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The dawn of a new age: how 2021 changed our relationship with Space

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By Jeremy Wilks
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The dawn of a new age: how 2021 changed our relationship with Space
Copyright  euronews

2021 was the year when space tourism really took off. Britain's Richard Branson was the first billionaire to briefly exit the atmosphere this year. Nine days later American Jeff Bezos flew 20 kilometres higher in his Blue Origin space capsule.

According to ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher, a new age of orbital joyrides for the rich and famous is upon us.

It is the start of a completely new era. I would expect in seven, eight years that there are more tourists flying to space than astronauts in the classical sense, and yes, this is the beginning of it.
Josef Aschbacher
Director General, ESA

While the amateurs had fun, the professionals worked another year on the ageing International Space Station. For six months, ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet conducted hundreds of experiments, and used his free time to engage with his huge fanbase on social media.

His German ESA counterpart Matthias Maurer faced a space debris scare after Russia fired a missile at one of its old satellites. Despite the risks, the dream of becoming a fully paid-up spacefarer continues to inspire - with ESA recording 22,000 applications for the six astronaut jobs they're offering.

"I'm very happy about this huge response because it shows that space is cool amongst young people and the dream is to become astronauts. And I think that's fantastic," says Aschbacher. 

Missions to Mars

The aim is that future astronaut will one day walk on Mars. This year, however, Earthlings concentrated on populating the red planet with rovers and satellites. Among them: the Emirates first interplanetary mission. Its Hope probe arrived to study the Martian atmosphere in February.

In the summer China claimed another space first. Its Zhurong rover got it perfectly right on its maiden attempt, landing on the Martian plane and acing its science goals.

NASA's Perseverance rover not only touched down safely, it also flew a tiny helicopter on Mars while searching for soil samples to one-day return to Earth.

Earth from Space

On the subject of Earth, 2021 was also a year when images from orbit changed the conversation about climate change. Thanks to space technology we have never been more aware of just how our planet's atmosphere and surface is changing as a result of mankind's activity.