With space stations performing impromptu backflips, rockets careening out of control, billionaires going into space like they just don’t care, and space junk threatening to cause disaster nearly every week, 2021 will go down as one of the more memorable years in space.
The chaos kinda makes sense. Rocket launches are getting cheaper by the minute, which is creating unprecedented opportunities for us to do increasingly weird and reckless things in space. 2021 was likely the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we can expect later this decade. With that said, here’s our review of the weirdest year in space — at least so far.
The International Space Station backflipped out of control
In one of the most serious incidents in the 21-year history of the ISS, the orbital outpost on July 29 unexpectedly rolled backwards by 540 degrees when thrusters from the newly arrived Nauka module suddenly roared to life. Russian flight controllers regained control after 47 minutes of terror, during which time the ISS performed 1.5 unscheduled backflips. Orbiting upside down, an additional 180-degree forward flip was required to bring the outpost back to its original position.
The incident was no joke, as the spinning, had it been worse, could’ve damaged to the station or, even worse, caused it to spin wildly out of control. NASA said the ISS Expedition 65 crew was never in any danger, while Russia blamed a software glitch on the anomaly. A similar incident then occurred in October, when a routine thruster test of a Soyuz capsule lasted for longer than expected, shifting the ISS by 60 degrees.
Jeff Bezos sued NASA
The U.S. Court of Federal Claims dismissed a Blue Origin lawsuit over NASA’s decision to award a $US2.89 ($4) billion lunar lander contract to SpaceX. The Jeff Bezos-owned company felt wronged by NASA, claiming the space agency had promised multiple private contracts and that it “disregarded key flight safety requirements” having to do with SpaceX’s proposed offering.
But the damage was done, as the lawsuit prevented NASA and Elon Musk’s SpaceX from working on the Human Landing System (HLS) — an integral component of the upcoming Artemis missions to the Moon. Work has resumed, but NASA blamed the seven months of litigation, among other things, for the delay of the Artemis III mission, which will now land on the Moon no earlier than 2025, not 2024 as planned.
An out-of-control Chinese rocket fell to Earth
The 30.48 m-long (30-metre) core stage of China’s Long March 5B rocket inadvertently entered low Earth orbit on April 29. The tumbling rocket segment, it was predicted, would make an uncontrolled reentry within a few days, potentially threatening populated areas. Experts tracked the core for days but were unable to project the crash site. The rocket core eventually splashed harmlessly into the Indian Ocean on May 9.
At 23 tons, it was one of the biggest human-made objects to perform an uncontrolled reentry. NASA criticised China for not seeming to care about its wayward rocket or where it might crash, saying the country is “failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris.”
Leaky toilet on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon triggered an alarm
In September, astronauts participating in the first all-private mission to space, the Inspiration4 mission, had to keep their cool after an alarm went off, indicating a “significant” but unknown problem. The alarm was eventually traced to “mechanical problems” having to do with Crew Dragon’s waste management system, specifically its fans, which pull human waste away from the body. Mercifully, the Inspiration4 crew, with help from SpaceX ground controllers, were able to bring the toilet back online. Elon Musk tweeted that upgrades to the Crew Dragon toilet would be necessary.
SpaceX provided more information later, saying a tube in the tank got loose, preventing urine from entering the storage tank and causing it to spill beneath the Crew Dragon floor. A similar issue was detected in Endeavour, a Crew Dragon parked outside ISS. SpaceX apparently remedied the problem by October, with Endurance being the first Crew Dragon to feature the upgraded toilets.
A whole lotta big-badda-booms in Texas
High-altitude tests of SpaceX’s Starship prototype rocket produced tons of excitement during the first half of the year. Launching the 50-metre tall rocket to a height of 9.7 km wasn’t the problem, nor was the controlled aerodynamic descent. It was the final stage of the test that proved to be the sticking point, as the rocket struggled to survive the landing.
SN9 crashed heavily at the Texas Boca Chica launch facility on February 2, SN10 blew up a few minutes after landing on March 3, and SN11 experienced rapid unscheduled disassembly on March 30. Unamused, the Federal Aviation Administration kept a close eye on SpaceX throughout the year. Finally, however, on May 5, the SN15 rocket performed the seemingly impossible, with Elon Musk tweeting: “Starship landing nominal!”
A mystery object was detected in orbit next to a Chinese satellite
In early November, Space Force spotted an apparent apogee kick motor in orbit alongside China’s Shijian-21 satellite, which launched on October 23. Apogee kick motors are used to put payloads into their target orbits, and they’re typically deposited into graveyard orbits, but it, along with Shijian-21, were parked firmly in geosynchronous orbit. The two objects are positioned relatively close to each other and appear to be synchronised. Given this unorthodox arrangement, speculation emerged that the object is not an apogee kick motor but some kind of “sub-satellite,” the function of which is yet to be determined. We’ll have to wait and see, but China isn’t saying anything.
Russia blew up its own satellite, creating a dangerous debris field
The ISS crew was rudely awakened during the early hours of November 15 and told to seek immediate shelter in spacecraft docked outside the station. The sudden appearance of an orbital debris cloud, caused by a Russian anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon test, triggered the emergency. Nothing bad happened, but the deliberate destruction of the defunct Kosmos-1408 satellite produced around 1,500 pieces of trackable debris and likely thousands of smaller shards, which will continue to threaten the ISS and other space-based assets for years to come.
NASA condemned Russia’s ASAT test as a reckless act (though the United States, China, and India have done similar tests in the past). The newly created debris field will likely increase the frequency of collision avoidance manoeuvres in the future, and it’s also contributing to Kessler Syndrome, in which accumulating space junk could eventually make Earth orbit inaccessible to satellites, spacecraft, and astronauts.
Space things smashed into other space things
The Russian anti-satellite weapons test threatens to increase the chances of in-orbit collisions, but some actual collisions did occur in 2021, namely Russian space junk hitting a Chinese satellite and a small piece of space junk that blasted a hole in Canadarm2, which is attached to the ISS. The robotic device remains functional, but the Chinese satellite appears to be a goner.
Russia sent a film crew to space
A Russian film crew consisting of actress Yulia Peresild and director Klim Shipenko arrived at the ISS in early October to film scenes for an upcoming film titled Vyzov, or Challenge in English. Peresild, who won the role in an open competition, is portraying Zhenya, an operating surgeon who must be rushed to the ISS to save the life of an ailing cosmonaut. Peresild and Shipenko spent 12 days in space filming scenes, and had to immediately start filming again upon landing in the Kazakhstan desert.
Blue Origin sent Captain Kirk to the final frontier
Yulia Peresild was not the only actor to reach space in 2021. Thanks to Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, William Shatner, famous for portraying Captain Kirk on Star Trek, got a chance to view Earth from beyond the Kármán line — the internationally recognised boundary of space. But while Peresild spent a dozen days in orbit, Shatner’s trip on October 13 only lasted for a few minutes. Still, it was enough to bring the actor to tears. Tragically, Glen de Vries, the 47-year-old entrepreneur who joined Shatner for the trip to space, died in a plane crash on November 11.
Ongoing woes for Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft
After correcting a slew of problems identified by NASA, Boeing’s Starliner project was supposed to get back on track in 2021, but a scrubbed test launch in October has us wondering when this commercial crew vehicle will finally be ready for prime time.
The uncrewed test launch of a CST-100 Starliner was delayed indefinitely after controllers failed to open 13 oxidizer valves in the spacecraft’s propulsion system. Inspections of the grounded capsule were done inside ULA’s Vertical Integration Facility, but after a week of this, Boeing decided to move the Starliner to its factory at the Kennedy Space Centre. Boeing suspects the problem was caused by Florida’s humid air, or at least something having to do with moisture getting into the system. Boeing Orbital Flight Test-2 mission to the International Space Station could happen in the first half of 2022, but at this point, all bets are off.
The first billionaire to reach space got into a bit of trouble
Richard Branson made history on July 11 when he became the first billionaire to reach space. But things turned sour in the ensuing days after reporting that his pilots ignored a warning light during the 86 km ascent. Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane, VSS Unity, veered off course, causing it to fly in unsanctioned airspace. And because the spaceplane failed to reach its intended trajectory, the pilots risked a hazardous descent and landing. Alarmed, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded Virgin Galactic pending an investigation into the incident. The company made the required corrective actions, so the FAA restored its licence in late September.
The Russian space program had problem after problem
The ISS mishap with the Nauka module was hardly the only incident involving the Russian space program this year. A new leak in the Russian Zvezda ISS service module was detected in July, and in August, a senior Russian space official warned of cracks on the ageing Zarya module of the ISS, saying this is “bad” and that the “fissures will begin to spread over time.” A smoke alarm went off in the Zvezda module in September, as the smell of burnt plastic wafted through the orbital outpost. No reason was given, but the smoke coincided with the autonomous charging of the station’s batteries. Russian state-owned media spread a rumour accusing a NASA astronaut of deliberately drilling a hole in a Russian module back in 2018, and Roscosmos said nothing to quell the accusations.