Since 1957, the Russian space program has been steadily churning out its aging yet reliable rockets into space at a faster rate than most countries, though the United States has surpassed it on a few occasions. At the height of the USSR, the Russians were blasting 100 rockets a year into the great unknown. But it appears the Russian bear is slowing down. According to the Moscow Times, Russia will wrap up 2016 with 18 rocket launches, behind China's 19, as it continues to grow its space program, and the 20 launched by US parties.
The Moscow Times cites a cocktail of reasons for the dip in productivity. The two biggest culprits are the declining budgets for Roscosmos (the Russian space science program) and the rise of commercial competition from American rocket providers like SpaceX and United Launch Alliance (the latter a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin). NASA itself has struggled with abysmal budgets for years, but at least it has had the help of private American rocket companies. United Launch Alliance will have had a dozen launches by year's end—one a month—and SpaceX was matching that schedule until its launchpad accident in September. China's rapidly expanding space ambitions also have vaulted it into one of the world's rocketry leaders.
The usually dependable Proton Launch Vehicle, Roscosmos' main rocket, has also suffered problems of its own in recent years, which have slowed things down for the Russian space program.
If all stays the same, this disparity is likely to get even bigger as SpaceX matches or exceeds United Launch Alliance in yearly launches, and as Blue Origins joins the fold (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos's pet space project).
One major caveat for American rocket launches, however, is what the President-elect Donald Trump will do to NASA's budget. We already know he's likely to reduce funding for the agency's Earth science department, a leader on climate research. That may hamper space exploration in many unseen ways, and could potentially reduce US rocket traffic (if there are less Earth-monitoring projects getting greenlit to go up aboard private rockets).
But the real question when considering the future of US rocket launches is how Trump (who promised to bring more space jobs back to Florida) and the Republican-controlled Congress, will impact NASA's budget for commercial cargo and crew flights. After all, as SpaceX itself has openly admitted, it would not have gotten where it is today—landing rockets upright on barges out in the ocean—without generous business and funding from NASA.
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