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In this document (Page 7, point 4.3), Garrett Reisman notes that an analysis by Aerospace Corporation showed the most common causes for launch failures between 1980 and 1999. This document shows the top 3 causes as:

  1. Engine failure
  2. Stage-separation failure
  3. Avionics failure

Given that there are several new players with different designs introduced recently, I'm curious if those were still major causes in 2000 - 2014. Additionally, I wonder how the Space Shuttle affected these statistics (Given that it is a significantly different design from most other launch vehicles). Finally, I would like to know if the launch success/failure rate has gone up or down since 2000 - 2014 as compared to 1980 - 1999?

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    $\begingroup$ I think that the causes vary much for different launchers and that one cannot generalize much across this wide variety. The by today's standards not so reliable Proton had its debut in 1965. The very reliable Soyuz/R7 traces all the way back to Sputnik 1 with about 1640 successes out of about 1750 launches. Soyuz, Atlas V, Delta IV, Ariane 5, Falcon 9, Mitsubishi HII basically don't fail at all, the crazy space race is over. $\endgroup$ – LocalFluff Mar 2 '15 at 11:38
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    $\begingroup$ @LocalFluff - I wouldn't categorize a 6% failure rate for Soyuz/R7 (~110 failures in 1750 launches) as "basically don't fail at all". Falcon 9 has a 6% failure rate; Ariane 5, 5% failure rate; Delta IV, 4% failure rate; Atlas V, 2% failure rate. Since there have only been 16 Falcon 9 launches, 28 Delta IV launches, and 52 Atlas V launches, the statistics for those vehicles are a bit dubious. More flights are needed to know the true reliability. Even a 2% failure rate is not good. There would be no commercial airline industry if 2% of airliner takeoffs resulted in a crash or emergency landing. $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Mar 2 '15 at 12:38
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    $\begingroup$ See reports on Jonathan's Space bottom of this page with two charts, one with number of launches and failure type, the other as percentage of total. $\endgroup$ – TildalWave Mar 2 '15 at 13:33
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidHammen But the failures were early on. Falcon 9 skipped a secondary payload because of contract with NASA. Atlas V has succeeded all 52 launches except for one partial failure. Delta IV all 28 except for one partial failure. Ariane 5's all 63 last launches since 2002 were successes. Soyuz never killed a crew. It is only Proton launches which are exciting to watch nowadays :-p And it is being replaced by the 2 first successful Angara launches. $\endgroup$ – LocalFluff Mar 2 '15 at 13:45
  • $\begingroup$ @LocalFluff Don't forget about the Sea Launch Zenit-3SL with 3+1/31 failure rate (3+1/29 since 2000). $\endgroup$ – TildalWave Mar 2 '15 at 13:57
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The study by Futron is in 2002 is here.

As commenters have noticed the trends have differed quite a bit in the 2000s, from the preceding decades.

I would argue that foreign object debris ingested by engines is the bigger cause of failure. That and incorrect assembly. Both of which are root caused by poor quality control.

Amusingly, SpaceX's Merlin engine acceptance tests requires them to drop a 5/16th inch nut into the fuel line and have the engine survive and spit it out.

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    $\begingroup$ "Amusingly, SpaceX's Merlin engine acceptance tests requires them to drop a 5/16th inch nut into the fuel line and have the engine survive and spit it out." Oh, man. That's super interesting and funny too! Do you have a source for that? $\endgroup$ – ReactingToAngularVues Mar 3 '15 at 2:31
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks. That's very interesting. Especially the nut test $\endgroup$ – neelsg Mar 3 '15 at 7:26
  • $\begingroup$ Spacecraft failures with their type. Until 2014 (today). $\endgroup$ – mins Apr 17 '15 at 6:03

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