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2021: More space launches than any year in history since Sputnik

Earth from space

The pace of space exploration was frenetic in 2021, with major developments in space policy, and 2022 promises to be just as exciting. Let’s pause and look back on the space milestones of this year: 

Moguls in space

It’s an indelible image of science fiction made real. Actor William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk in the original Star Trek TV series, choking up as he described his flight with Blue Origin, after he became the oldest person to reach space at 90 years old. “I hope I never recover from this,” he said.

This year saw three billionaires bolt from the starting blocks in a new commercial space race. First to go up was Sir Richard Branson in July, in the second suborbital flight of his SpaceShipTwo craft. He beat Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos by just nine days, but Bezos can claim bragging rights because his New Shepard craft flew above the Karman line, which is the official demarcation of outer space.

The third billionaire in this elite club is Elon Musk. The Tesla and SpaceX CEO also had a banner year, sending eight astronauts and a ton of supplies to the International Space Station for NASA, and his Inspiration4 mission was the first orbital spaceflight with only private citizens aboard. In a signpost for the future, Musk’s Starship, part of his plan to colonize Mars, stuck its first landing.

A fourth billionaire, Japanese fashion mogul Yusaku Maezawa — who doesn’t have his own rocket company — paid his way to the Space Station on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. 

For one brief moment in December, there were a record 19 people weightless in space, eight of them private citizens. The six tourist spaceflights in 2021 were also a record, and part of a resurgence in activity in space. There were 134 successful orbital missions, with China edging out the United States for the most by any country.

That’s more launches in 2021 than in any year in the history of the space program since Sputnik!

The new Wild West

If all this activity has a downside, it’s the fact that near-Earth orbits are getting crowded, a situation that will only get worse.

People looked anxiously to the sky in May, when a 10-story chunk of China’s biggest rocket plunged to Earth. It landed harmlessly in the Indian Ocean, but there will be many more uncontrolled reentries as China builds its space station. A more ominous event occurred in November, when Russia destroyed one of its own orbiting satellites. This created a vast cloud of fast-moving debris which forced astronauts in the International Space Station to take shelter in their escape spacecraft.

Space junk is a growing problem. There are 23,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth. But space junk moves so fast that any of the 100 million pieces larger than a millimeter could damage a spacecraft. In addition to launching 12 people into Earth orbit, SpaceX launched 800 small satellites in 2021. Musk’s eventual goal is 42,000 Starlink satellites to deliver wireless internet to remote parts of the world. These mega-constellations of satellites being launched by SpaceX and other companies will clutter low-Earth orbit. And they’re also bright, shiny objects that will adversely affect ground-based astronomy.

There’s no international treaty governing space debris. Its unfettered growth is a new “tragedy of the commons,” where we ruin something, in this case a safe environment in space, because we all profit from exploiting it and can’t stop others from doing the same. 

Explosive growth in the space sector has left governments and regulators scrambling. There’s been no international treaty or agreement on space since the Moon Agreement was ratified by the U.N. in 1984. The specter of conflict in space is real, especially in the light of a report from the intelligence community this year which outlined China’s aims to weaponize space.

The Biden administration recently reanimated the National Space Council, which had been moribund for 25 years. December saw the release of a Space Priorities Framework to enhance the security and resilience of space systems. These efforts have a new urgency given the increasingly aggressive actions by Russia and China. 

NASA’s still got game

NASA is sometimes criticized for its lack of innovation or ambition. It’s worth noting that space exploration is difficult and expensive, and the agency’s budget (in fiscal year 2020 dollars) is no higher than it was 30 years ago. By contrast, China’s space ambitions are being fueled by budgets that grow as fast as their economy.

But NASA has been savvy in working with the burgeoning private sector. Its partnership with SpaceX allowed it to end a decade of not being able to get American astronauts into space without help from the Russians. In April, a deal was signed with SpaceX to send NASA astronauts back to the moon.

The agency showed in 2021 that it still does small and large missions extremely well. 

On Mars, NASA’s Perseverance rover started exploring the Jezero crater in February. The red planet experienced a minor traffic jam as probes built by China and the United Arab Emirates arrived the same month. The sky crane landing technology worked flawlessly. In April, the rover’s Ingenuity helicopter became the first aircraft to fly on another planet, a feat the project manager called “our Wright brothers moment.” By year’s end, the rover had captured its first rock sample, for eventual return to Earth. 

Compared to Perseverance, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is a behemoth. This successor to the Hubble Space Telescope took a decade longer to build than planned, and as its budget ballooned to over $11 billion it was derided as the “telescope that ate astronomy.” James Webb is ten times more powerful than Hubble and it’s the most complex observatory ever built.

After a successful launch on Christmas Day, NASA isn’t yet declaring victory because the telescope still faces an intricate “reverse origami” process to unfold its mirrors and unfurl the sunshield. It’s headed to deployment a million miles from Earth where it will look for the first light from stars and galaxies just after the big bang and “sniff” the atmospheres of exoplanets for signs of microbial life.

Chris Impey is a professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona. He is the author of hundreds of research papers on observational cosmology and education, and he has written popular books on black holes, the future of space travel, teaching cosmology to Buddhist monks, how the universe began, and how the universe will end. His massive open online courses have enrolled over 350,000 people. Follow him on Twitter: @ImpeyChris

Tags Chris Impey Elon Musk International Space Station ISS Jeff Bezos Mars Moon NASA Space Space exploration space launch Sputnik

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