To be able to reach space, we need rockets. Rocket engines work by action and reaction (“To every action, there is always opposed an equal reaction”, see notes 1) and push rockets forward simply by expelling their exhaust in the opposite direction at high speed and can, therefore, work in the vacuum of space. Space rockets are usually enormous in size, because the bigger the rocket is, the more thrust can be produced by its engine and can carry more weight into orbit. Here are the 10 tallest rockets ever launched in the history of space exploration.

List of the tallest rockets ever launched [as of October 2022]

11. Atlas V: 58.30 meters (191.27 feet)

  • Height: 58.30 meters (191.27 feet)
  • Diameter: 3.81 meters (12.5 feet)
  • Mass: 334,500 kg (737,400 lb)
  • Payload to LEO: 8,250-20,520 kg (18,190-45,240 lb)
  • Payload to GTO: 4,750-8,900 kg (10,470-19,620 lb)
  • Max. Thrust: 10,600 kN (2,400,000 lbf)
  • First flight: August 21, 2002
  • Last flight: October 4, 2022
Top 10 tallest rockets ever launched: Atlas V rocket, New Horizons Launch
Top 11 tallest rockets ever launched (11): NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft was launched on January 19, 2006, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on top of an Atlas V rocket. Its primary mission was to perform a flyby study of the Pluto system in 2015. It has a secondary mission to fly by and study one or more other Kuiper belt objects (KBOs) in the decade to follow. It is the fifth of five artificial objects to achieve the escape velocity that will allow them to leave the Solar System (others being Pioneer 10 – launched in 1972, Pioneer 11 – launched in 1973, Voyager 2 – launched in August 1977, and Voyager 1 – Launched in September 1977). Photo: NASA

Atlas V is an expendable launch system. It was formerly operated by Lockheed Martin and is now operated by United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture with Boeing.

Atlas V rocket uses a Russian-built RD-180 engine burning kerosene and liquid oxygen to power its first stage and an American-built RL10 engine burning liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen to power its Centaur upper stage.

Atlas V is commonly used for interplanetary missions, military payloads and cargo runs to the International Space Station. As of 2022, Atlas V has had 96 launches with no complete failures, making it among the most reliable in the world.

10. Ariane 4: 58.72 meters (192.65 feet)

  • Height: 58.72 meters (192.65 feet)
  • Diameter: 3.8 meters (12.5 feet)
  • Mass: 240,000-470,000 kg (529,110-1,036,175 lb)
  • Payload to LEO: 5,000-7,600 kg (11,024-16,756 lb)
  • Payload to GTO: 2,000-4,300 kg (4,410-9480 lb)
  • Max. Thrust: 12,120 kN (2,725,000 lbf)
  • First flight: June 15, 1988
  • Last flight: February 15, 2003
Ariane 4 rocket
Top 11 tallest rockets ever launched (10): The Ariane 4 is a retired European expendable launch system. It was operational between 1988 and 2003.

The Ariane 4 is a retired European expendable launch system. It was operational between 1988 and 2003. It has flown 116 times, 113 of which were successful, yielding a success rate of 97.4%.

9. Energia: 58.765 meters (192.80 feet)

  • Height: 62.50 meters (205.5 feet)
  • Diameter: 17.65 meters (57.9 feet)
  • Mass: 2,400,000 kg (5,300,000 lb)
  • Payload to LEO: 100,000 kg (220,000 lb)
  • Payload to GTO: 20,000 kg (44,000 lb)
  • Max. Thrust at sea level: 29,000 kN (6,500,000 lbf)
  • Max. Thrust in vacuum: 32,000 kN (7,200,000 lbf)
  • First flight: May 15, 1987
  • Last flight: November 15, 1988
Tallest rockets ever launched: Energia rocket with Buran
Top 11 tallest rockets ever launched (9): Energia was a super-heavy rocket built by the Soviet Union in the 1980s as part of the Buran program (Soviet counterpart of the Space Shuttle)

Energia was a super-heavy rocket built by the Soviet Union in the 1980s as part of the Buran program (Soviet counterpart of the Space Shuttle). It has flown into space just twice (May 15, 1987, and November 15, 1988).

Maybe not the tallest rocket ever launched, but Energia was a beast for sure. It was the 4th most powerful rocket (after N1, Saturn V, and Space Shuttle) launched ever. If we discount the unsuccessful N1 rocket, it was the third most powerful rocket ever.

8. Delta IV Medium: 62.50 meters (205.5 feet)

  • Height: 62.50 meters (205.5 feet)
  • Diameter: 5 meters (16 feet)
  • Mass: 404,600 kg (891,990 lb)
  • Payload to LEO: 13,774 kg (30,300 lb)
  • Payload to GTO: 6,150 kg (13,558 lb)
  • Max. Thrust: 3,560 kN (800,000 lbf)
  • First flight: November 20, 2002
  • Last flight: August 22, 2019
Tallest rockets ever launched: Delta IV Medium rocket
Top 11 tallest rockets ever launched (8): Delta IV Medium. Photo: NASA

The Delta IV is an expendable launch system. It is primarily designed to satisfy the needs of the U.S. military. It is built by Boeing and operated by United Launch Alliance for commercial launches, military missions, as well as NASA Flights.

Delta IV uses rockets designed by Boeing’s Integrated Defense Systems division and built in the United Launch Alliance (ULA) facility in Decatur, Alabama.

7. Angara-A5: 64 meters (210 feet)

  • Height: 64 meters (210 feet)
  • Diameter: 8.86 meters (29.1 feet)
  • Mass: 790,000 kg (1,740,000 lb)
  • Payload to LEO: 24,500 kg (54,000 lb)
  • Payload to GTO: 7,500 kg (16,500 lb)
  • Max. Thrust: 7,680 kN (1,730,000 lbf)
  • First flight: December 25, 2014
  • Last flight: December 27, 2021
Tallest rockets ever launched: Angara A5 launch
Top 11 tallest rockets ever launched (7): Launch of Angara A5. Photo by ИА Военинформ – https://structure.mil.ru/images/upload/2019/angaga2020_14.12-1200.JPG, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Angara-A5 heavy-lift launch vehicle is the second rocket developed in the Russian-made Angara rocket family. Angara rockets are intended, along with Soyuz-2 variants, to replace several existing launch vehicles.

6. Falcon Heavy: 70 meters (230 feet)

  • Height: 70 meters (230 feet)
  • Diameter: 3.66 meters (12.0 feet)
  • Width: 12.2 meters (40 feet)
  • Mass: 1,420,788 kg (3,132,301 lb)
  • Payload to LEO: 63,800 kg (140,700 lb)
  • Payload to GTO: 26,700 kg (58,900 lb)
  • Payload to Mars: 16,800 kg (37,000 lb)
  • Payload to Pluto: 3,500 kg (7,700 lb)
  • Max. Thrust: Sea level: 15,200 kN (3,400,000 lbf), Vacuum: 16,400 kN (3,700,000 lbf)
  • First flight: February 6, 2018
  • Last flight: June 25, 2019
Tallest rockets ever launched: Falcon Heavy
Top 11 tallest rockets ever launched (6): In a photograph taken Dec. 28, 2017, the first SpaceX Falcon Heavy stands at Launch Complex 39A during testing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Photo: NASA

As of 2022, Falcon Heavy is the world’s most powerful operational rocket. Designed and manufactured by SpaceX, it is a partially reusable heavy-lift launch vehicle.

SpaceX conducted Falcon Heavy’s first test flight on February 6, 2018, at 3:45 p.m. EST (20:45 UTC). The rocket carried a Tesla Roadster belonging to SpaceX founder Elon Musk as a dummy payload.

Falcon Heavy was designed to carry humans into space beyond low Earth orbit, especially to the Moon, Mars, and potentially to asteroids for mining. But Elon Musk, the founder and the CEO of SpaceX, does not plan to apply for a human-rating certification to carry NASA astronauts. By the early 2020s, the BFR (“Big Falcon Rocket”) will replace Falcon Heavy and other current Falcon launch vehicles.

5. Delta IV Heavy: 72 meters (236 feet)

  • Height: 72 meters (236 feet)
  • Diameter: 5 meters (16 feet)
  • Width: 15 meters (49 feet)
  • Mass: 733,000 kg (1,616,000 lb)
  • Payload to LEO: 28,790 kg (63,470 lb)
  • Payload to GTO: 14,220 kg (31,350 lb)
  • Max. Thrust: 6,280 kN (1,410,000 lbf)
  • First flight: December 21, 2004
  • Last flight: September 24, 2022
Tallest rockets ever launched: Delta IV Heavy Rocket
Top 11 tallest rockets ever launched (5): Delta IV Heavy Rocket. Photo: NASA

First launched in 2004, the Delta IV Heavy (Delta 9250H) is an expendable heavy-lift launch vehicle. It is the largest type of the Delta IV rocket family, and is the world’s second-highest-capacity rocket in operation, with a payload capacity half of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. It is manufactured by United Launch Alliance.

4. Ares I-X: 94.2 meters (309 feet)

  • Height: 94.2 meters (309 feet)
  • Diameter: 5.5 meters (18 feet)
  • Payload to LEO: 25,400 kg (56,000 lb)
  • Max. Thrust: 15,000 kN (3,372,134 lbf)
  • First (and only) launch: October 28, 2009
Ares I-X rocket
Top 11 tallest rockets ever launched (4): Ares I-X rocket before the launch at Launch Pad 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. October 28, 2009. Image: Wikipedia

The now-canceled Ares I was the crew launch vehicle that was being developed by NASA as part of the Constellation program. Ares I-X was the first-stage prototype of Ares-I. It was launched on October 28, 2009.

Ares I rockets were intended to launch Orion crew exploration vehicles. But, now NASA is developing the Space Launch System (SLS) to launch the Orion spacecraft.

3. Artemis: 98 meters (322 feet): the most powerful [successful] rocket ever launched

  • Height: 105 m (322 feet)
  • Diameter: 8.4 meters (27.6 feet)
  • Width: 15 meters (49 feet)
  • Mass: 2,750,000 kg (6,060,000 lb)
  • Payload to LEO: 95,000 kg (209,000 lb)
  • Max. Thrust: 39,144 kN (8,800,000 lbf)
NASA Artemis I Moon Rocket launch
Top 11 tallest rockets ever launched (3): On November 16, 2022, Wednesday, NASA finally launched its next moon rocket: Artemis I, NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, carrying the uncrewed Orion spacecraft lifted off from Launch Complex 39B in Florida at 1:47 a.m. EST.

2. N1: 105 meters (344 feet)

  • Height: 105 meters (344 feet)
  • Diameter: 17.0 meters (55.8 feet)
  • Width: 15 meters (49 feet)
  • Mass: 2,750,000 kg (6,060,000 lb)
  • Payload to LEO: 95,000 kg (209,000 lb)
  • Payload to TLI (See notes 4): 23,500 kg (51,800 lb)
  • Max. Thrust: 45,400 kN (10,200,000 lbf)
N1 rocket
Top 11 tallest rockets ever launched (2): Two of the gigantic five-stage N1 rockets are shown on their launch pads. The N1 was the Soviet counterpart of NASA’s Saturn V moon rocket in size and thrust. Both rockets in this photo were destroyed in explosions during or after attempted launches. Photo: NASA

N1 was the Soviet counterpart to NASA’s moon rocket, Saturn V. It was designed with crewed extra-orbital travel in mind (i.e. moon landing). Its first stage still remains the most powerful rocket stage ever built. However, the development of the rocket was underfunded and rushed.

N1’s development has started in October 1965, almost four years after United States’ Saturn V. The project was badly derailed by the death of its chief designer Sergei Korolev (1907 – 14 January 1966, the lead Soviet rocket engineer and spacecraft designer during the Space Race) in 1966.

Each of the four attempts to launch an N1 failed. During the second launch attempt, the N1 rocket crashed back onto its launch pad shortly after liftoff and exploded, resulting in one of the largest artificial non-nuclear explosions in human history.

The N1 program was suspended in 1974 and was officially canceled in 1976. Along with the rest of the Soviet crewed lunar programs, the N1 was kept secret almost until the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991. Information about the N1 was first published in 1989.

1. Saturn V: 110.6 meters (363 feet), The biggest and tallest rocket ever built (and launched)

  • Height: 110.6 meters (363 feet)
  • Diameter: 10.1 meters (33 feet)
  • Width: 15 meters (49 feet)
  • Mass: 2,970,000 kg (6,540,000 lb)
  • Payload to LEO: 140,000 kg (310,000 lb)
  • Payload to TLI: 48,600 kg (107,100 lb)
  • Max. Thrust: 35,100 kN (7,891,000 lbf)
  • First flight: November 9, 1967 (Apollo 4)
  • Last flight: May 14, 1973 (Skylab)

The Saturn V was an American human-rated expendable rocket used by NASA between 1967 and 1973. The three-stage liquid-fueled super heavy-lift launch vehicle was developed to support the Apollo program for human exploration of the Moon and was later used to launch Skylab, the first American space station.

The Saturn V was launched 13 times from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida with no loss of crew or payload. As of 2022, the Saturn V remains the tallest, heaviest, and most powerful rocket ever brought to operational status.

Apollo 8 spacecraft on top of the Saturn V rocket
Apollo 8 spacecraft on top of the Saturn V, the tallest rocket ever launched. This image was taken from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) after it had progressed down the crawlerway. Photo: NASA

Watch the liftoff of the mighty Saturn V rocket:

Ultimate Saturn V Launch with Enhanced Sound

Watch: how big SpaceX rockets really are

Visual Effects Youtuber “Corridor Crew” (see his Youtube channel) put together a video that shows off SpaceX’s rockets (Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and BFR) in real-life situations.

VFX Artist Shows you how Big SpaceX Rockets Really Are

Top 11 tallest rockets ever launched, sorted by the Max. thrust

  1. N1: 45,400 kN (10,200,000 lbf)
  2. Saturn V: 35,100 kN (7,891,000 lbf)
  3. Space Shuttle: 35,000 kN (7,800,000 lbf) *
  4. Energia: 32,000 kN (7,200,000 lbf)
  5. Falcon Heavy: Sea level: 15,200 kN (3,400,000 lbf), Vacuum: 16,400 kN (3,700,000 lbf)
  6. Ares I-X: 15,000 kN (3,372,134 lbf)
  7. Ariane 4: 12,120 kN (2,725,000 lbf)
  8. Atlas V: 10,600 kN (2,400,000 lbf)
  9. Angara-A5: 7,680 kN (1,730,000 lbf)
  10. Delta IV Heavy: 6,280 kN (1,410,000 lbf)
  11. Delta IV Medium: 3,560 kN (800,000 lbf)

Top 11 tallest rockets ever launched, sorted by the payload capacity to LEO

  1. Saturn V: 140,000 kg (310,000 lb)
  2. Energia: 100,000 kg (220,000 lb)
  3. N1: 95,000 kg (209,000 lb)
  4. Falcon Heavy: 63,800 kg (140,700 lb)
  5. Delta IV Heavy: 28,790 kg (63,470 lb)
  6. Space Shuttle: 27,500 kg (60,600 lb) *
  7. Ares I-X: 25,400 kg (56,000 lb)
  8. Angara-A5: 24,500 kg (54,000 lb)
  9. Delta IV Medium: 13,774 kg (30,300 lb)
  10. Atlas V: 8,250-20,520 kg (18,190-45,240 lb)
  11. Ariane 4: 5,000-7,600 kg (11,024-16,756 lb)

(*) Space shuttle is not in the top 10 tallest rockets list.

Notes

  1. Newton’s third law: When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.
  2. Low Earth orbit (LEO) is an orbit around Earth with an altitude between 160 kilometers (99 mi) (orbital period of about 88 minutes), and 2,000 kilometers (1,200 mi) (orbital period of about 127 minutes).
  3. A geostationary orbit, geostationary Earth orbit, or geosynchronous equatorial orbit (GEO) is a circular orbit 35,786 kilometers (22,236 mi) above the Earth’s equator and following the direction of the Earth’s rotation. An object in such an orbit has an orbital period equal to the Earth’s rotational period (one sidereal day) and thus appears motionless, at a fixed position in the sky, to ground observers.
  4. A trans-lunar injection (TLI) is a propulsive maneuver used to set a spacecraft on a trajectory that will cause it to arrive at the Moon.

Sources

M. Özgür Nevres

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1 Comment

  1. And where is soviet “ENERGIYA” semi-reusable super-heavy launch vehicle (rocket), which was a part of the super-heavy lift launch (rocket + multi-flight orbital plane) system “ENERGIYA-BURAN” super-heavy launch rocket system, which was flgiht twice (first – in May 15, 1987 with the “Polyus”/”Skif-DM” special satellite system prototype, and second – in November 15, 1988 with the “Buran” heavy orbital plane)?
    “Energiya” super-heavy rocket payload capacity was up to 100,000 kg (220,462 lb) to LEO or 20,000 kg (44,000 lb) to GSO; max. thrust was up to 34,800 kN (7,800,000 lbf) at the sea level or up to 39,500 kN (8,900,000 lbf) in vacuum; and total hieght was 58.765 m (192.80 ft).
    You can see more details about this rocket system here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energia

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