5 Most Powerful Space Launch Systems

5 Most Powerful Space Launch Systems

When it comes to sending heavy payloads to orbit, these five rockets have the edge.
Elon Musk’s company SpaceX made headlines in April 2023 when it launched the first test of its Starship rocket. While the rocket exploded four minutes after liftoff, the company viewed the test as a first step toward a privately operated super heavy-lift launch system that could eventually send humans to Mars.
While it sounds like a silly, made-up term, “super heavy-lift launch vehicle” has a precise meaning in aerospace circles: A rocket with a capacity to deliver a payload of 50 tons or greater low earth orbit, LEO or an altitude between 120 miles and 1,200 miles. It’s a difficult feat to accomplish, and only 14 launches have ever sent payloads that large that far. But national space programs and private firms are working to develop new systems that can send big ships to orbit and beyond. Here are five rockets from five countries that have made the most progress.

Saturn V

The undisputed king of space is the Saturn V. Developed in the 1960s to send American astronauts to the moon, it still holds the record for the largest payload delivered to LEO: 141 metric tons consisting of an Apollo command and lunar modules, plus the fuel needed to take them to the moon and back. The Saturn V launched successfully 12 times, including one uncrewed test launch and delivery of the Skylab space station to orbit.

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In November 2022, the Saturn V’s successor, called the Space Launch System, sent an uncrewed Artemis I spacecraft around the moon in a successful test. NASA has scheduled a crewed flight for 2024.


The Soviet Union competed against the United States in the race to the moon and developed its own super heavy-lift launch vehicle, the N-1. While that program was scrapped after four unsuccessful launches, the nation later built and launched a secret rocket called Energia in the 1980s. Rated to place 100 metric tons into LEO, the system was designed to not only launch the Soviet Union’s answer to the American Space Shuttle but also serve as a launch platform for military satellites. Unfortunately, the Energia failed on its first launch attempt and, after the Buran shuttle was successfully launched in 1988, the Soviet shuttle program was cancelled.
Today, Russia is developing a new super heavy-lift system called Yenisei, but that is not scheduled to be ready until the 2030s.

Long March

No other rocket has achieved super heavy-lift status, but China’s Long March series of launch systems is making steady progress to that goal. The current version, Long March 5, can put 25 metric tons into LEO and China’s space agency used the system to place the pieces for its Tiangong crewed space station into orbit.

Construction on the station began in 2021.

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Over the next ten years, China hopes to develop two new super heavy-lift rockets, including the Long March 9 which is designed to place 150 metric tons into LEO. The Long March 9 could be the vehicle that sends Chinese astronauts to the moon in the 2030s.


The European Space Agency’s Ariane series of rockets has been a workhorse of the space launch industry since the 1990s. While it was rated only for 21 metric tons to LEO, the recently retired Ariane 5 had 115 successful launches in 117 attempts, and in 2021 sent the James Webb Space Telescope into orbit. The first Ariane 6 has been scheduled to launch in later 2023; the goal of this next generation of Ariane is to reduce cost to orbit for its commercial customers.

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Because Europe is far from the best launch sites along the Equator, the Ariane rockets are launched from a base on Kourou in French Guiana.


Spaceflight is an expensive business, so there is a sharp drop-off after fourth place. The fifth spot on this list goes to Japan with its H-IIB launch system, rated to place 16.5 metric tons into LEO. The H-IIB retired in 2020 after nine successful launches.
The Indian Space Research Organisation is developing a rocket that may one-day surpass the H-IIB. Its Next Generation Launch Vehicle is designed to be partly reusable and rated to deliver as much as 20 metric tons to LEO. Such a vehicle will be needed if India is to build a planned space station beginning in 2020.

Jeffrey Winters is editor in chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine.

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