WASHINGTON — After several years of thinking, or hoping, that the launch activity had bottomed out, the industry reached lows last year not seen since the 1960s.

Globally, 55 launches were performed in 2004, down from totals ranging into the mid 60s the previous two years. The number of commercial launches also slipped, from 24 in 2002 to 17 in 2003 and 15 in 2004.

Government activity worldwide also was down, with 40 launches compared to 46 the year before.

“We didn’t expect it to get this low, and this pushes off the hope of any recovery even further,” said Phil McAlister, program manager for the space and telecommunications industry analysis unit at Futron Corp., a market research firm based in Bethesda, Md. “Everybody thought the recovery would be just as fast as the drop-off, but now we’re looking at a long trough.”

U.S.-built vehicles performed six of the 15 commercial launches in 2004. Russian rockets accounted for five commercial missions, with the Russian-Ukrainian Zenit 3SL vehicle performing three . Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket performed only one commercial mission in 2004, down from three a year ago.

The most active rocket in 2004 was Russia’s Proton , which flew eight missions , four on behalf of McLean, Va.-based International Launch Services, a U.S.-Russian joint venture led by Lockheed Martin Corp. that markets the vehicle. The other four launches lofted satellites for the Russian government.

Russia’s Soyuz and Boeing Co.’s Delta 2 were the second most active rockets , performing seven missions apiece, all for government customers.

The Delta 2 launched three GPS navigation satellites for the U.S. Air Force and four scientific spacecraft for NASA. Soyuz continued its role as the only vehicle capable of supporting the international space station, as NASA’s space shuttle fleet remains grounded. The Soyuz performed two crew replacement missions and four cargo resupply missions for the space station in 2004. The seventh flight demonstrated a new Soyuz variant and placed a test satellite in orbit for the Russian military.

Chicago-based Boeing conducted a single launch of its Delta 4 rocket, developed under the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. The December flight was intended to demonstrate that the rocket’s heavy-lift variant was ready to launch the largest U.S. government satellites, but failed to place its payload, a dummy satellite and a pair of university-built micro-satellites, into a sustainable orbit.

Since Boeing took the Delta 4 rocket off the commercial market in 2003, the company’s lone offering in that arena remains the Sea Launch Zenit 3SL. Sea Launch, a Boeing-led international joint venture that launches from an ocean-going platform at the equator, performed three missions in 2004, matching the mark reached in 2000 and 2003.

The company had hoped to perform more missions last year, but an upper-stage glitch that left the Telstar 18 satellite in a lower-than-planned orbit required an investigation that interrupted the manifest. Telstar 18 eventually was raised to its proper orbit using onboard propellant, but the Sea Launch vehicle did not perform another mission in 2004.

International Launch Services performed six launches of Lockheed Martin-built Atlas rockets during the year, including one of Atlas 5, also developed under the EELV program. Five of the missions lofted commercial communications satellites , while the lone U.S. government mission used an Atlas 2AS rocket to place a classified National Reconnaissance Office spacecraft into orbit. This was the final flight for the Atlas 2, as both it and the Atlas 3 are being phased out in favor of the Atlas 5 family.

Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Md., performed a single Titan 4 mission in 2004 , down from four in 2003. Only two Titan 4 launches remain on the manifest, as that vehicle also is being replaced by EELV rockets.

Arianespace of Evry, France, performed three launches in 2004, down from four in 2003 and 12 in 2002. One reason for the low rate of activity is delays with the newest variant of the Ariane 5 vehicle, dubbed the Ariane 5 ECA. The more capable rocket, designed to carry two satellites with a combined weight of up to 10,000 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit, failed in its December 2002 debut, and technical issues have pushed the next launch of the vehicle back to February.

China continued launching rockets at a steady pace, performing seven missions with variants of its Long March rocket in 2004, up slightly from six in 2003 and four in 2002.

Japan, on the other hand, conducted no launches in 2004 after performing three the previous year. Japan’s H-2A rocket was grounded by a failure in late 2003, and is slated to return to flight in February.

“You just didn’t have any new markets or new trends, and at the same time your traditional vehicles didn’t really launch that much,” said Marco Caceres, senior space analyst with the Teal Group Corp., Fairfax, Va. said. “The numbers would have been even lower if you didn’t have China launching a fair number of their Long March vehicles.”

Though characterizing 2004 as a down year in terms of launch activity, Caceres stopped short of predicting an upturn in 2005.

“So many different things came together to make it worse of a year than what we previously thought was the bottom,” Caceres said. “You have to assume it can’t get much lower, but all it takes is a couple of launch failures of the more active vehicles.”

There was one unambiguous launch failure during 2004 of an Israeli Shavit rocket that dumped a classified payload into the Mediterranean Sea in September. There were at least three instances in which payloads were placed in low orbits: the Sea Launch mission in June; the Delta 4 Heavy launch in December; and a December launch of a Ukrainian Cyclone-3 rocket carrying a pair of Earth observing satellites.