With the example of SpaceX and Orbital Sciences building brand new launchers in a small number of years, it seems that the time has come technologically where it is not quite as much 'rocket science' as in the past.

There are a number of countries in the world who have necessary resources and technical know-how to do this as well. If so, why are there so few countries with Satellite launching Vehicles of their own?

Is the US sufficiently advanced that other countries cannot compete? (Using the SpaceX example). Is outsourcing most of the components sufficient to count as your 'own' launcher? Take the Orbital Sciences Antares for example, where the first stage is made in the Ukraine by the makers of the Zenit rocket, the engines are from the 1960's, and the upper stage is by ATK, formerly a separate company (they just recently merged with OSC).

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    $\begingroup$ Why develop a new vehicle when you can buy tried and tested technologies 'commercially, off the shelf'? $\endgroup$ Aug 10, 2014 at 13:22
  • $\begingroup$ Well i consider it as a matter of self independence, like why should i make a new car when others are making it. $\endgroup$
    – Manish
    Aug 10, 2014 at 13:25
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    $\begingroup$ "..self independence.." Fine for those that can afford it. Cheaper for everyone else to use solutions already developed. "why should i make a new car when others are making it." Good question. I wouldn't bother. A car is just a car, after all. $\endgroup$ Aug 10, 2014 at 13:32
  • $\begingroup$ @AndrewThompson thats what my main point was, "developed countries", i assume they have a competitive market for most of the items and they sure can afford it.. $\endgroup$
    – Manish
    Aug 10, 2014 at 13:38
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    $\begingroup$ Are they few? Many European countries through ESA, US, Japan, Russia, China, India have serious launch capacity in-house. Ukraine, South Korea, Israel, Brazil, Romania, UK and France have launched smaller satellites with their own rockets. Iran, Pakistan, North Korea I think are still suborbital, but have higher ambitions. Who do you miss? Canada, Australia, Taiwan? I think that the multitude of rockets developed is part of why launching is so expensive.We've developed 100 different rockets and rarely use them. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_orbital_launchers_families $\endgroup$
    – LocalFluff
    Aug 10, 2014 at 14:27

2 Answers 2


In attempting to answer this, I read two different questions here.

  1. Why is it so hard to develop a space vehicle/rocket?
  2. In contrast, why did SpaceX and Oribtal look so easy?

Thus for #1, because it is rocket science. For #2 There is one word to answer it. Heritage. The best example in modern history of how that heritage manifests is NASA. The second example of heritage that is less specific is the military.

US corporations can publicly leverage all the research NASA did in the 50s till now.

When SpaceX designed the capsule shape for Dragon, they could look at all the work NASA did in the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo days on different shapes, see the results and make a better decision. Much less 'testing' on their own that they needed to do.

For parachute design for Dragon, same thing. Apollo did a TON of parachute testing, and SpaceX leveraged all of it.

Their engine designer, Tom Mueller, came from TRW where he worked on rocket engines there. He was able to reuse the basic design approach of the Lunar Lander ascent engine for a simple engine design, then cluster it for performance.

To be clear, SpaceX has said this loud and clear on many occasions that they stand on the shoulders of giants and would not be possible without the research NASA had done over the decades. (I.e. The actual purpose of NASA!)

Orbital cheated, and used the overseas heritage equivalents of NASA. They outsourced it. They hired the guys who build Zenit (Yuzhnoye) to build their first stage. (Zenit is also LOX/Kerosene powered, and uses an RD-170 (an RD-180 is 'half' of an RD-170, and the RD-191, used in Angara, is 1/4 of an RD-170)). They cheated further by reusing engines from the Soviet era N-1 program, that were already built, and in storage. Then, they used existing Castor engines from ATK. (I use cheat in a non-perjorative fashion here. Buying off the shelf is just smart business. I question the use of the NK-33/AJ-26 engine, but still).

Delta 4 uses a newly developed core, newly developed engine, and that was hard and not cheap. But that was Boeing, who had acquired companies with all the expertise and IP in house already. (That may be a LH2 issue, liquid Hydrogen is just plain hard to work with).

Look how much trouble India and China had developing indigenous launchers, when they could not piggy back on NASA or Russian experience. Conversely, look at Shenzou which is a major clone of Soyuz.

Israel with the Shavit did what the US/Soviets did in the 1950/1960s (Atlas, Delta, Thor) and re-purposed an ICBM as a space launcher. (The Russian Soyuz booster (as opposed to Soyuz spacecraft) is basically the R-7 ICBM from the 1950's with upgrades).

ESA did not have any real ICBMs to tag off, and you see that in Ariane, being more of a fresh design. Which was not easy either.

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    $\begingroup$ Yes Virginia, it is rocket science! Not only that, key parts are classified. There are some things you just cannot find in text books or scientific journals because they are classified as ITAR-restricted or secret/NOFORN or something even stronger. Those are US-specific names, but the same concepts apply in other countries. $\endgroup$ Aug 11, 2014 at 13:47
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidHammen Thus the corralary David implies but does not say is, if you are NOT in the US, you have to go figure it out on your own, and it is very expensive (and hard) to do so. And it needs precursor technology and knowledge to be able to get to the point of the hard tests. I.e. It is rocket science! :) $\endgroup$
    – geoffc
    Aug 11, 2014 at 13:50
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    $\begingroup$ Either that or get some good spies. $\endgroup$ Aug 11, 2014 at 13:51
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidHammen cough china cough $\endgroup$
    – geoffc
    Aug 11, 2014 at 13:53
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    $\begingroup$ @JustinOhms Orbital did not build very much. They ordered it from others. EVERYONE else in the world who wants to, coudl do the same, so credit to them for actually doing it. If it was easy, why did no one else do it? That is a good second question. $\endgroup$
    – geoffc
    Sep 12, 2017 at 20:43

Shorter answer: Rocket Science is really, really (really) expensive. Unless you have a) boatloads of money to (literally) burn or b) are launching something you really don't want anyone else to know about (spy satellite, weapons) it's just easier and cheaper to pick up the phone and get competitive quotes.

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    $\begingroup$ Could you flesh the answer out some please? Relevant references/articles? $\endgroup$
    – Everyone
    Aug 12, 2014 at 11:10
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    $\begingroup$ Then it wouldn't be a "shorter answer". $\endgroup$
    – paul
    Nov 3, 2014 at 11:57
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    $\begingroup$ This is also the answer to why not every country or company develops {insert technology}. Why develop something when you can get good enough by just paying for it? (This is why most PCs in the world run Windows.) $\endgroup$ Sep 12, 2017 at 18:09

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