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5 of the biggest space stories from 2021

5 of the biggest space stories from 2021

The year 2021 marked one of the most significant years for the space industry across the globe, from the first ever movie being filmed in orbit to the billionaire space race.

While there are a number of big stories that came out of this year, below are Space Connect’s top five picks:

Russia beat the United States to filming the first movie in space

In early October, a Russian actress and director launched towards the International Space Station to film a movie – the first ever completed in space.


The all-Russian crew included Roscosmos astronaut and MS-19 commander, Anton Shkaplerov, filmmaker Klim Shipenko, and 37-year-old actress Yulia Peresild.

While the news was significant in itself, Russia beat America to the task, claiming the title before Tom Cruise who is rumoured to be launching to space with SpaceX and NASA to film a movie.

Reports suggest his trip to the ISS for a film could occur soon, but no dates have been set yet.

The Russian movie is about a character, played by Peresild, who will receive the help of a cosmonaut in helping save a friend in a time-crunching mission.


An article from The Conversation suggested there would be difficulties in filming the surgery scenes for the movie, as liquid floats around in zero gravity.

After 12 days on the ISS, the actress and director, with cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy, landed back on Earth.

The mission was mostly a success, aside from a mishap days before undocking where thrusters continued to fire unexpectedly after a scheduled test of the MS-18 spacecraft on 15 October.

It resulted in a loss of altitude control for the ISS for around 30 minutes, until mission controllers were able to stabilise it, NASA said.

NASA said this mission will “mark the expansion of commercial space opportunities to include feature filmmaking” beyond its capabilities as of yet.

Southern Launch gained approval to build the first commercial rocket launch pad in Australia

Southern Launch, a South Australian space facility manufacturer, was the first company in the country to gain approval for a commercial rocket launch pad.

This will pave the way for Australia to gain a launch sovereign capability and enhance the burgeoning industry.

In June, the company bagged approval from the government to deliver the launch tests, using Taiwanese Innovative Space’s (TI-SPACE) Hapith I rocket from Whalers Way, on the tip of the Eyre Peninsula.

In September, the companies together launched the rocket three times, but each fell through, plagued by weather problems, system failures and a rocket fire.

While there are no new launch dates confirmed, CEO of Southern Launch Lloyd Damp told Space Connect he believes the site will match Cape Canaveral in Florida, delivering almost 40 launches a year.

Despite this, the company has faced numerous hurdles as locals and conservationists continue to fight for the shutdown of the launchpad due to its location, which is home to a number of rare bird species and is close to sea life.

However, Damp persisted Southern Launch continues to put the environment first, such as reintroducing species that were forced out from feral animals and cleaning rubbish.

Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin kicked off the billionaire space race

For decades, travelling to space was accessible only for astronauts who have trained and studied extensively, but this year marked the first phase of a commercial space industry.

Blue Origin’s founder Jeff Bezos announced in June he would be the first billionaire to fly to space in July, but a month later, Virgin Galactic’s Sir Richard Branson declared he would claim the title first.

This kicked off the widely known billionaire space race, and in the end, only nine days before Bezos, Branson pulled off Virgin's fourth spaceflight to space, but the first fully crewed one with him onboard.

Since then, Blue Origin has completed three commercial spaceflights reaching the Karman line – the widely recognised boundary of space – with some of the biggest space names in history onboard, including Star Trek’s William Shatner and Alan Shepard’s daughter, Laura Shepard Churchley.

Alan Shepard was the second human and first American in space and is the namesake of the Blue Origin New Shepard.

While many people across the world have touted the spaceflights as billionaire joyrides due to the high price tags, industry leaders have defended the missions as the gateway of the commercial space sector.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX, the other key player in the industry, launched four civilians into space, dubbed the Inspiration4 crew.

While Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic’s crew members reached the boundary of space and returned within 10 minutes, SpaceX’s civilians entered into orbit for three days.

The crew included billionaire Jared Isaacman; medical officer Hayley Arceneaux, a physician assistant at St Jude Children’s Research Hospital and cancer survivor; mission specialist, Air Force veteran and aerospace data engineer Chris Sembroski; and mission pilot, geoscientist Dr Sian Proctor.

The flight marked several firsts, including the first black female pilot onboard, the youngest American in space and the first person to fly to space with a prosthetic.

The aim of the mission was to raise US$200 million for St Jude Children’s Research Hospital – where Arceneaux survived cancer as a child – and to study the human body in space.

Isaacman donated the first US$100 million from his own pocket, and shortly after landing, Elon Musk – founder of SpaceX – tweeted: “Count me in for $50M.”

These two large sums were on top of the US$60.2 million raised from the mission – exceeding the goal by US$10 million, which is still underway.

Perseverance retrieves first, second and third sample from Mars

Just over a year after NASA’s Mars Perseverance Rover landed on the Red Planet, it retrieved its first viable rock sample, leading scientists to understand the Martian land more every day.

This marked a major achievement for the mission, as the rover attempted to drill a hole in August but did not successfully collect a rock. 

The rover’s mission is to seek for signs of ancient life and collect samples of rock and regolith to return to Earth on Mars.

The data transpired to NASA on 1 September, which showed that after the Perseverance cored the rock, it maneuvered it to be photographed by its Mastcam-Z instrument.

Perseverance collected the rock for the sample collection, attempting to catch a “briefcase-size rock belonging to the ridgeline”, which is over 900 metres long and contains boulders and outcrops.

Through its Sampling and Caching System, the rover uses a rotary-percussive drill and a hollow coring bit at the end of its two-metre-long robotic arm to extract samples of Martian rock.

Only days after, Perseverance collected another rock named “Rochette”, and then in November, the rover collected its third sample.

“It looks like our first rocks reveal a potentially habitable sustained environment,” said Ken Farley of Caltech, project scientist for the mission, after the first sample retrieval. “It’s a big deal that the water was there a long time.”

The American agency said each sample serves as part of a “larger chronological puzzle” for scientists to understand the timeline of the Martian land’s history.

Only weeks ago on 15 December, scientists said the rock – the Jezero Crater Perseverance has been travelling on since February is likely formed from red-hot magma, according to a press release.

The team were able to conclude the rocks in the crater have interacted with water in the past, which could be a signal of life.

Russia warned to leave the ISS and join China in lunar space station development

Russia in space has made headlines multiple times this year, but tensions with its participation on the ISS remain critical to its successful operations to this day.

In early June, the country’s space chief Dmitry Rogozin warned it would potentially withdraw from the orbiting laboratory if sanctions from the US were not lifted.

Over the past few years, the US has imposed sanctions on Russia for various reasons, including cyber attacks, election meddling and the annexation of the Ukraine Crimea in 2014. Russia has also declined to sign NASA's Artemis Accords governing international cooperation.

The latest sanctions in June disabled Russia from launching satellites or rockets into space and Rogozin said the space agency was unable to perform any of its missions because of these.

There are two sections of ISS, and one half of it is the Russia Orbital Segment. The ISS would potentially lose an instrumental part of the spacecraft if the country was to withdraw.

Russia said while its agreement with the international partners ends in 2024, it would consider withdrawing earlier due to the tensions.

However, on 15 December, Rogozin said the nation would honour its commitments and extend its participation beyond 2025, according to an interview published by Interfax, seen by Reuters.

Despite this, months earlier in June, Russia revealed a roadmap as it joined forces with China to build a research station on the moon, adding to the slew of tensions with the US, in competition of the Artemis mission.

The three-stage International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) would consist of a space station in lunar orbit and would be part of sending humans on the moon by 2036.

Russia’s tensions in space did not end there, as its agency launched an anti-satellite test on 15 November, creating over 1,500 pieces of dangerous debris.

While Russia said it posed no threat on astronauts or space activity, nations across the globe have condemned the act and have pushed for a more permanent space policy for the safety of daily operations.



Isabella Richards

Isabella Richards

Bella Richards is a journalist who has written for several local newspapers, her university newspaper and a tech magazine, and completed her Bachelor of Communications (Journalism) at the University of Technology Sydney in 2020. She joined Momentum Media in 2021, and has since written breaking news stories across Space Connect, Australian Aviation and World of Aviation.

You can email Bella on: [email protected]

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