For over 60 years of human spaceflight, scientists around the world have designed enormous rockets capable of escaping the bounds of Earth. These massive launch vehicles represent astonishing feats of engineering, from the early government-led space race to emerging private companies today.
Which marvels of technology rank as the 10 largest rockets ever built? And how have they pushed the boundaries of space exploration? Let‘s lift off on a journey through their origins, technical achievements, and lasting historical impact.
The Space Race Drove Early Giant Leaps for Rocketry
The modern era of giant rockets began in the intense atmosphere of the 1960s space race between the United States and Soviet Union. Both superpowers channeled immense resources into developing massive, powerful rockets to demonstrate technological might and launch historic human missions beyond Earth.
On the Soviet side, Chief Designer Sergei Korolev led development of the massive R-7 rocket, which launched Sputnik 1 in 1957 and the first man in space in 1961. In the U.S., Wernher von Braun drew from his Nazi-era V-2 rocket experience to create the Saturn V superbooster for Apollo.
The space race drove rocket designers to new heights. Let‘s explore the 10 all-time largest rockets that emerged from this era all the way to today‘s private space companies.
10. Space Shuttle – Pioneer of Reuseable Spaceflight
The iconic Space Shuttle, developed by NASA in the 1970s, stands as the world‘s first reusable orbital spacecraft. At 184 feet tall and weighting 165,000 pounds empty, it was the largest crewed rocket when it first launched in 1981.
The Space Shuttle introduced major innovations for recoverable, airplane-like access to space over its 30 year program. It flew 135 missions, enabling projects like the Hubble Space Telescope, ISS construction, and Spacelab science modules.
To reach orbit, the Space Shuttle used two powerful solid rocket boosters together with its orange external fuel tank filled with liquid hydrogen and oxygen. The boosters parachuted down and were reused after each launch.
9. Energia – Soviet Superbooster Built for Buran Shuttle
The massive Soviet Energia rocket represented an ambitious counterpart to NASA‘s Saturn V as the largest launch vehicle of its time. Standing 320 feet tall and weighing 3.1 million pounds at liftoff, Energia had phenomenal power – it could even fly safely without a payload attached.
Energia had 4 liquid-fueled RD-171 engines designed for liftoff thrust of 4.1 million pounds. It flew only twice in 1987 and 1988, but achieved several historic firsts: launching the Polyus weapon prototype and then orbiting the Buran space shuttle.
While cancelled after the Soviet collapse, Energia paved the way for heavy-lift designs to follow. Its engines formed the basis for the RD-180 that powers today‘s Atlas V rocket.
8. New Glenn – Blue Origin‘s Bet on Hydrogen Engines
New Glenn is the new heavy-lift launch vehicle under development by Jeff Bezos‘ private space company Blue Origin, named after astronaut John Glenn. When completed, it will stand 313 feet tall and lift nearly 100,000 pounds to orbit – comparable to NASA‘s Space Shuttle.
New Glenn represents Blue Origin‘s bet on proven liquid hydrogen rocket engine technology. Its seven BE-4 engines will generate massive 10,000 kN thrust at liftoff while remaining highly reusable.
New Glenn aims to be competitive in the growing commercial launch market, vying for contracts to launch commercial satellites along with SpaceX‘s Falcon rockets. Its first flight is planned by late 2023 after some delays.
7. Falcon Heavy – Musk‘s Monster Rocket Flew on its First Try
SpaceX‘s Falcon Heavy caused a worldwide sensation when it launched successfully on its very first test flight in February 2018. By combining reusable side boosters from the Falcon 9 rocket, it instantly became the world‘s most powerful operational launch vehicle.
At liftoff, Falcon Heavy‘s 27 Merlin engines generate a colossal 5.1 million pounds of thrust while consuming 3.5 million pounds of propellant per second. The 230-foot rocket can deliver 140,000 pound payloads to low Earth orbit – nearly triple the lift capacity of other current rockets.
Falcon Heavy has launched several high-profile missions, including Elon Musk‘s cherry red Tesla Roadster into an orbit past Mars and the first private lunar lander for SpaceIL. Reusable booster landings reduce its launch costs to around $90 million.
6. Delta IV Heavy – America‘s Largest Active Expendable Rocket
The Delta IV Heavy rocket represents the largest and most powerful currently operational rocket of legacy launch provider United Launch Alliance, a Boeing-Lockheed joint venture. First launched in 2004, it stands 235 feet tall and can lift 62,540 pounds to orbit.
Delta IV Heavy utilizes a unique design with two standard Delta IV Common Booster Cores flanking a central uprated CBC producing 2.1 million pounds of thrust from its RS-68A engine. The twin CBCs each generate 900,000 pounds of thrust to create a total liftoff thrust of 4.2 million pounds.
The Delta IV Heavy remains one of the premier rockets for launching high-value national security payloads vital to US defense and intelligence needs. It has launched military satellites such as advanced SBIRS early missile warning satellites.
5. Ares I – Powerful New Rocket Cancelled by NASA Politics
NASA‘s Ares I rocket represented the agency‘s vision after Space Shuttle retirement to launch the next generation Orion crew vehicle. Originally planned to stand 321 feet tall and lift 55,000 pounds to orbit, Ares I pioneered new solid rocket booster technology before cancellation.
Under the Constellation program initiated by George W. Bush, Ares I would have featured a five-segment reusable solid rocket booster first stage and upper stage using a new J-2X liquid hydrogen engine. Ares I successfully flew a single demonstrator mission before Constellation was cancelled in 2010.
Political squabbling over NASA‘s future ultimately doomed Ares I. But it pioneered innovations like five-segment boosters that are being incorporated into the Space Launch System for new deep space missions.
4. Long March 9 – China‘s Rocket to Rival NASA‘s Capabilities
China‘s next-generation Long March 9 rocket represents the country‘s big leap into super heavy-lift launch capabilities comparable to NASA. Currently in development by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, it will stand nearly 320 feet tall and weigh over 3.3 million pounds at liftoff.
Long March 9 is slated to launch around 2030. It is designed to lift enormous payloads of up to 140,000 pounds into low Earth orbit – rivaling capabilities of NASA‘s Space Shuttle or Apollo-era rockets. This will enable ambitious robotic and crewed deep space exploration missions, as well as heavy lift communications satellites.
The rocket will require new manufacturing and launch facilities, including a planned coastal spaceport. Long March 9‘s capabilities will provide China with prestigious status as a premier space power.
3. Saturn V – To the Moon on a Rocket with the Power of 85 Hoover Dams
The legendary Saturn V rocket remains the largest and most powerful operational launch vehicle in history. Developed under legendary engineer Wernher von Braun, it stood 363 feet tall and weighed 6.5 million pounds fully fueled.
Saturn V‘s five mighty F-1 engines produced an incredible 7.7 million pounds of thrust at liftoff – the equivalent of 85 Hoover Dams. It could launch 263,000 pounds to Low Earth Orbit and 107,100 pounds on a trans-lunar injection trajectory. This enabled the Apollo program‘s six crewed Moon landings between 1968 and 1972.
After Saturn V, NASA failed to build a successor rocket of equal scale and power for decades. It remains one of technology‘s greatest achievements and a milestone in human exploration.
2. Space Launch System (SLS) – NASA‘s Giant Rocket for Deep Space Exploration
NASA‘s Space Launch System now in development aims to surpass even the mighty Saturn V as the largest and most capable rocket ever built. When completed, it will stand 365 feet tall and generate 8.8 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.
SLS will be capable of sending more than 154,000 pounds to Low Earth Orbit and 58,000 pounds on lunar trajectories. NASA intends to use it for crewed Orion deep space missions, starting with a planned uncrewed lunar flyby in late 2022.
SLS employs advanced booster technology from the Space Shuttle program, including four RS-25 engines designed for reuseability. Its goal is to launch astronauts back to the Moon and eventually to Mars in the 2030s.
1. SpaceX Starship/Super Heavy – Fully Reuseable Rocket for Colonizing Mars
SpaceX‘s Starship and Super Heavy booster represent the rocket system currently under development in Boca Chica, Texas that may become the largest and most powerful ever created. Designed by Elon Musk for crewed Mars exploration, it aims for complete and rapid reuseability.
The combined Starship and Super Heavy will stand 395 feet tall at launch and be capable of lifting 220,000 pounds to low Earth orbit – more than the mighty Saturn V. Starship will be the largest spacecraft ever at 160 feet tall with 40 cabins for 100 passengers.
Both elements will be powered by next-generation Raptor engines burning liquid methane and oxygen. SpaceX ultimately envisions launching 1,000 Starship flights per year and transporting colonies to Mars. Initial orbital test flights are imminent.
The Epic Quest for Giant Rockets Continues
From the triumphs of Saturn V that enabled humanity‘s first steps on the Moon to SpaceX‘s goal of colonizing Mars, the largest rockets represent epic achievements of science and technology. Their immense power pushes the boundaries of what is possible.
Yet the race continues today between government space agencies like NASA and private companies to develop bigger and more ambitious rockets. As the epic quest to explore our solar system continues, so will the drive to build still larger rockets that take us ever farther into the final frontier.