Year End

Look: 10 of the most explosive space launches of 2021

Space travel — and tourism — soared to new heights this year.

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2021 was massive for space travel, and not just for the purposes of exploration.

NASA launched plenty of research missions, but we also saw a boom in commercial spaceflight.

SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic took to the skies for some historic first flights, offering a glimpse at the future of space tourism.

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Blue Origin via YouTube

In 2022, there are big plans for more commercial travel to space.

But before we get there, here’s a look back at the 10 most-dramatic launches of 2021:

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10. Turksat-5A

To kick off the year, SpaceX launched its first 2021 mission using a Falcon 9 rocket on January 7.

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The mission sent up a satellite to bring TV to Turkey and surrounding areas.

9. Crew-2

SpaceX sent its Crew Dragon capsule to the International Space Station for the second time in April.

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SpaceX

Four astronauts were on board — two from NASA, one from the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, and one from the European Space Agency.

8. Shenzhou-12

In June, China launched its first crewed mission to its new space station, Tiangong.

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It was a historic mission: Three astronauts set a country-wide record of spending 92 days in space — the longest for any Chinese nationals.

7. VSS Unity

Billionaire and Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson blasted off in July on a 14-minute joyride — the company’s first crewed flight — just above the boundary of space.

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This launch was the first to demonstrate that a new era of spaceflight is dawning: One in which the world’s wealthiest and well-connected get the chance to see space as tourists.

6. New Shephard

Following suit, billionaire and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos also embarked on a brief visit to space in July during the company’s first crewed flight.

Blue Origin via YouTube

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Onboard were three other passengers: Bezos’ brother, Mark, aviator Wally Funk, and student Oliver Daeman.

Funk and Daeman were the oldest and youngest passengers ever to visit space, respectively.

5. Inspiration 4

The first-ever, all-civilian space crew launched inside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Resilience in September.

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They orbited Earth for almost three days before splashing down safely in the Atlantic Ocean.

SpaceX via YouTube

4. Lucy

NASA’s first mission to the Trojan asteroids — a body of ancient rocks in Jupiter’s orbit — launched in October atop an Atlas V rocket.

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Jonathan North via NASA Conceptual Image Lab

Lucy will study eight predetermined landmarks to help astronomers unlock secrets of the Solar System’s origins.

3. Crew-3

After weeks of delays, SpaceX launched a third crew of four astronauts to the ISS in November.

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This crew will staff the ISS until May 2022. Crew-4 is expected to launch in April, so they will overlap for a short time.

2. LV0007

An up-and-coming California spaceflight company, Astra, launched its first payload for the U.S. Space Force in November.

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1. DART

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test, which could potentially help us defend Earth from an incoming asteroid one day, reached space in November.

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In late 2022, it will target the asteroid Dimorphos to see if it can successfully redirect flying space rocks with man-made spacecraft.