Apart from discussing which launches should be counted for what nation or group of nations (in case of the European Space Agency), or from discussing what launches are ‘successfull’ opposed to ‘partial failures’ and ‘failures’, we can also look at a few other metrics concerning spaceflight.
I therefore have been looking up some figures, mostly from Wikipedia (I admit I’m a bit lazy). Wikipedia actually has a decent amount of figures on orbital launches, successes, partial failures, and failures. The timeline is however not complete and lacks some data of 11 years from the 1960ies to the 1980ies. The data on Wikipedia are themselves pulled from the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) launch catalogue.
Here’s what a quick look reveals:
The all-time record for successfull orbital launches was 1967 with 172 successfull orbital launches.
Between 1965 in the middle of the space race and 1989 when the Eastern Bloc was crumbling, every single year saw well over 100 successfull orbital launches. 1957 to 1965 of course was just the ramp up to the latter multi-decade high.
From 1990 to 2017, the number of successfull orbital launches fluctuated from 50 to 88 with no clear trend. 2018 (as of November 16th) had 90 and will in all likelyhood exceed 110 by the end of the year.
In December 2017, the launch manifest for 2018 was 140ish launches. Now (as of November 2018), the launch manifest for 2019 is already 170ish.
The conclusion would be that we are not yet at the record levels of the Space Race, but 2018 is clearly a considerable and statistically significant increase. Furthermore, it looks like 2019 will continue this new trend.
Comparing launch manifests and actual launches afterwards, one sees that a considerable number of launches “on the books” don’t launch in the year intended, so it is unlikely that 2019 will surpass the record of 172 successfull launches from 1967. However, if the trend continues, this record could be equalized as early as 2021 (assuming 30 more flights on the books each year and 3/4 of them eventually launching in a given year).
Lastly, let’s look at the success rate. As orbital spaceflight started in 1957, I lumped the 1950ies and 1960ies together:
In the 1950ies and 1960ies, during the 10 years I have data for, a whopping 14 launches per year failed at least partially.That of course is an effect of both the inexperience and the competition between the early US and Soviet space programs.
From the 1970ies onward the rate of failures or partial failures per year dropped significantly without showing a clear trend: It was about 7 per year in the 1970ies, about 5 per year in the 1980ies, about 6 per year in the 1990ies, about 4 per year in the 2000s, and about 5 per year so far in the 2010s.
This of course does not take into account events with loss of live and the decline in overall launches after the 1980ies.
However: Of the 7 full years with 3 or less launch failures, 5 were since 2000 (the other two were in 1989, a lone year which thus is rather a fluke, and 1957 which is because there were only 3 launches in total in 1957 of which just one - Sputnik - succeeded).
So without starting to calculate relative success rates taking into account launch cadence, the following conclusion can be made about launch success rates: While no improvement in launch success seems to be apparent on first sight in recent decades, a closer look reveals that the last two decades more often had relatively successfull years with few failures or partial failure.
Some of the failures that happened since 2000 are from the struggling post Soviet (Russian) Space program, especially right after the collapse of the USSR, and others are from newer spacefaring Nations such as India, Iran and New Zealand or companies in their infancy such as early SpaceX launches.
So it will be interesting to see if with an increasing launch rate, the number of failures will increase proportionally or indeed rather stay stable (meaning a higher success rate).
P.S.: Anybody from the TMRO team feel free to use these stats on air.