Apropos of the Falcon Heavy test flight scheduled for February 6, 2018, what is the failure rate of first launches of new orbital rocket designs?

How has this rate changed over time since the 1950s?

Ideally, I'd like a breakdown by decades, but overall trends would be enough answer for me.

Defining rigidly what constitutes a "new" rocket design is, of course, impossible; I'd say that all the iterations of the Falcon 9 1.1 are "one design" for purposes of this question, but I can almost see a case for distinguishing between Falcon 9 1.0 and 1.1 because of the thrust structure redesign.

I'd define "failure" as (1) not achieving insertion into the desired orbit for any reason after liftoff or (2) catastrophic failure to lift off, but if you want to distinguish other cases, feel free. If the rocket ignites its engines, then immediately shuts down in a way that leaves it able to try again in a matter of days, that's not a failure.

  • $\begingroup$ Project Vanguard: 3 satellites sucessfully launched into orbit out of 11 attempts. $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    Feb 6 '18 at 21:52
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ But there was the very sucessful rocket family Saturn. Not a single failure of the rocket during 7 launches of Saturn 1, 6 of Saturn IB and 13 of Saturn V. Even the shutdown of 2 engines of the second stage of the Saturn V used for Apollo 6 was handled by burning the remaining 3 engines 58 seconds longer. The exploding oxygen tank of Apollo 13 was not part of the Saturn V rocket, it was in the payload service module. $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    Feb 7 '18 at 12:50
  • $\begingroup$ But the problem with the rupture of an internal fuel line of the J-2 engine of the Saturn V used for Apollo 6 could have happened earlier at Apollo 4 or 5. If the problem happened in more than one engine of the second stage, a failure of the whole rocket was possible. The third stage used only one J-2 engine, its failure would have caused a failure of the whole rocket. It was mere chance that the rupture happened only once and only in Apollo 6. $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    Feb 17 '18 at 10:09

Alright, I went ahead and skimmed wikipedia's orbital capable rockets list and put them all into an excel file along with whether their first launch was a success or a failure! They're sorted by date.

Some observations:

  • Data from the Cold War / Space Race era is pretty spotty at points
  • In the early days Russia had many first failures and then very reliable rockets while the USA had consistently failure prone rockets that often worked on their first try
  • Basically all US and Russian rockets are adapted ICBM missile designs (Early US rockets were literally missiles with smaller missiles on top!)
  • How likely your rocket is to fail on the first launch typically dosen't correlate to year but rather to experience with launching previous rockets
  • Although the Russian and USA data is spotty early on, they really had an extreme development cycle and really took the "fail lots to learn quicker" engineering approach to heart

Orbital Rockets First try list


  • Many early Space programs in countries with government-controlled media may misreport on rocket launches and failures
  • This data is from Wikipedia so take it however you like ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
  • The note "nmd" means "not much data"
  • Raw Data Here: https://pastebin.com/gLxYMKDh
  • $\begingroup$ There were a lot of Sputnik missions, see. The first try of Sputnik 3 at february 1958 was a failure, but the next try in may 1958 was a success. But there were a lot of other successful Sputnik missions. Your table shows only one failure, the others are missing. $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    Feb 15 '18 at 21:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Uwe This table only shows the first launch of a rocket, not the payload. It's supposed to show if they "got it right on their first try". The rocket that carried all the sputnik missions was called "Sputnik" $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Feb 15 '18 at 21:31
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ But if you show only first launches, the first successful launch of Sputnik 1 at oktober 1957 is missing. Sputnik was the name of the rocket and ist payload. But not all rockets used for Sputnik missions were called itself Sputnik. The name Sputnik was used mainly in the west, the Soviet used other names. Kosmos 1 was not 1946 but 1962, see. $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    Feb 15 '18 at 21:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Uwe, Oops, thanks. Fixed date on Kosmos. I misread the Sputnik article as I had it mixed up with the 8A91 launch. $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Feb 15 '18 at 22:04
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Looks like this data is outdated. I hear there was a new rocket launched successfully earlier this month. $\endgroup$
    – Ellesedil
    Feb 16 '18 at 4:29

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