Quirks and Quarks·Analysis

Looking back at a booming year in space

Bob McDonald's blog: From low-Earth orbit to the far reaches of the universe, 2021 was a big year for space

Bob McDonald's blog: From low-Earth orbit to the far reaches of the universe, 2021 was a big year for space

Blue Origin has leased Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida since 2015. (Blue Origin)

Space tourism took off in a big way this year: Two rovers and a helicopter explored Mars, while China advanced its space program with samples returned from the moon and the launch of the first module for their space station. 

A record number of tourists blasted into space this year (I count 25) setting the private space program well on its way.

Richard Branson flew on his Virgin Galactic rocket plane while Jeff Bezos took off in his New Shepard capsule atop a Blue Origin rocket. Two more flights carried, among others, William Shatner of Star Trek fame, a host from Good Morning America and the daughter of Alan Shepard, the first American in space, after whom the capsule is named.

Good Morning America co-anchor and former NFL star Michael Strahan laughs with Laura Shepard Churchley, daughter of astronaut Alan Shepard, on the landing pad after they flew into space aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard on December 11, 2021. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

SpaceX made history by sending the first all-civilian crew into orbit for three days aboard a Dragon capsule. The biggest issue they had to deal with was a leaky toilet, but they showed that you don't have to train for years to fly in orbit.

The Inspiration 4 civilian crew aboard a Crew Dragon capsule and SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, as seen from near Vero Beach, Florida, U.S. September 15, 2021. (Sam Wolf/Reuters)

A Russian actress and filmmaker shot part of a movie on the International Space Station and a Japanese tourist and his production assistant who documented the experience used the company Space Adventures to fly on a Russian Soyuz rocket and spend 12 days on the space station with future plans to eventually make a trip around the moon.   

The era of private space tourism is well on its way, and like the fledgling airline industry of the 1940s where only the rich could fly, if enough people get in on the space tourism game, the cost could come down to the point where more people can get the high perspective on our planet.

This was also a big year for robots, as NASA's Perseverance Rover provided spectacular videos of its landing on Mars showing the parachute opening, then after touchdown, the flight of the first helicopter on another planet. This opens a whole new possibility of exploring more rugged terrain on Mars by air where it would be too dangerous for wheeled rovers to drive.

This image was captured by NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter during its 13th flight at Mars on Sept. 4, 2021. At the time the image was taken, Ingenuity was at an altitude of 26 feet (8 metres). (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

We don't hear a lot about the Chinese space program largely for political reasons, as they are not part of the International Space Station. But they have been steadily progressing on their own with their first rover on Mars and a moon lander that returned samples to Earth, something that hasn't happened since 1976 when a Soviet probe landed and collected samples, only four years after the last Apollo astronauts walked and collected samples there.

China also has its own space station in orbit where its second crew of three taikonauts are now conducting science experiments and providing lessons for students on the ground.

Students watch a live image of a lesson by Chinese astronauts from China's Tiangong space station, at a school in Yantai in China's eastern Shandong province on December 9, 2021. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Finally, NASA's Parker Solar Probe made the first flight through the sun's corona, or upper atmosphere, providing new insights into why that part of the sun is so much hotter than the surface.

As Parker Solar Probe passed through the corona on encounter nine, the spacecraft flew by structures called coronal streamers. These structures are the bright features moving upward in the upper images and angled downward in the lower row. (NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Laboratory)

And next year, the real nail-biter will be the unfurling and first images from the new James Webb Space Telescope, a larger successor to the famous Hubble Space Telescope. Stationed more than a million kilometres beyond the moon, it will peer farther into space and back in time than we've ever seen before.

The huge $10-billion instrument must complete a complicated sequence of events to unfold itself and function perfectly on its own with no ability to be repaired by astronauts if something goes wrong.

As you will hear on our upcoming Quirks & Quarks Question Show, there are concerns about the environmental impact on the upper atmosphere of future tourist rocket launches along with the increasing problem of space junk, which need to be addressed now before space becomes too cluttered. 

William Shatner looks out of the New Shepard windows on October 13, 2021. (Blue Origin)

There is often criticism of the cost of space flight and how those resources could be better spent taking care of planet Earth. The folly of billionaires and their toys is one issue, but to put things in perspective, we wouldn't know about many environmental issues it if wasn't for satellites that monitor the ozone hole, the spread of carbon dioxide around the planet, shifting ocean currents, loss of ice in the Arctic and many other changes that are best observed from the high perspective of space.

Typhoon Rai crossed the southern and central Philippines on December 16, 2021. This natural-colour image above was acquired in the early afternoon by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi-NPP satellite. (NASA)

We go to other planets because they are just that, planets like the Earth, but very different. The robots on Mars have told us that the red planet used to be blue, with lakes, rivers and a warmer, wetter climate billions of years ago. Then it became the cold dry desert we see today. Talk about climate change. 

Exploring the solar system is seeing the Earth in its full environmental context, as one of a family of worlds, orbiting an average star in a one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in an unimaginably huge universe. 

Yes, it was a remarkable year in space, and we are still just beginning to explore it. 


  • A previous version of this article identified Laura Shepard Churchley as the granddaughter of Alan Shepard. In fact, she is his eldest daughter.
    Jan 12, 2022 11:50 AM ET


Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.