The year 2021 was perhaps the most eventful and exciting year for space and spaceflight. From tourism advancements, to small startups reaching orbit, to touching the Sun, there were some incredible achievements. This year will be host to the fifth annual Astro Awards, where the space community gets to celebrate the milestones and missions started or completed by those who dedicate their lives to space science.
Overall, these awards are intended to be a fun, uplifting, and reflective summary of one of the most incredible years in spaceflight. To be a part of next year’s voting and deciding of some of the most impactful and important spaceflight events, help with making videos and support the brand, become an Everyday Astronaut Patron on Patreon.com.
Space Facts Of 2021
2021 was host to high numbers and new records for the spaceflight community. There were 146 orbital launch attempts, a record held since 1967. The early days of spaceflight did not reveal an extraordinarily high success rate. In 2021, out of the 145 attempts, 134 were successful, leading to a 92% success rate.
The record breaking continues with human spaceflight. For the first time, we, as humanity, had 19 fewer people on Earth, below the Karman line, at one time. At that time, there were ten humans on board of the International Space Station, three taikonauts on board of the Tiangong Space Station, and six aboard Blue Origins New Shepard rocket on the NS-19 mission, which launched on December 11th.
To Those We Lost
It is important to reflect on the people, who have passed on, that played great roles in the space community and industry.
|George Carruthers||October 1, 1939 – December 26, 2021|
|William Thornton||April 14, 1929 – January 11, 2021|
|Allan McDonald||July 9, 1937 – March 6, 2021|
|Glynn Lunney||November 27, 1936 – March 19, 2021|
|Michael Collins||October 31, 1930 – April 28, 2021|
|Glen de Vries||June 29, 1972 – November 11, 2021|
|Michael “Rich” Clifford||October 13, 1952 – December 28, 2021|
The Honorable Mentions category is awarded to those achievements and milestones that were not grand enough at the time to make the list, but could make it in the years to come. They are on the right path, but have yet to achieve their major goals.
Starship/Super Heavy And SLS
For the past couple of years, SpaceX has been rapidly growing their production and launch sites in Starbase, Texas, just outside of Brownsville on the southern tip of the US. In August, SpaceX stacked Starship on top of its booster, creating the tallest rocket ever built. In addition to this milestone, NASA fully stacked and assembled its Space Launch System rocket for the Artemis 1 mission.
Neither of the rockets were able to make it off the pad in 2021, but are on the right track to have their first attempts in 2022. Both of these launch vehicles will eventually aid in putting humans back on the moon.
Firefly, a new small satellite launch provider, had the first orbital launch attempt of their Alpha rocket. After launching on September 03, 2021 UTC, in the middle of their first launch window, a date set months in advance, an engine on Alpha failed resulting in the loss of the vehicle later into the flight.
For NASA’s Artemis program, NASA called on private companies to develope the landing system for these missions. The Human Landing System (HLS) contract was eventually won by SpaceX. As a result of this selection, Starship became the only lunar landing system to participate in the Artemis program for now. This final verdict came after protests from the National Team, led by Blue Origin, and the Dynetics teams were dismissed.
Russian ISS Segment Completion
The year 2021 also saw the completion of the Russian segment of the International Space Station (ISS). This completion came with the docking of the Nauka and Prichal modules. However, shortly after docking, Nauka endangered the ISS by firing its thrusters, which resulted in the ISS tumbling out of control for a total of one and a half rotations. These additions now add a new European Space Agency (ESA) robotic arm and more docking capabilities for spacecrafts.
At the very end of the year, NASA launched a trio of science spacecraft. These include LUCY, DART (Double Asteroid Redirect Test), and finally IXPE (Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer). The LUCY spacecraft launched on an Atlas V 401 on a 12 year journey to eight different asteroids, 7 of which are within Jupiter’s orbit of the sun. DART launched on a Falcon 9 and will test out a method of planetary defense against near-Earth objects by intentionally crashing into an asteroid and measuring its change in velocity.
IXPE, also launched on a Falcon 9, is a trio of X-Ray telescopes on a single satellite to measure the polarization of cosmic X-rays. IXPE weighed in at only 330 kg (~730 lb) and was originally designed to launch on a Pegasus small sat launcher. However, in the end the decision was made to launch on a Falcon 9 as it was the cheaper option. This made IXPE Falcon9’s lightest dedicated payload to date.
Falcon 9 Milestones
Taking up the bottom of the list are the incredible Falcon 9 milestones achieved throughout the year. This year, SpaceX launched 31 missions on a Falcon 9 using only 10 boosters. Averaging this out results in 3.1 flights per booster. SpaceX landed 30 out of the 31 flights with Booster 1060 stealing the show for the most flights. Booster 1060 flew six times in 329 days; that is an average turnaround time of 65 days, or about two months.
On the side of launching rapidly, SpaceX beat their own record of back to back launches, twice. First, SpaceX launched and then launched again after one day, 20 hours and seven minutes. Later, they launched twice within 15 hours and 17 minutes. The turnaround time for a single booster was cut in half from 51 days to 27.
SpaceX, who also reuses fairings, successfully recovered 86% of their fairing halves and reused fairing halves on slightly over 50% of their flights this year. SpaceX also reflew fairing halves for the fourth and fifth time in 2021.
Perhaps one of the most notable milestone achieved is the passing of SpaceX’s own internal design goal of flying a Falcon 9 ten times with minimal refurbishment. Minimal refurbishment would include cleaning out the engines, replacing a few minor components, and sending the booster back out to fly again. Booster 1051 overachieved this by launching for the 11th time, which it did this year.
Tiangong Space Station
More humans now live in space with the introduction of the Tiangong Space Station. China’s new space station reached orbit on April 29, 2021 and is comparable in size to ROSCOSMOS’ Mir space station from the 80s and 90s. So far, over 1,000 experiments have been approved by CNSA. The TSS is also a modular station meaning that many of these experiments and more modules can and will be added in the future.
In order for an object, such as a spacecraft, to stay in orbit, it must occasionally use thrusters to boost its orbit so it does not succumb to orbital decay. The TSS is making use of both chemical thrusters and ion thrusters to help it stay in orbit. This is the first time in history that humans are propelled through space by ion thrusters. The use of ion thrusters is typically not used for human propulsion due to their extremely low, but efficient, thrust, which is impractical for inserting astronauts into orbit. Once an object is in orbit though, ion thrusters are a very efficient methode of staying and maneuvering in orbit
This year, the TSS was host to two crewed mission and two cargo resupply missions and a number of Extra Vehicular Activities (EVAs) took place commissioning the station.
Virgin Orbit And Astra Reach Orbit
Two smallsat launch providers managed to achieve the monstrously difficult goal of achieving orbit. Each launch provider used a different method to do so. Virigin Orbit, who reached orbit on January 17, 2021, use an air launch system. The LauncherOne rocket is placed under the wing of a Boeing 747-400 and launched after reaching an altitude of 10,600 m (35,000 ft). This allows Virgin Orbit to launch at any inclination from nearly anywhere in the world. They reached orbit on their second launch attempt.
On this flight, named Launch Demo 2, Virgin Orbit carried 10 NASA Cubesats, which totalled 300 kg (~660 lb) to a Sun synchronous orbit. Only six months later, they launched the “Tubular Bells, Part 2” mission, which carried 4 Cubesat military payloads proving that they are confident in the LauncherOne rocket.
Astra took a more conventional approach and launch from a static launch pad in Alaska. Astra finally reached orbit on their fourth orbital launch attempt on November 20, 2021. The third launch attempt, which occured in August of 2021, resulted in a powerslide off the pad after one engine failed right off the pad. The Flight Termination System (FTS) was later triggered resulting in the loss of the vehicle. Only three months later, they achieved orbit on with their STP-27AD2 mission and Rocket 3.3 LV 0007. More launches are planned for the coming months.
To learn more about the small satellite launch industry and get a comparison off small sat launchers, watch Everyday Astronaut’s video titled The King of Small Sat Launchers or read the video article here.
Perhaps, despite not having great scientific impact on the years to come, the sole flight of SN15 was a great leap in the right direction for SpaceX’s Starship development. It was also an achievement of a new style of slowing down and landing a rocket.
Starship is a 50 meter (~164 ft) tall, 9 meter (~30 ft) wide upper stage, which had previously been conducting flight tests to about 10 kilometers (~33,000 ft) of altitude. After Starship achieved this altitude it would return to Earth’s surface and conduct the belly flop maneuver. To learn more about this maneuver and why SpaceX chose this method of recovery, watch Everyday Astronaut’s video titled Why does Starship belly flop or read the video article here.
After the unsucessful landings of SN8, SN9, SN10, and SN11, SpaceX flew, landed, and recovered SN15 on May 5, 2021. However, the flight was not perfect. SN15 lost an engine on ascent and utilized an alternative backup landing profile, but still managed to land safely.
The unique ability of rapid production and quick design changes was crucial in the ability for SpaceX to routinely test Starship prototypes. Losing each prototype only delivered more data that would be examined and applied to the next prototype.
Next up, going orbital. SpaceX has now been working towards sending the Starship/SuperHeavy stack orbital and break even more records. This gargantuan rocket will be more powerful than the Soviet N1 Moon rocket and have more payload capacity than the Saturn V.
The year of 2021 ignited the space tourism industry and took it further than ever before. Everyday people, most with no previous spaceflight training, were taken on exhilarating rides on suborbital trajectories and many Earth orbits. These initial flights will allow for more frequent and cheaper rides for the average person in the future.
The first company to perform its first suborbital tourism flight was Virgin Galactic. A fully loaded SpaceShipTwo spaceplane took to the skies over New Mexico on July 11, 2021 carrying CEO Richard Branson and other Virgin Galactic staff. Technically, they did not host any space tourists, but these flights will allow for paying customers to experience traveling above the atmosphere.
Just nine days after Virgin Galactic’s flight, Blue Origin’s NS-16 mission lifted off. Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark, aviation legend Wally Funk, and a paying customer all dared to fly on New Shepard’s first human flight. Through the rest of the year, Blue Origin successfully conducted two more flights with humans with their NS-19 mission rounding off the year flying six humans, the maximum capacity of their crew capsule.
In terms of prices, the numbers can range from large to small, depending who you ask. Since this is a new and rapidly developing industry, these prices will adjust considering many other factors. A safe number lies at under one million dollars for a trip to the highest point you can go before entering orbit.
In addition to these suborbital flights, 2021 also brought orbital tourism flights to life. The International Space Station hosted two flights from Russia containing spaceflight participants. The first was MS-19 on which actress Yulia Persild and director Klim Shipenko flew on a Soyuz capsule and spent about 12 days filming onboard the ISS before returning to Earth on the MS-18 Soyuz. The film is a joint project between Roscosmos, Russia’s Channel One and the “Yellow, Black and White” studio.
In December, flights continued with the MS-20 mission. Two private citizens, Yusaku Maezawa and Yozo Hirano, visited the International Space Station for 12 days. While on board, the two filmed and documented their experiences from a non-astronaut/non-cosmonaut perspective. View these videos on Yusaku Maezawa’s YouTube channel.
Yusaku Maezawa is a Japanese entrepreneur who has also purchased the first commercial flight on a Starship around the Moon for his dearMoon project.
Parker Solar Probe
Another major scientific achievement that humanity accomplished last year was the touching of the Sun by the Parker Solar Probe. Since its launch in 2018, which also received an Astro Award, the spacecraft has conducted five flybys of Venus. Each time it flys by, it gets a gravitational assist to lower its orbit of the Sun even more.
On its eighth orbit, it entered and survived the Sun’s corona (the most outer layer of the Sun’s atmosphere) for the first time. Technically, the spacecraft crossed the Alfven Critical Surface, which is a point where the Sun’s gravity and magnetic fields are too weak to hold solar material. Up until actually crossing it, scientists couldn’t precisely determine where this point was. This is not a smooth circle either, it’s a zig zag patterned ring.
In 2019, teams observed these “switchbacks” for the first time, with them being able to image it for the first time. Another major scientific achievement that humanity accomplished this year was the touching of the Sun by the Parker Solar Probe. Last year it reached the lowest altitude ever, at just 6.1 million km (~3.8 million miles) from the Sun on November 12, 2021. The Parker Solar Probe spacecraft is expected to last until 2025 with 16 more orbits planned.
James Webb Space Telescope Launch
This section on the list is specifically awarded to just the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). As of the release of the article, JWST has just finished tensioning all five layers of its sun shield, but still has not overcome all 344 single points of failure and the five months of calibration and alignments before it starts imaging.
However, it is appropriate to celebrate the launch of the biggest, most advanced telescope humans have ever constructed. The launch, conducted by Arianespace was flawless. Their Ariane 5 rocket lifted off from French Guiana, France on the morning of December 25, 2021 with millions watching around the world.
JWST was injected so precisely that it was able to save propellant, which can be used for station keeping and navigation instead of traveling to its destination. Now, JWST is projected to last significantly longer than the intial life expectancy of ten years.
The James Webb Space Telescope will have the opportunity to reshape how humans understand the creation of the universe and make more discoveries than ever before.
Inspiration 4 was the pinnacle of space tourism in 2021. Not only did it show a new spaceflight spirit, the Inspiration 4 crew also raised over 240 million USD for St. Jude Children’s Hospital. Millions of people from around the globe donated to support this mission and its goal.
The Inspiration 4 mission was only been dreamed up at the end of 2020 by Jared Issacman, an American businessman and pilot. On February 1, 2021, SpaceX announced that Jared Issacman would offer three seats to members of the general public on the Crew Dragon capsule. It is imporant to note that a seat on a Dragon capsule costs NASA 55 million USD. This likely means each seat was technically a giveaway of about 50 million USD.
Issacman eventually chose St. Jude research assistant Hayley Arceneaux, data engineer Chris Sembroski, and geology professor and science communicator Dr. Sian Proctor to join him on this three day mission to low Earth orbit. This was the first private, all civilian, non-professional orbital mission and it was the highest humans have gone since the third, but not last, Hubble servicing mission, STS-109, by reaching ~585 km in altitude.
The last Hubble servicing mission in 2009 had a peak altitude of just 578 km, because of atmospheric drag slowly lowering Hubble’s altitude, so Inspiration 4 beat STS-125’s flight altitude by a few kilometers. Another first, Inspiration 4 was the first free flight crewed mission since the Space Shuttle program. This means the spacecraft did not dock with another spacecraft or space station. In fact, the docking port was replaced with a glass dome known as the cupola, which provided unprecedented views of the Earth.
To learn more about the mission, see behind the scenes looks into the preparation and on-orbit activities, watch the show “Countdown: Inspiration 4 Mission to Space” on Netflix or read up on it in our article.
Missions To Mars
The previous Astro Awards featured the launches of three mission to Mars. One from the United States, one from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and one from China.
UAE’s Hope Al-Amal mission arrived at Mars on February 9, 2021 with an orbital insertion burn lasting for about 27 minutes. Hope is now in its planned highly elliptical Mars orbit. The spacecraft is closely observing Mars’ atmosphere, especially throughout the different seasons. This was United Arab Emirates’ first interplanetary mission and has so far been executed flawlessly.
China launched three vehicles to all perform different functions. An orbiter, a lander, and a rover were all sent to the red planet. The mission was dubbed Tianwen and all three spacecraft survived their initial three month life expectancy after arriving at the red planet. In addition, they survived a 50 day offline period caused by a communication blackout due to the Sun being between Earth and Mars, and are now back to collecting data.
Another small satellite was sent along with Tianwen to be ejected and take images of the main orbiter on its journey. China became the second country, behind the United States, to operate a rover on the martian surface. This was China’s first attempt after a joint mission with Russia back in 2011 that failed.
Finally, there is NASA’s Mars 2020 mission carrying the Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity helicopter. This mission featured the highest quality video and audio of the Entry, Descent, and Landing phase ever. Engineers, scientists, and the public all benefitted from this data, which helped humans gain a better understanding of Mars and the vehicle’s performance during the different phases of its mission.
Some notable achievements that have been made so far include the first weather report on Mars, conducted by the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer. In addition, the MOXIE experiment generated 5.37 g of oxygen. Perseverance is also part of the sample return mission, which will be conducted by ESA later in the decade.
The highly technically advanced rover is not the only aspect of the Mars 2020 mission. A small helicopter called Ingenuity hitched a ride to the red planet. Two months after landing, the rover deployed the helicopter and watched it take flight for the first time. This was the first powered flight on another planet. Passing its original goal of five flights, Ingenuity flew 18 times for a total of 32 minutes and 51 seconds in 2021. It has already covered 3.82 km (~2.4 miles) compared to the 2.83 km (~1.8 miles) Perseverance has driven despite Ingenuity’s mission starting later.
To learn more about how the Perseverance and Curiosity rovers differ from one another, watch Everyday Astronaut’s video titled NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover VS Curiosity – What’s New? What’s Improved? or read the video article here.
Overall, 2021 had many firsts in spaceflight and space science. Humanity got three more missions to Mars, launched many civilians to space, launched newly developed rockets, and touched places of the solar system previously deemed impossible. Space journalists and communicators helped make this possible by sharing their knowledge with the general public.
Everyday Astronaut published The Entire Soviet Rocket Engine Family Tree, a comprehensive guide to all soviet rocket engines. NASASpaceflight, another organization dedicated to covering spaceflight events, surpassed 500.000 subscribers on YouTube and continue to provide coverage of Starship development in addition to live views of Starbase and Cape Canaveral.