(Editor’s note: With 2o21 drawing to a close, it’s time to look back on the innovations that the year brought us. Read about the great leaps forward in the transportation sector here, and the improvements in healthcare here!)
In 2017, NASA launched the Artemis Project designed to reinvigorate space exploration and development. Ever since, the advances made in this sector have been both tremendous and at an accelerated pace. The year 2021 was no exception, in this regard, and may perhaps be the most impressive to date. A variety of space innovations took place this year, including a few successful human launches into low-Earth orbit. These achievements in space highlight not only NASA’s commitment to success. With this in mind, the following provide an overview of the many achievements in space made this year.
- Billionaires Race Into Space
SpaceX made headlines when it successfully transported two crew members to the International Space Station in its Falcon 9 in 2020. In this regard, Elon Musk was among the first to demonstrate that private industry space innovations offered clear advantages. But in 2021, two other billionaires attracted the spotlight as they sent civilians into low-Earth orbit. Sir Richard Branson was the first, sending six passengers into space on July 12th on Virgin Galactic’s Unity22. (What’s next for the billionaire space race? Read this Bold story and find out!) Then, less than two weeks later, Jeff Bezos followed suit with similar achievements in space aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard. Of course, civilian travel into low-Earth orbit is far from being routine just yet. But this year, it became evident that these days are not far off into the future.
- The Human Landing System Moves Ahead
Also, this year, NASA decided to award its Human Landing System contract to Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The contract was worth $2.9 billion for developing space innovations that could provide routine lunar shittle service. Other bidders for the contract included Blue Origin and Dynetics, and neither were happy with NASA’s decision. In fact, both have filed inquiries into the bidding process with the General Accountability Office. Regardless, it is clear that NASA is serious about aggressively moving forward with this project. If all goes well, space travelers will reach lunar orbit aboard Lockheed Martin’s Orion. Then, SpaceX’s Starship will shuttle them back and forth to the moon from there. The timetable for these incredible achievements in space is set for 2024.
- Space Services, Assembly, and Manufacturing
One of NASA’s key targets for achievements in space involves on-site services, assembly, and manufacturing. By performing these tasks in space, it significantly reduces the amount of cargo that must be transported. Therefore, NASA has awarded several contracts to other businesses in the private sector for this purpose. For example, Elementum 3D is involved in developing space innovations related to 3D printing and additive manufacturing. Martian Sky Technologies is creating a process by which space debris can be removed from low-Earth orbit zines. And NASA awarded over 14 contracts to companies as part of its Commercial Lunar Payload Service program. This program is best described as Lunar-Travel-as-a-Service, as NASA only pays for the services it needs. This is the latest strategy NASA is employing to reduce government costs and shift burdens to private industry.
- Space Innovations in Propulsion and Energy Systems
Not only have space innovations occurred in direct services and manufacturing but also in various energy systems. In order for other achievements in space to become a reality, these systems will be essential. And like other materials, the production of propulsion devices in space offer advantages related to reduced cargo transport. Some companies are therefore developing methods by which Hall Effect thrusters can be created remotely in space. At the same time, other businesses are looking at developing different types of batteries for energy storage. Specifically, Talos Tech and the University of Delaware believe atmospheric carbon dioxide could serve as a battery reactant. Both of these areas took major steps this year in moving these concepts off the drawing board and toward reality.
- Achievements in Space Construction
Currently, the International Space Station continues to serve an important role in space expeditions and research. But its days are limited, and eventually, new facilities will be needed. This includes NASA’s long-term vision where structures will be created on the moon itself. Understanding this, space innovations will be required in the field of construction, and many advances are already being made. For example, Astrosport Space Technologies plans to create bricks in space made from lunar dust. In fact, construction of a lunar launch pad will presumably made from these types of bricks. Likewise, achievements in space robotics are also advancing as well, which will also be essential for remote construction. Companies like TRAC Lab and Astrobotic made significant progress this year in these areas. These types of space innovations will complement other services and production systems well.
- Space and Broadband Connectivity
Toward the end of this year, the current administration was successful in passing the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. Within this bill, roughly $65 billion have been allotted to the creation of broadband Internet access throughout the nation. While this does not directly reflect one of the key achievements in space, it nonetheless supports them. Specifically, SpaceX’s Starlink system could be among the Internet service providers that gain access to these funds. Elon Musk’s plan to create a network of low-Earth orbital satellites for global Internet access is quickly becoming a reality. In fact, the number of Starlink satellites placed exceeded 1,500 in number this year. Amazon similarly is attempting to create a similar system using its Kuiper satellites as is the United Kingdom. But thus far, Starlink is leading the way in these types of space innovations.
From Novelty to Routine
Without question, many achievements in space occurred in 2021 in a variety of areas. Despite limited Congressional funding, NASA is finding ways to aggressively move forward with a number of space innovations. Strategies that lean on private industry and lease services rather than own them reflect such strategies. And based on this year’s progress, this approach seems to be working. Many “first” are now occurring that have never been seen previously. But soon, repetition and familiarity will allow many services and activities to become increasingly routine. In this regard, the potential for the rate of space innovations to increase more rapidly is tremendous in future years. Yes, the year 2021 certainly saw its share of achievements in space. But these are likely just a preview for many more to come.