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Are most space missions launched for scientific purposes?

I had thought so, but during a group discussion, someone suggested most are actually for commercial purposes. Are they correct?

Thanks!

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  • $\begingroup$ Possibly military launches? $\endgroup$ Feb 12, 2023 at 23:20
  • $\begingroup$ militaristic space mission? to conquer mars? :D $\endgroup$ Feb 12, 2023 at 23:26

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The answer depends on what period of history you are asking about. If you are talking about now, then your friends are very correct: thanks to satellite megaconstellations, commercial launches outweigh scientific launches by orders of magnitude and are unlikely to ever be overtaken again.

If you want a history of satellite launches, please read on. (And if you have sources or adjustments, please add them - I did not have time to do thorough research while writing this answer.)

History of Space launches by type

Initially, all space launches were either scientific or simply engineering tests, since no commercial uses for space had yet been thought of and rockets were not reliable enough to build a business case on.

That was quickly overtaken by military launches, as militaries worldwide (USA and USSR) realised the potential uses of satellites. I haven't investigated when this switchover was, my guess would be this occurred sometime in the mid-to-late 60s.

Commercial and private use of space had been increasing during this time, with the first commercial satellite (Intelsat-1) launched in 1965 (4 years later than the first amateur satellite). Weather satellites and television satellites became relatively common throughout the 70s, and are a major reason for the formation and success of European Arianespace.

The Space Transportation System was being developed during this time with the aim of transforming access to space, making commercial activity in space cheap, easy, and very common. It was to reduce the price of space access by orders of magnitude, opening up many previously unexplored commercial possibilities - such as Solar Power Stations (accompanied by permanent human settlements in earth orbit) and would lay the foundation for manned exploration of mars. (Note the similarities to Starship.)

Unfortunately, it didn't.

Most space launches continued to be military throughout the 1980s. In the early 1990s, someone had the bright idea of low earth orbit satellite internet. This time, commercial entities rather than just NASA decided to take advantage of the opportunity and began developing a multitude of new, cheaper launch systems. However, the demand for satellite internet was not as great as anticipated, and none of the launch vehicles in development for them were completed. We did get the Iridium satellite network though.

The truly outweighing factor in the current prevalence of commercial launches is that someone decide that it was time for another attempt at satellite internet, and this time, it seems to have worked. We now have batches of Starlink satellites launching multiple times a week. OneWeb has had issues with their launch provider, but they are also still launching frequently. Amazon Kuiper is on the horizon, as well as many others (not all of which are guaranteed to survive, but it looks like many will).

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you very much man! That was quite an insightful and interesting read! $\endgroup$ Feb 13, 2023 at 0:20
  • $\begingroup$ I'm glad you appreciated it :) However, I recommend you don't accept my answer for at least 24hrs, just in case someone else writes a better one. $\endgroup$ Feb 13, 2023 at 0:36
  • $\begingroup$ this is quite comprehensive and insightful I am pretty sure people will agree with your post well beyond the 24 hours :D $\endgroup$ Feb 13, 2023 at 0:38

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