Space Retrospective 2021: This Year In Space

2021; the second year amidst a global pandemic. The year that began with a proverbial bang in the United States, when only six days in, a capitol riot ensued. Yet, despite this chaos, our work in space has never been brighter or as eventful as 2021 was.

Tyler Merbler from USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Perseverance & Ingenuity

Launching July 30, 2020, traveling atop an Atlas V 541, the Perseverance Mars rover safely touched down on February 18, 2021. This marked NASA’s 5th rover on the red planet. To date, the rover has traversed 1.76 miles (2.83km) on Mars, and brought along the lightweight Ingenuity drone, a historic first as the first powered, controlled aircraft on another planet. Ingenuity was deployed from Perseverance on April 3rd, 44 days after Perseverance made its touchdown. The tiny drone was designed to operate for at least 30 days, testing both the craft’s abilities and NASA’s abilities to control and command an aircraft on Mars. However, Ingenuity has continually set new records as the spacecraft continues to operate 270 days into the mission, with more flights planned. The tiny drone has completed 18 flights, traversed 2.37 miles (3.82km) for nearly 33 minutes of combined flight time.

Lucy, & DART

On October 16, 2021, an Atlas 401 rocket launched the Lucy spacecraft on a trajectory to encounter five of Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids; objects believed to be ancient remnants of the rocky materials from which our solar system’s planets were made. The first planned encounter with an asteroid is April 20, 2025, when the spacecraft will encounter a C-type asteroid, called 52246 Donaldjohanson. Located in the inner asteroid belt and measuring nearly 2.5 miles (4km) in diameter, this asteroid is named after the person who discovered the oldest hominin fossils. Its first encounter with a Trojan asteroid will be on August 12, 2027, when it will encounter a binary C-type asteroid named 3548 Eurybates. This asteroid is 42 miles (64km) in diameter, a distance large enough to stretch from central Orlando to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Visitor Center. It also has its own natural satellite, Queta, measuring less than 0.6 miles (1km) in diameter. Lucy’s final target, 617 Patroclus-Menoetius, is a pair of P-type, binary asteroids measuring 70 miles (113km) and 64.6 miles (104km) in diameter respectively. Walking around Patroclus would be like walking from Polk County to KSC.

On November 24, 2021, SpaceX launched NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART. DART’s mission is to perform a kinetic impact test against the asteroid Dimorphos, a satellite asteroid that orbits the asteroid 65803 Didymos. This test is critical to proving if kinetic impactors can sufficiently redirect an asteroid’s course, which may be needed in the event an asteroid were to be on a trajectory to impact Earth. Those unfamiliar with the dynamics of spaceflight expressed concern about the test and its potential effects, predominantly concerned over potential hazards to Earth. Dimorphos was selected specifically because this test can be detected, measured, and observed while generating little effect on the asteroid pair. More importantly, the pair does not currently pose a substantial threat to the Earth, nor will it after the test. However, the data collected from this test will be of substantial value should a future asteroid pose a threat.

Space Tourism


On September 16, 2021, SpaceX achieved the first private, orbital spaceflight with the Inspiration4 mission. The mission lasted just shy of three days, carrying Shift4 Payments’ CEO, Jared Isaacman; geology professor, Sian Proctor; Air Force veteran and data engineer, Christopher Sembroski; and St. Jude Children’s Hospital Physician’s Assistant, Hayley Arceneaux. The crew flew on a uniquely modified Crew Dragon spacecraft, since the Inspiration4 mission would be free-flying in Earth orbit and not dock to the International Space Station. The docking adaptor normally used to dock with the space station was replaced by a cupola dome, allowing the crew a 360-degree view during their flight. The crew splashed down on September 18, in the Atlantic Ocean; the first crewed spacecraft to do so since Apollo 9 in 1969.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard & Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo

The events of 2021 kicked off a true revolution in spaceflight tourism, a concept that for decades seemed more like a luxurious fantasy than anything real. Yet Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic both took strides to create a path for tourism at the edge of space. Virgin Galactic has had its eye on ferrying tourists to space for more than a decade using its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane and White Knight Two carrier aircraft. While Virgin Galactic was testing their design in preparation for tourist flights, Blue Origin was progressing with their own plans for tourist flights by debuting their New Shepard reusable rocket. Crew-oriented tests on the capsule and a pad abort test were performed before New Shepard was ever test flown.

Both companies were set to launch their first crewed test flights in 2021, creating a race between the aerospace firms, as they jockeyed to launch the first all-private spaceflight with citizens. A race that was debatably won on July 11, 2021, as Virgin Galactic’s Unity 22 reached the edge of space, nine days before Blue Origin initiated their own crewed test flight on July 20. Both flights were notable for including corporate leaders as passengers. With Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Galactic, flying aboard Unity 22, and Jeff Bezos, owner of Blue Origin, and his brother, Mark Bezos, flying on New Shepard’s NS-16 mission.

Blue Origin seems to have won the sub-orbital tourist race for the time being because Virgin Galactic’s Unity 22 was not a truly commercial flight, as there were no paying customers on board. The other passengers, Sirisha Bandla, Colin Bennett, and Beth Moses, were all Virgin Galactic employees. Blue Origin’s single paying passenger aboard NS-16, Oliver Daemen, whose father paid for his seat on the flight, has become the youngest person in space, and was ironically accompanied by Ms. Wally Funk, 82, who became the oldest person in space at the time of that flight. Long overdue for her inaugural space flight, Funk was a member of the Mercury 13 group of astronauts, who famously underwent the same testing and training as the original seven Mercury astronauts.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard has gone on to fly two more crewed missions with notable people like cultural icon and actor William Shatner (Star Trek), Laura Shepard Churchley, daughter of the first American astronaut, Alan Shepard (and the rocket’s namesake), along with other unnamed passengers. Blue Origin has other flights slated in 2022. Since Unity 22, Virgin Galactic has yet to resume flights due to upgrades and modifications being made on the SpaceShipTwo vehicle, with specific launch dates for 2022 still unknown.

Rocket Developments

Space Launch System

2021 was by far one of the most eventful years for the Space Launch System since its inception. Beginning with the first attempted hot fire of the core stage back on January 16, 2021, the test abruptly ended when an engine sensor shut down the test. The test was run again on March 18, completing its objective, and fired all four RS-25D main engines for 500 seconds, confirming the core stage’s ability to safely perform the burn required on launch day. The core stage departed from the Stennis Space Center on April 23, heading for the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center and arrived on April 29. The assembly of the full Space Launch System rocket, Artemis 1, was completed in early November with the mating of the Orion Spacecraft on top of the Orion Spacecraft Stage Adaptor, marking the first fully built moon rocket since 1972. We now await the completion of several ground tests ahead of the rocket’s rollout to LC-39B for its Wet Dress Rehearsal, a test that will involve a full test sequence of events, identical to those that will be performed on launch day, just without the ignition at T-0.

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Sometime as early as late February 2022, the Artemis 1 rocket will once again be fully fueled, its computers primed for launch, and all components set for a simulated launch. The data from this test will provide NASA with knowledge of how the rocket performs as a complete system, including how it behaves in conjunction with ground support systems like the launchpad. At the conclusion of the test, NASA will roll the rocket back to the Vehicle Assembly Building for a final review of all rocket systems performance before giving the all-clear for launch readiness procedures ahead of Artemis 1’s maiden launch.


In Boca Chica, Texas, SpaceX’s Starship rocket has also been making leaps and bounds in its development — or hops — with four flights of the Starship vehicle starting with SN9 on February 2, 2021. The flight, like SN8 before it, was unsuccessful, and was followed by SN10 a month later on March 3. This flight gave a false sense of hope for the program, as the rocket did land successfully; however, a few minutes later, SN10 exploded, making an unintentional hop back into the sky for one last, short flight. SN11 launched the same month on March 30, under a dense fog, and returned to Earth in pieces. The fog made the flight difficult to follow and the official SpaceX livestream had challenges maintaining a stable connection with the vehicle. It did not take long for spectators and remote viewers of the launch to realize something went wrong, as parts of the rocket began to rain down through the fog.

On May 5, 2021, SpaceX launched SN15, which climbed to its peak of 33,500ft (10 kilometers) before making a successful touchdown and remaining intact, unlike its predecessor SN10. This was a huge feat for the program, confirming the possibility of the aerodynamic flip maneuver needed to enable precise landings and ensure the reusability required for the program. SpaceX has now shifted its focus toward the first orbital flight of Starship, leaving SN15’s sister, SN16, as yet unused (although reportedly still planned for use). Meanwhile, SpaceX continues to work with the Federal Aviation Administration to prepare for a launch date for Starship sometime later this year.


The United Launch Alliance (ULA) spent 2021 paving the way forward ahead of their Vulcan rocket’s maiden launch. The ULA completed assembly of a pathfinder vehicle in late January 2021 and shipped it to Florida ahead of several ground test campaigns. One of these tests included fueling the pathfinder on October 5. The pathfinder is unique in that it is both a test vehicle and a future commercial flight article with payload launch capabilities. However, the Vulcan engines currently being tested are demo engines and will not be powering the upcoming commercial flight mission. The first Vulcan flight engines, developed and constructed by Blue Origin, are undergoing testing before they are delivered to the United Launch Alliance for installation in the Vulcan rocket, hopefully for a 2022 launch.

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