Why do Space Missions Fail?

Sep 22, 2021

Why do Space Missions Fail?

A Detailed Analysis on what factors contribute to failures

Since we are analyzing the reason why some space missions fail, let us first see the distribution of Status Mission. We can see that a large number(89.71%) of Space Missions are a Success and 7.84% of the Missions are a Failure. These 7.84% cases are the most important for our analysis.

Analyzing effect of Launch Location

We see that a large number of Space Missions launch from Russia and USA. A lot of this has been because of the Space Race between the two countries.
Here’s an intro to the Space Race taken from Wikipedia

The Space Race was a 20th-century competition between two Cold War rivals, the Soviet Union (USSR) and the United States (US), to achieve firsts in spaceflight capability. It had its origins in the ballistic missile-based nuclear arms race between the two nations following World War II. The technological advantage required to rapidly achieve spaceflight milestones was seen as necessary for national security, and mixed with the symbolism and ideology of the time. The Space Race led to pioneering efforts to launch artificial satellites, uncrewed space probes of the Moon, Venus, and Mars, and human spaceflight in low Earth orbit and to the Moon.

The competition began in earnest on August 2, 1955, when the Soviet Union responded to the US announcement four days earlier of intent to launch artificial satellites for the International Geophysical Year, by declaring they would also launch a satellite “in the near future”. The Soviet Union achieved the first successful launch with the October 4, 1957, orbiting of Sputnik 1, and sent the first human to space with the orbital flight of Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961. The USSR also sent the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, to space on June 16, 1963, with numerous other firsts taking place over the next few years with regards to flight duration, spacewalks and related activities. According to Russian sources, these achievements led to the conclusion that the USSR had an advantage in space technology in the early 1960s.

Now let us see the success and failure percentages of space missions for each of these countries going with the assumption that the Launch Location relates to the Country that was behind the Space Mission, that is to say that if the Launch Location is India, then we can think that all the ergonomics related to the mission were handled by India.

We see that in terms of Success Percentages :

  1. Kenya ranks first with a 100% success rate. Kenya has made 9 Space Missions and all of them are Successful.
  2. France with 303 space missions comes in second with a Success percent of 94%
  3. Russia with 1398 Space Missions comes at a close 3rd with a Success rate of 93.34%. Now that’s something. In comparison to Launches taking place in USA, Russia fares better as US missions have a Success rate of around 88%

In terms of Failure rate:

  1. Brazil and South Korea have a similar failure rate of 66.67%, i.e 2/3rd of their space missions fail.
    • It should be noted that South Korea has a Success rate of 33%, while Brazil is yet to make a successful Space mission.
    • These are not disheartening results,as both South Korea and Brazil have only made 3 Space Mission attempts.
  2. Next, we have North Korea with a Failure rate of 60% in its 5 space missions.
  3. Iran has a Failure rate of about 57%. It has however, undertaken only 14 space missions.

Analyzing effect of Company

We measure the Success and Failure Rate of Each company.

Success Rate highlights:

  • Companies like ASI,Blue Origin,Douglas, IRGC,Khrunichev, OKB-586,Starsem, Yuzhmash and i-Space have a 100% success rate.

Failure Rate highlights

  • Companies like EER, Landspace, OneSpace, Sandia and Virgin Orbit have a 100% failure rate, i.e they haven’t had any successful space mission.

Important Thing to Note

From the above treemap, I was immediately interested in seeing ‘RVSN USSR’ having Launch Locations in both Kazakhstan and Russia. After a bit of Googling and looking at the data, I found about the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Here’s a piece from its wikipedia page:

The Baikonur Cosmodrome is a spaceport located in an area of southern Kazakhstan leased to Russia.

(…) The spaceport is currently leased by the Kazakh Government to Russia until 2050, and is managed jointly by the Roscosmos State Corporation and the Russian Aerospace Forces.

That ought to explain the reason why we use RVSN USSR entries in both Space Missions launched in Kazakhstan and Russia.

Effect of Launch Vehicle

Here I am focusing on only a few prominent Launch Vehicles extracted from the Detail column of the dataset. We club together various versions of the Launch Vehicle like Cosmos 897, Cosmos 578 and Cosmos 1803 under the name of Cosmos. I am only taking into consideration 15 different Launch Vehicles and all the others are clubbed under the group of ‘Others’

Analyzing the Effect of Launch Time

Now let us shift focus to analyszing the trend of failure in Space missions over time.

  • The overall percentage of failed missions has reduced over the years. While in the early years we had failure rates as high as 60-70% the failure rate in 2018 is only around 1.7% and in 2019 it is about 5.5%.
    • Clearly as the field of Space Exploration has evolved and as we have newer and more advanced technologies, the chances of failure have reduced.
  • The mean failure rate over this time period is 9.6%.
  • Going over the monthly trends of failures, we see that Space Missions Launched on November have the highest chance of failure followed by February.
  • December has the least failure rate of 5.78%
  • While weekly trend doesn’t actually make sense (unless you are superstitious), but it was interesting to see that Wednesday could be termed as the safest day of the week in terms of Space Mission Launches.

Analyzing the effect of Mission Cost

We see that overtime, the average mission cost has decreased since 1987. However, as seen earlier, the failure rate of Space Missions has decreased over time. Thus, one thing in clear, as the technology has advanced, we have been able to do space missions at a lower cost and with lower failure rates.

The reason why we see a very high spike in 1987 is because of a Space Mission by RVSN USSR that has an estimated cost of 5000 million dollars. Now, that’s a lotta money! This skewed the data a lot as most other space missions of that year did not have any Mission Cost listed in the dataset.

One important trend that we see is that the USA has managed to lower it’s cost of Space Missions over time.

The previous result of USA reducing the average mission cost over years is also confirmed here from the results shown from NASA.

Another thing that I found particularly interesting is that the earlier SpaceX missions were unsuccessful and they had markedly low mission cost as compared to their later Space Missions. Thus, increasing the budget that they allocate for each space mission helped them become more Successful.