2021 in spaceflight
Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter
Zhurong rover and Tianwen-1 lander
Starship prototype SN20
Launch of the James Webb Space Telescope
Tianhe core module at ground test.jpg
Highlights from spaceflight in 2021[a]
Orbital launches
First8 January
Last30 December
Partial failures1
National firsts
Space traveller
Maiden flights
Crewed flights
Orbital travellers27
Suborbital travellers21
Total travellers48

This article documents notable spaceflight events during the year 2021. 2021 saw several spaceflight related records being set worldwide. This includes both the most orbital launch attempts and most successful orbital launches in a year. In addition, 2021 saw records set in the number of humans in orbit at one time and the most humans in space at one time.


Planetary science

Spacecraft from three Mars exploration programs from the United Arab Emirates, China, and the United States (Hope, Tianwen-1, and Mars 2020) arrived at Mars in February.

The Perseverance rover landed on 18 February. As part of the Mars 2020 mission, the Ingenuity solar-powered drone performed the first powered aircraft flight on another planet in human history. It has a communications link with the Perseverance rover and used autonomous control during its short scripted flights.

The Tianwen-1 lander and Zhurong rover landed on 14 May, after conducting a geological survey of the landing site from orbit. Zhurong was deployed on the Martian surface on 22 May, making China the second country in history to successfully deploy a rover on Mars. The rover then dropped a remotely controlled camera on the ground, which took a group photo of the lander and rover on 1 June.

Lucy, a NASA space probe, was launched on 16 October[2] and began a 12-year journey to seven different asteroids, visiting six Jupiter trojans, and one Main Belt asteroid.[3] Trojans are asteroids which share Jupiter's orbit around the Sun, orbiting either ahead of or behind the planet.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) was launched on 24 November. It is a space probe that will visit the double asteroid Didymos and demonstrate the kinetic effects of crashing an impactor spacecraft into an asteroid moon for planetary defense purposes. The mission is intended to test whether a spacecraft impact could successfully deflect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth.[4]

The Juno probe continues its exploration of Jupiter. Originally, its mission was intended to conclude on 31 July by burning up in Jupiter's atmosphere following its 35th perijove. However, on 8 January 2021, NASA announced that the probe was granted a second mission extension through September 2025, which could include future flybys of Europa and Io.[5][6]

Lastly the Tianwen-1 orbiter released another deployable camera in Mars orbit on 31 December 2021, to image itself and Northern Mars Ice Cap from Mars orbit.

Lunar exploration

China's Chang'e-4 lander and Yutu-2 rover reached 1000-days milestone on the far side of the Moon while still being operational.[7]

Human spaceflight

The first feature-length fiction film to be filmed in space by professional film-makers, the Russian film The Challenge was filmed onboard ISS in October 2021 by Russian director Klim Shipenko with actress Yulia Peresild starring.[note 1]

A new record was set for the largest number of humans in orbit (14) on 16 September 2021,[8] and a new record for the largest number of humans in space (19) at one time (10 in the ISS, 3 on board the Tiangong Space Station, 6 on board New Shepard-19) was set on 11 December 2021.[9]

Space Stations

China began construction of the Tiangong space station (phase 3 of the Tiangong program) with the launch of the Tianhe core module on 29 April 2021. A Tianzhou cargo delivery mission was launched on 29 May 2021, and the Shenzhou 12 crewed mission on 17 June 2021.[10] Shenzhou 13 has launched a second crew on 15 October and conducted their first EVA on 7 November, making Wang Yaping the first Chinese female astronaut to perform a spacewalk.[11]

The ISS saw one module being permanently removed from the orbiting complex and two new modules being added. Pirs became the first habitable element of the station to be decommissioned, undocked, and deorbited on 26 July 2021[12] to make room for Nauka, the first new module in the Russian Orbital Segment of ISS (indeed, first new module for the whole of ISS) in years. The Russian made Nauka module was launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome on 21 July 2021. Nauka carried the European Robotic Arm (ERA) along with it to the station. The ISS was also joined by a new Russian node module Prichal, launched 24 November 2021.

Space tourism

In the United States, Virgin Galactic conducted the first suborbital human spaceflight from New Mexico on 22 May 2021 with SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity.[13] Two astronauts were on board, Frederick Sturckow and David Mackay. The flight was also the first suborbital human spaceflight from Spaceport America. A second flight, carrying company founder Richard Branson and three other passengers, was conducted on 11 July 2021.[14]

The first crewed flight of Blue Origin's New Shepard suborbital spacecraft successfully sent four civilians, including company founder Jeff Bezos, into space just above the Kármán line on 20 July 2021.[15] Blue Origin's second crewed suborbital flight of New Shepard occurred 13 October 2021, this time not including Bezos but the actor William Shatner and 3 others. The third flight of Blue Origin's New Shepard, again a suborbital flight, took place 11 December 2021. This was the first flight with six passengers on board, the full number of passengers the New Shepard is designed for.

On 16 September 2021 SpaceX launched the Inspiration4 mission. The mission successfully completed the first orbital spaceflight with only private citizens aboard. The mission was privately financed by Jared Isaacman who participated in the flight with 3 other passengers (the others did not pay for their flight). The mission orbited the Earth at high orbit (higher than ISS) and splashed down in the Atlantic, lasting almost three days.

On 8 December 2021 the Russian Soyuz MS-20 spacecraft began a 12-day space tourism mission to ISS, resuming space tourism activity in the ISS after over a decade; the previous space tourist to visit the station was the Canadian Guy Laliberté in 2009. The 2021 space tourist mission took two tourists, the Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and his assistant Yozo Hirano, to the station.

Space telescopes

The IXPE telescope was launched on a Falcon 9 on 9 December 2021. The long-delayed James Webb Space Telescope, the largest optical space telescope ever built, was launched to the Sun–Earth L2 point by a European Ariane 5 rocket on 25 December 2021.[16]

Rocket innovation

The trend towards cost reduction in access to orbit continued with the continued development of smaller rockets by multiple commercial launch providers and larger next-generation vehicles by more established players.

While multiple high-profile next-generation rockets were originally planned to make their maiden orbital flights in 2021, all were ultimately shifted to 2022 due to development delays. These included the maiden flight of Vulcan Centaur, designed to gradually replace Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy at lower costs, which was postponed in June 2021;[17] the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries's H3 launch vehicle, planned to cost less than half that of its predecessor H-IIA;[18] the maiden launch of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) super heavy-lift rocket on the Artemis 1, which was postponed mid-year to early 2022; and the first orbital test flight of a prototype of the SpaceX Starship.[19]

The latter rocket's development continued through 2021 at SpaceX's facility in Boca Chica, Texas, with a suborbital testing campaign continuing from the previous year. Starship prototype SN15 was the first testbed of the future rocket family to survive a launch and soft touchdown on 5 May 2021. The first-ever full-stack fit check of Starship prototype SN20 with the booster stage followed in August.

Orbital and suborbital launches

Main articles: List of spaceflight launches in January–June 2021 and List of spaceflight launches in July–December 2021

List of orbital launches
Month Num. of successes Num. of failures
January 7 0
February 9 1
March 10 0
April 11 0
May 9 1
June 13 1
July 11 0
August 9 3
September 10 1
October 10 1
November 16 0
December 20 3
Total 135 11

Deep-space rendezvous

Date (UTC) Spacecraft Event Remarks
17 January Parker Solar Probe 7th perihelion
9 February Emirates Mars Mission Mars orbit insertion Probe achieved an initial orbit around Mars of 1,000 x 49,380 km. It will spend several months modifying its orbit to 20,000 x 43,000 km.[20]
10 February Tianwen-1 Mars orbit insertion Probe achieved an initial orbit around Mars of 400 x 180,000 km. Its initial reconnaissance orbit will be 265 x 60,000 km. In the reconnaissance orbit it released a deployable camera on 31 December 2021.
18 February Perseverance Mars landing Rover successfully landed at target destination, with confirmation on Earth at 20:55 UTC. Landing was at Jezero crater, coordinates 18°26′41″N 77°27′03″E / 18.4447°N 77.4508°E / 18.4447; 77.4508.
20 February Parker Solar Probe Fourth gravity assist at Venus
21 February Juno 32nd perijove of Jupiter
7 April OSIRIS-REx Begin flyby of Bennu[21]
15 April Juno 33rd perijove
29 April Parker Solar Probe 8th perihelion
10 May OSIRIS-REx Completes Bennu flyby and begins journey back to Earth[21]
14 May Zhurong Mars landing Rover successfully landed at Utopia Planitia, coordinates 25°06′N 109°54′E / 25.1°N 109.9°E / 25.1; 109.9.
8 June Juno 34th perijove On the day of perijove, Juno flew by Ganymede, reducing its orbital period around Jupiter to 43 days.[5][6]
21 July Juno 35th perijove Beginning of Juno's second mission extension.[5][6]
8 August Solar Orbiter Second gravity assist at Venus[22]
9 August Parker Solar Probe 9th perihelion
11 August BepiColombo Second gravity assist at Venus
2 September Juno 36th perijove
2 October BepiColombo First gravity assist at Mercury
16 October Juno 37th perijove
16 October Parker Solar Probe Fifth gravity assist at Venus
21 November Parker Solar Probe 10th perihelion
26 November Solar Orbiter Gravity assist at Earth[22] Gravity assist will set up future fly-bys of Venus that will increase its inclination relative to the Sun.

Extravehicular activities (EVAs)

See also: List of spacewalks since 2015

Start Date/Time Duration End Time Spacecraft Crew Remarks
27 January 11:28 6 hours 56 minutes 18:24 SpaceX Crew 1

ISS Quest

United States Michael S. Hopkins

United States Victor J. Glover

Installation of the exposed platform Airbus Bartolomeo

1 February 12:57 5 hours 20 minutes 18:17 SpaceX Crew 1

ISS Quest

United States Michael S. Hopkins

United States Victor J. Glover

Install a new lithium-ion battery on the P-4 truss, where an earlier lithium replacement blew a fuse in April 2019. Upgrade high definition video and camera gear on ISS exterior.

28 February 11:12 7 hours 04 minutes 18:16 SpaceX Crew 1 Expedition 64

ISS Quest

United States Kathleen Rubins

United States Victor J. Glover

Install modification kit to prepare Station for new solar array installation.

5 March 11:37 6 hours 56 minutes 18:33 SpaceX Crew 1 Expedition 64

ISS Quest

United States Kathleen Rubins

Japan Soichi Noguchi

Additional upgrades and Kibo module platform work

13 March 13:14 6 hours 47 minutes 20:01 SpaceX Crew 1

ISS Quest

United States Michael Hopkins

United States Victor Glover

P6 fixes and installations

2 June 05:53 7 hours 19 minutes 13:12 Expedition 65

Poisk Airlock

Russia Oleg Novitsky

Russia Pyotr Dubrov

Second in a series of spacewalks to decommission the Pirs Airlock which is scheduled to be replaced by Nauka in the summer of 2021. Task involve installing a flow control valve on Zarya, removing docking antennas and their cables on Pirs, removing EVA gap spanners from Pirs, transferring experiments over to Poisk, installing Test containers on the hatches, and relocating a Strela crane over to Poisk. Getahead task involve cleaning the windows on the Russian segment, and doing an inspection of Zvezda and plugging any leaks they find.[23][24]

16 June 12:11 7 hours 15 minutes 19:26 SpaceX Crew-2

ISS Quest

United States Shane Kimbrough

France Thomas Pesquet

First in a series of spacewalks to install the iROSA solar arrays on the P6 Truss. While working on releasing the arrays from their launch carrier, Kimbrough's spacesuit experienced issues with its Display and Control Module (DCM), so he was sent back to the airlock to connect to station umbilicals to restart it. The restart was successful, although it delayed the EVA. Additionally, an issue was discovered with his suit's sublimator, which threatened to end the EVA prematurely; this was determined to be a false reading, allowing work to resume. Following this, the astronauts successfully released the solar arrays and installed them on the P6 mounting bracket. A subsequent attempt to unfold the two rolled arrays, which were folded side by side during launch, failed due to interference (blockage) from a structure near the mounting area. As the EVA was then past the six-hour mark, ground controllers instructed the astronauts to finish securing the array structure to the station, photograph the work site, and return to the airlock. The next steps of unfolding the array pair, making electrical connections, and unfurling the rolled arrays were postponed to a future EVA pending ground analysis of the interference issue

20 June 11:42 6 hours 28 minutes 18:10 SpaceX Crew-2

ISS Quest

United States Shane Kimbrough

France Thomas Pesquet

Second in a series of spacewalks that will install the iROSA solar arrays on the P6 Truss. The spacewalkers managed to connect iROSA with a little elbow grease and at 16:40 hours deployed it and it is receiving power.

25 June 11:52 6 hours 45 minutes 18:37 SpaceX Crew-2

ISS Quest

United States Shane Kimbrough

France Thomas Pesquet

Third in a series of spacewalks that will install the ROSA solar arrays on the P6 Truss. If time allows the astronauts will also route cables to the Russian segment and install a WiFi router on the truss.

4 July 00:11 6 hours 46 minutes 06:57 Shenzhou 12

TSS Tianhe

China Liu Boming

China Tang Hongbo

First Chinese spacewalk since Shenzhou 7 in 2008. Installation work was done on the exterior of the Tiangong space station.[25]

20 August 00:38 5 hours 55 minutes 06:33 Shenzhou 12

TSS Tianhe

China Nie Haisheng

China Liu Boming

Second EVA of Shenzhou 12 crew to install foot stops and a workbench on the station's large robotic arm, a pump set for its thermal control system, and additional work on the panoramic camera.[26]

3 September 14:35 7 hours 54 minutes 22:35 Expedition 65

Poisk Airlock

Russia Oleg Novitsky

Russia Pyotr Dubrov

First in a series of spacewalks to outfit Nauka. The cosmonauts will route cables which were recently temp stowed on PMA 1 along Zarya to the Zvezda transfer compartment where they will be mated to Nauka. The spacewalk will conclude with the installation of handrails and the first experiments on the new module. If time allows the cosmonauts will change Biorisk containers and will retrieve and replace two exposure experiments from Poisk and bring them inside.

9 September 15:00 7 hours 25 minutes 22:16 Expedition 65

Poisk Airlock

Russia Oleg Novitsky

Russia Pyotr Dubrov

Second in a series of spacewalks to outfit Nauka.[27][28] The cosmonauts continued where they left off from EVA 5, finishing Ethernet cable connections and installing four EVA handrails on Nauka (including the troublesome one left incomplete from EVA 5). They subsequently connected cable bundles between Nauka and Zvezda, providing Ethernet links between those modules as well as links for Nauka's TV cameras and docking navigation antennas (Kurs and TORU). They then mounted three Biorisk microorganism exposure experiment modules on the exterior of the Poisk airlock module. Additionally, the cosmonauts took survey photos of the exterior of the Russian segment of the station, including the Kurs docking antennas of the Progress MS-17 cargo vehicle (confirming that they were undamaged[29][30]) and external sensors on Nauka;[31] they also realigned a thruster plume measurement unit on Poisk. Finally, the cosmonauts tied together and jettisoned a junk cable reel cover along with some leftover insulation from the Biorisk experiments.[32]

12 September 12:30 6 hours 54 minutes 19:09 SpaceX Crew-2

ISS Quest

Japan Akihiko Hoshide

France Thomas Pesquet

Install the 3B modification kit on the P4 Truss for the arrival of SpaceX CRS-24 with the final portside IROSA solar arrays. Install a wifi router on the truss, and route and mate cables on the US side of PMA 1 to power up the Nauka module. Replace a Floating Point Measuring Unit and a Static Charge Micrometer external component on the S1 Truss to prepare the port side for it long term configuration.

7 November 10:51 6 hours 25 minutes 17:16 Shenzhou 13

TSS Tianhe

China Zhai Zhigang

China Wang Yaping

They first installed foot stoppers and a working platform to the robotic arm before they set to work together to install a suspension device and transfer connectors to the robotic arm. Wang now becomes the first female Chinese astronaut to conduct extravehicular activities (EVA).
2 December


6 hours 32 minutes 17:45 SpaceX Crew-3

ISS Quest

United States Tom Marshburn

United States Kayla Barron

Tom Marshburn and Kayla Barron conducted an EVA mainly to replace the Port 1 Truss S-Band Communications Antenna

26 December 10:44 6 hours 11 minutes 16:55 Shenzhou 13

TSS Tianhe

China Zhai Zhigang

China Ye Guangfu

The astronauts were to deploy an external camera known as "panoramic camera C," install a foot restraint platform, and test various methods of translation (movement) of objects outside the station.

Space debris events

See also: List of space debris producing events

Date/Time (UTC) Source object Event type Pieces tracked Remarks
18 March China Yunhai-1 02 collision with a space junk 37 Accidental collision with a fragment from the Zenit-2 rocket body that launched Tselina-2 in 1996.[33]
15 November Russia Kosmos 1408 ASAT (Anti-Satellite) weapon system test ~1500 On 15 November 2021, at around 02:50 UTC,[34] the satellite was destroyed as part of an anti-satellite weapons test by Russia, generating a space debris cloud that threatened the International Space Station.[35][36] The seven crew members aboard the ISS (four American, two Russian, one German)[35] were told to put on their spacesuits[37] and take shelter in the crew capsules[38] so they could quickly return to Earth if debris struck the station.[39] The satellite had been in orbit at an altitude ~50 kilometers (~30 miles) above the ISS orbital altitude,[40] with the debris intersecting the orbit of the ISS every 93 minutes.[41]

Orbital launch statistics

By country

For the purposes of this section, the yearly tally of orbital launches by country assigns each flight to the country of origin of the rocket, not to the launch services provider or the spaceport. For example, Soyuz launches by Arianespace in Kourou are counted under Russia because Soyuz-2 is a Russian rocket.

China: 56Europe: 6India: 2Iran: 2Israel: 0Japan: 3North Korea: 0Russia: 25South Korea: 1USA: 51Circle frame.svg
Country Launches Successes Failures Partial
 China 56 53 3 0 Includes one unannounced orbital test flight
 Europe 6 6 0 0
 India 2 1 1 0
 Iran 2 0 2 0
 Japan 3 3 0 0
 Russia 25 24 0 1 Includes European Soyuz launches from Kourou, French Guiana by Arianespace
 South Korea 1 0 1 0 [42]
 United States 51 48 3 0 Includes Electron launches from Mahia
World 146 135 10 1

By rocket

Long March

By family

By type

By configuration

By spaceport

New Zealand
South Korea
United States
Site Country Launches Successes Failures Partial failures Remarks
Baikonur  Kazakhstan 14 14 0 0
Cape Canaveral  United States 19 19 0 0
Jiuquan  China 22 19 3 0
Kennedy  United States 12 12 0 0
Kourou  France 7 7 0 0
Mahia  New Zealand 6 5 1 0
MARS  United States 3 3 0 0
Mojave  United States 2 2 0 0
Naro  South Korea 1 0 1 0
PSCA  United States 2 1 1 0
Plesetsk  Russia 5 4 0 1
Satish Dhawan  India 2 1 1 0
Semnan  Iran 2 0 2 0
Taiyuan  China 12 12 0 0
Tanegashima  Japan 2 2 0 0
Uchinoura  Japan 1 1 0 0
Vandenberg  United States 7 6 1 0
Vostochny  Russia 5 5 0 0
Wenchang  China 5 5 0 0
Xichang  China 16 16 0 0
Total 146 135 10 1

By orbit

Low Earth
Medium Earth / Molniya
Geosynchronous / transfer
High Earth / Lunar transfer
  •   Transatmospheric
  •   Low Earth
  •   Low Earth (ISS)
  •   Low Earth (CSS)
  •   Low Earth (SSO)
  •   Low Earth (polar)
  •   Medium Earth
  •   Molniya
  •   Geosynchronous
  •   Inclined GSO
  •   High Earth
  •   Heliocentric
Orbital regime Launches Achieved Not achieved Accidentally
Transatmospheric 1 1 0 0
Low Earth / Sun-synchronous 112 103 9 0 Including flights to ISS and Tiangong
Geosynchronous / GTO 26 25 0 1
Medium Earth / Molniya 3 3 0 0
High Earth / Lunar transfer 1 0 0 1
Heliocentric orbit / Planetary transfer 3 3 0 0
Total 146 135 9 2

Suborbital launch statistics

By country

For the purposes of this section, the yearly tally of suborbital launches by country assigns each flight to the country of origin of the rocket, not to the launch services provider or the spaceport. Flights intended to fly below 80 km (50 mi) are omitted.

Brazil: 2Canada: 9China: 15France: 1India: 6Iran: 36Israel: 0Japan: 4The Netherlands: 1Pakistan: 5Russia: 6South Korea: 3Taiwan: 2Turkey: 1USA: 49Ukraine: 2Yemen: 5Circle frame.svg
Country Launches Successes Failures Partial
 Brazil 2 2 0 0
 Canada 9 9 0 0
 China 15 15 0 0
 France 1 1 0 0
 India 6 6 0 0
 Iran 36 36 0 0
 Japan 4 4 0 0
 Netherlands 1 0 1 0
 Pakistan 5 5 0 0
 Russia 6 6 0 0
 South Korea 3 1 1 1 Unknown outcome of the first Blue Whale 0.1 launch.
 Taiwan 2 1 0 1 Includes Hapith I VS01 which was precluded prior to launch.
 Turkey 1 1 0 0
 United States 49 47 2 0
 Ukraine 2 2 0 0
 Yemen 5 5 0 0
World 147 141 4 2

See also


  1. ^ Claims about "first film in space" are dubius as other films have been filmed in space previously, like the feature-length narrative fiction film Return from Orbit (1984; some scenes filmed in space) and the narrative fiction short film Apogee of Fear (2012; completely filmed in space). In the film Return from Orbit the scenes filmed in space included important characters (not just "background"); the characters were portrayed by cosmonauts, not the "usual" professional actors portraying those characters, in the scenes that were filmed in actual space. As Return from Orbit was also filmed by movie professionals (except those scenes filmed in space, which were filmed by cosmonauts) and released into cinemas for wide audience, it has a good claim to the title "first movie in space"; the only relevant difference with The Challenge (2022) is that in the case of Return from Orbit, all professional film-makers stayed on the ground, whereas in the case of The Challenge, some professional film-makers flew to ISS to film some scenes for the movie. Also full feature length documentary films that have been released to movie theaters, like For All Mankind (1989) or A Beautiful Planet (2016; a film long enough to be a feature film according to many but not all definitions of feature film) have been filmed in space. The Challenge is however the first time a professional actor/ess has been filmed in space by a professional director, as other films before were filmed and acted in by astronauts/cosmonauts/space tourists (space tourists that were amateur both in film-making and as astronauts) or used footage from automated equipment. Apogee of Fear was written by a professional scriptwriter, and with some graphics assets done by a professional, but had no other filming professionals involved.
  1. ^ Clockwise from top-left:


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Generic references:
 Spaceflight portal