There is an imaginary line at 100 km above sea level known as the Kármán line. Theodore von Kármán calcualted that as this point, the atmosphere is too thin to provide enough lift to any conventional vehicle that was travelling less than orbital velocity, which is why the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) and most other organizations recognize it as the official boundary to space, the line between heaven and Earth.
Mount Everest, the highest point on Eath, stands just under 9% of the way there. Commercial airlines just a little higher. Getting up to 100 km is no easy task, but sending an object into orbit requires much more than simply going up, it also means that you have to go fast enough so that you don’t fall directly back down again.
There are only a few countries that have been able to build vehicles fast enough to escape earths gravity, and just as many that have tried and failed, but the idea of travelling to and exploring space has inspired generations. Here are the world leaders in providing access to space today.
Vehicle: Falcon Heavy
Falcon Heavy made history on February 6, 2018 when it became the largest active rocket. The launch was made more dramatic by including a Tesla Roadster as the dummy payload, and the return flight of the two first-stage boosters to landing sites in Florida.
The Falcon Heavy is a derivative of the Falcon 9 vehicle that is still in service. By attaching 2 falcon 9 first stage boosters to a strengthened central core, it was able to acheive nearly 3 times the lift, making it capable of delivering 63,800 kilograms (140,700 lb) to low-Earth orbit (LEO).
Falcon Heavy was designed from the start to be a reusable vehicle to carry cargo and humans to space, although SpaceX has made no plans to certify the vehicle for crewed missions and will instead focus on the development of the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) for future crewed missions.
Organization: United Launch Alliance
Vehicle: Delta IV Heavy
Until the launch of the Falcon Heavy, the Delta IV Heavy (Delta 9250H) was the highest capacity rocket in opperation. First launched in 2004, the Delta IV Heavy has been the flagship of the Delta IV family. Its three cores are fully expendable giving them a higher payload that reusable rockets, but increasing the cost dramatically.
The Delta IV successfully performed an unmanned test flight of the Orion capsule, Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion MPCV) for four astronauts. It is unlikely that ULA will have the Delta IV Heavy crew rated and is instead focusing its efforts on the Vulcan Rocket that is planned to replace the Delta IV Heavy in the mid-2020’s.
No list of launch vehicles could be complete without the R-7, first developed under the USSR space program. This family of rockets finds its roots in the Cold War era when it was debuted as the the world’s first ICBM. An early member of the family of rockets was responsible for launching the first satellite in space Sputnik-1.
With the reduction in size of Nuclear warheads, the R-7 rockets were quickly repurposed for peaceful launches of satellites, probes, manned and unmanned spacecraft. It has by far had more successful launches of any other family of large rockets.
Derivatives of the R-7 include the Vostok, Voskhod and Soyuz rockets. After the cancellation of NASA’s Shuttle Program Soyuz rockets became the only access for humans to LEO. There are currently two versions in use, the Soyuz-FG and the Soyuz-2. The Russian press recently announced that the Soyuz-FG will be by the end of 2020 and be replaced by the Soyuz-2.1a.
Organization: Orbital ATK and Yuzhnoye Design Bureau
Originally named Taurus II, the light-weight Antares is an expendable launch system developed under a partnership between Orbital Sciences Corporation, that was later renamed Orbital ATK and the Ukrainian Yuzhnoye Design Bureau. It was purpose built to provide supply runs to the International Sapce Station (ISS) using the Cygnus spacecraft. Capable of carrying payloads of more than 5,000kg (11,000lb) into low-Earth orbit, the Antares rocket was key to Orbital ATK winning a Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contract from NASA to deliver cargo to the ISS.
Organization: European Space Agency and Airbus Defence and Space
Vehicle: Ariane 5
The European Ariane 5 is primarily contracted out to Airbus Defense and Space by the European Space Agency (ESA) to provide access to low-Earth Orit and Geostationary transfer orbit. Although it succeeded the Ariane 4, the two vehicles are not related in design. The Ariane 5 was designed to be human rated from the start, but has never carried crewed missions.
The unique feature of the Ariane 5 is the ability to carry up to three seperate satellites and eight secondary payloads. The Ariane is operated by Arianespace, which has signed contracts up till 2022, plans to phase out the Ariane 5 after the introduction of the Ariane 6 in 2020.
Organization: China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology.
Vehicle: The Long March 4B and 4C
A Long March rocket, or Changzheng rocket, is any rocket that is part of the family of expendable rockets operated by China. Developed by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, the Long Marck 3 was the first non-US rockets to launch US satellites into space following the destruction of the U.S. Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986.
Plagued by failures through the 1990’s, the current Long March 4B and 4C have proven to be more reliable than earlier versions. They are capable of delivering payloads up 4,200 kg to LEO. The next Generation, Long March 9 variant hopes to increase that number to 140,000 kg to LEO within the next 10 years.
Being able to deliver objects to space has never been easy. But, organizations have more options now than ever before to reach into the last frontier. The success of private corporations in reaching LEO and beyond is lowering the cost to access this first toehold in reaching out to the stars, allowing organizations like NASA and ESA to focus their attention on what to do in space, rather than simply how to get there. It is hard to imagine what the next steps in space hold in store for us, but the wonders that sit just beyond our cosmic doorstep are sure to both dazzle us and deepen our appreciation for the mote of dust, floating through the void, that we call home.