What the Heck Just Happened?
2021 was a banner year for space exploration, complete with noteworthy accomplishments, a few disappointments, and a handful of head-scratchers. Occasionally lost in all the news was the sense that many of these events — Shooting darts at asteroids! A helicopter flying on Mars! — would have seemed incredible just a couple of decades ago. Maybe that’s how progress works. We go from the fantasy of powered flight to the reality of frequent flier miles and once we get there it all seems perfectly normal. But every once in a while, it’s instructive to reflect on the things we’ve been able to witness and, if we’re lucky, participate in, while they still seem remarkable.
Without further ado, then, the Year in Space.
Craziest, Riskiest, Most Anticipated Mission. The James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled for launch on December 22 atop a European Space Agency Ariane rocket. The telescope, which looks like nothing else on Earth, is widely viewed as astronomy’s Next Big Thing, an infrared viewing device that will take up a halo orbit almost a million miles from Earth and peer further into space than any instrument has ever done before. Scientists hope that, among other things, the telescope will enable us to identify exoplanets with atmospheric chemical signatures that indicate life. But success is far from guaranteed. JWST is a complicated, super-sophisticated machine, and its planned positioning so far from Earth means there will be no practical means to repair it if anything goes wrong. There will be a lot of crossed fingers when JWST leaves the planet — and a lot of smiling faces if all goes as planned. (Strange coincidence: JWST and the Hubble Space Telescope are both named after lawyers. Though Edwin Hubble didn’t practice for long, he was in fact a licensed attorney.)
Strangest Launch. An Astra launch in August took a strange turn when the rocket rose, hovered, and then glided laterally away from the launch tower before seeming to recall its intended trajectory and ascending to an altitude of some thirty-one miles. The Alaska-based company conceded the launch was a failure, but touted it as a learning experience. And perhaps it was right: A November launch succeeded in placing a dummy payload in orbit, a first for Astra.
Mission Your Great Grandchildren Might One Day Thank You For. NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or “DART” mission, left Earth on November 24, headed for the binary asteroid system Didymos. The goal: smash into the smaller of the two asteroids to see if, and by how much, its course can be altered as a result of the impact. While it likely won’t be much, even a slight alteration over the course of a million miles or so could be enough to make an asteroid headed for earth veer off harmlessly into some other sector of the cosmos. While NASA knows of no imminent threats of this nature, it’s only a matter of time before one presents itself. It seems prudent to know how to defend the planet. This is a sensible first step.
Best Podcast. There are lots of fun, informative podcasts around these days, so you now have plenty of ways to learn about the cosmos during your daily commute. Two of the best — and our favorites — are Space and Things, with co-hosts Emily Carney and Dave Giles, and The Interplanetary Podcast, hosted by Matthew Russell and a rotating cast of smart, occasionally snarky guest hosts.
Things You Never Thought You’d See Department. A California-based company called SpinLaunch tossed a rocket-like object some 30,000 feet in the air using a strange and innovative centrifugal spinning device. The machine, shaped like a 165-foot tall garden snail, works like a sling. Sited in New Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert, it spins its projectile at “many thousands” of miles an hour before releasing it upward, where a booster rocket eventually provides additional power to life the projectile to orbit. Payloads will likely be quite small — but so too, says the company, will be launch costs.
Best Space Movie (and no, Dune is not a space movie). Space Sweepers? Voyagers? The Tomorrow War? Unlike in 1968, the year of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and 2019, when Dwight-Steven Boniecki’s Searching for Skylab dominated the competition, there’s no clear winner in this category — just a possibly misguided hope that the big-budget Don’t Look Up will finally get people, well, looking up.
Biggest Bummer. Boeing continued to confound NASA and space enthusiasts with its underperformance on the Starliner project. Projected to be one of two workhorse commercial carriers for NASA, with SpaceX, Starliner has yet to make a successful test flight. As a result, SpaceX, the Company That Ate the Commercial Rocketry Market, is now getting contracts formerly earmarked for Boeing. Step it up, Seattle! We need you.
Most Important Mission That Also Feels Like a Pixar Movie. NASA’s Perseverance rover landed safely on Mars in February, and in April deployed a little helicopter called Ingenuity, which somehow — ingeniously — manages to fly despite the serious shortage of atmosphere on the Red Planet. Together the mechanized companions (and best friends!) are searching for evidence of life, past or present, on Mars, and in the meantime sending back beautiful, forlorn images of a dry and sun-scoured world.
Coolest Publicity Stunt. Blue Origin continues to lag SpaceX in the commercial space arena, but it did manage to pull off not one but two major publicity coups this year. In July, the company sent female one-time astronaut hopeful Wally Funk into space at the ripe old age of 82. Just a few months later, William “Captain Kirk” Shatner, 90, followed her. Both of these individuals are beloved by the space community, and both came back looking and sounding appropriately ecstatic. Shatner in particular seemed stunned by the experience. “I’m so filled with emotion about what just happened,” he said, in words that might have moved even Mr. Spock. “It’s extraordinary, extraordinary…[T]o see the blue color whip by you, and now you’re staring into blackness … everybody in the world needs to do this. Everybody in the world needs to see this.”
Best Space-Related TV Series: In a far a more competitive category than Best Movie, we’re giving the nod here to the third season of For All Mankind, which had just about the right mix of soap opera, sort-of science, and planetary redemption. Also fun: The Expanse and Lost in Space. We’ve come a long way from My Favorite Martian.
Biggest Wake-Up Call. Even as NASA began talking about the eventual decommissioning of the International Space Station, quite possibly before the end of the decade, China started building a “permanent” station of its own. In fact, China was busy this year on a number of fronts. The country also put a rover on Mars and released data from its robotic probe on the far side of the moon, signaling to the world that China’s space program is determined to supplant the United States as the world’s preeminent space power. And suddenly it seems like a real possibility. Can Congress put aside its perennial culture wars and focus on the new space race? Our path to the future leads up.
Awesomest Discovery. It’s hard to stay abreast of new finds in astronomy these days, as they’re coming fast and furious, but one candidate for the award in this category is the discovery by University of Texas astronomers of a “young” (around five million years old) exoplanet some 370 light years from Earth. Using the Hubble Space Telescope, the star gazers have captured images of the planet, PDS 70b, at two wavelengths: 656 nanometers (red optical, corresponding to the H-alpha emission line of the hydrogen atom) and 336 nanometers (in the ultraviolet range). The healthy baby planet is gobbling up gas and dust, say the astronomers, and putting on mass — which is saying something, given that it’s already several times the size of Jupiter.
Best Space Book. Stephen Walker’s Beyond: The Astonishing True Story of the First Human to Leave Our Planet, a thrilling and detailed account of, among other things, Yuri Gagarin’s 1961 space flight, wins this year’s award, narrowly beating out Andy Weir’s stunningly ambitious novel Project Hail Mary. Both books are required reading for space nerds — and are, as the Eridians say, AMAZE.
Best Performance Under Stress. No, it wasn’t Elon Musk’s appearance on Saturday Night Live. NASA Flight Director Zebulon Scoville quickly and capably directed the agency’s response to an event in late July in which the Russian science module Nauka fired its thrusters while attached to the International Space Station, causing the ISS to start rotating. The module was in fact trying to pull away from the station, an action that could have threatened the stability and structural integrity of the vessel. Scoville was able to counteract Nauka’s thruster firing and eventually bring the station back to proper alignment. NASA later admitted the station hadn’t revolved 45 degrees, as originally reported, but rather 540 degrees. Houston, we have a transparency problem.
Coolest Natural Phenomenon. It may very well have been the near-total lunar eclipse in November of this year, but since we weren’t able to see it, we’re going to go instead with the diagonal alignment, also in November, of the moon, Venus, Saturn, and Jupiter. Note: Another alignment is taking place this month, so go out and take a look!
Biggest Nail Biter. When the Hubble Space Telescope’s aging and increasingly cranky software went on the fritz for several days in July, many observers (including this one!) thought the observatory’s last days were at hand. Fortunately, engineers were able to restart the relevant devices, and the Little Satellite That Could, now thirty-one years young, sprang back to life.
Weirdest Lapse of Judgment. In November, Russian military officials used a missile to destroy a defunct Russian satellite, scattering space debris hither and yon and imperiling the safety of American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts alike on the International Space Station. The spacefarers took shelter as best they could, and no damage was reported. Russia’s military issued a statement denying that its missile shot had created any risk, despite the fact that it had just shredded a 4800-pound satellite in low earth orbit. Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, declined to issue a statement confirming this understanding.
People We Lost. Godspeed and Many Thanks to Clarence “Skip” Chauvin, Jr., Michael Collins. Glenn DeVries, Mark Geyer, Glynn Lunney, and Bill Thornton.
Space is Hard Department. In August, the Indian Space Research Organization’s large Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle rocket, bringing an expensive and sophisticated earth-surveying satellite into orbit, experienced a catastrophic failure some six minutes after launch and was destroyed, along with its payload.
Best Year Overall. This is a tough one. China started building a space station, sent a female taikonaut out on a spacewalk, and landed a rover on Mars — but couldn’t control the re-entry of its Long March 5 rocket, which caused some anxious moments for earthbound observers back in May. SpaceX sent astronauts to the International Space Station and brought them back without a hitch, won a controversial sole-provider contract for building NASA’s next-generation lunar lander, and successfully conducted a static test fire of all six of the Raptor engines that will carry its big Starship rocket skyward. In December came news that Roscosmos is interested in sending a cosmonaut up to the ISS on a SpaceX rocket — a stunning turnaround from the recent situation in which NASA was paying Russia to ferry American astronauts into space. But NASA, the reigning champion of space exploration, had a nice year too, with its OSIRIS-REx asteroid landing, its ongoing Mars rover-and-helicopter excursion, and the successful launch of the DART asteroid-bumping mission. NASA was also able to tout its successful firing of engines for its new Space Launch System, and, in October, show off the SLS/ESA service modue/Orion capsule stack, configured for its first launch in early 2022. The agency was hurt by the delay in the Artemis timetable, and accumulating doubts that a moon mission is likely or even possible by 2024, as the agency once advertised, but it still put together a string of bravura performances. So this year’s winner is…NASA, by a nose cone!
But get ready for 2022. There are sure to be surprises ahead, good and bad. The future is here, friends. And the future is cool.
With special thanks to Angela Joyce, Johannes Kemppanen, and Patrick Mullane for comments and constructive criticism. Please note that these fine individuals do not necessarily agree with all or indeed any of my choices above. And all mistakes are mine of course.