams been at a disadvantage? Has launcher scale driven schedule? Does a lack of skills & technology in Europe extend their R&D timeframe?

Mapping timelines like this, especially with much more detail of various funding, technology & staffing milestones, can be very helpful in understanding how projects are actually progressing. I'll post more about European projects after the 1st Ariane 6 launch on 9 July.


Our sincere thanks to Chris Lamour for the authorization to publish his article in our BS blog!

Brazilian Space

Brazilian Space 15th Year 
Space that inspires, information that connects!