Year in Space 2021: Commercial spaceflight era dawns

For 25 years, I’ve been recapping the top stories about space and looking forward to next year’s trends on the final frontier — and for most of that time, the dawn of the era of commercial spaceflight has been one of the things I’ve been looking forward to the most.

2021 was the year when that era truly dawned.

Sure, you could make a case for seeing the dawn in 2000, when a company called MirCorp basically leased Russia’s Mir space station for a commercial venture that fizzled out. Or in 2001, when customers began buying seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft heading to the International Space Station. You could also point to SpaceShipOne’s rocket trips in 2004, which won a $10 million prize for a team backed by Seattle billionaire Paul Allen.

But it wasn’t until this July that the first paying customer took a suborbital ride to space on a privately owned spaceship. That was Dutch teenager Oliver Daemen, who flew in Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule alongside the company’s billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark and aviation pioneer Wally Funk.


The year in aerospace: Comebacks in the skies above

Boeing’s rebuilding year drew to a close today with a milestone capping a momentous year in aerospace: the first U.S. passenger flight for a 737 MAX jet since the worldwide fleet was grounded.

American Airlines Flight 718 carried 87 passengers from Miami to New York’s LaGuardia Airport, more than 21 months after two catastrophic crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia brought a halt to 737 MAX flights.

The incidents led to months of investigation, focusing on an automated flight control system that was found to be vulnerable to software glitches. Boeing had to revamp the system and rework pilot training routines in cooperation with airlines. The Federal Aviation Administration gave the go-ahead for the return to commercial operations just last month.

Brazil’s Gol Airlines and Aeromexico resumed flying 737 MAX jets earlier this month, but Flight 718 was the first time since the grounding that a MAX carried paying passengers on a regularly scheduled U.S. flight.


Year in Aerospace: Past troubles, future triumphs

737 MAX assembly
The first 737 MAX 8 plane undergoes final assembly at Boeing’s Renton plant in 2015. (Boeing Photo)

2019 was a tough year for the aerospace industry — a year when a control system flaw caused the second catastrophic crash of a 737 MAX jet and sparked a worldwide grounding of Boeing’s fastest-selling plane.

Nine months after the Ethiopian Airlines crash, which killed 157 people, the 737 MAX is still grounded. Boeing’s CEO and the head of its commercial airplanes unit have been replaced, and the prospects for the MAX’s return to flight are uncertain.

It’s not a good-news story. But it’s the biggest aerospace story of 2019 — especially for the Puget Sound region, where the 737 MAX and most of Boeing’s bigger airplanes are made.

I’ve been highlighting the top stories on the aerospace beat in year-end roundups for 22 years, and it’s hard to think of a bigger transitional time than 2019-2020 (though 2011-2012, marking the end of the space shuttle era, comes close).

Get the full story on GeekWire.


Year in Science: Sights never seen before 2019

Black hole
This image from the Event Horizon Telescope shows the supermassive black hole in the elliptical galaxy M87, surrounded by superheated material. (EHT Collaboration)

What will people remember about the year 2019 in the year 3019? Just as they’re likely to recall 1969 as the year humans first walked on the moon, they might well hold up the first portrait of a black hole as this year’s most memorable achievement.

By that measure, there’s little question that the Event Horizon Telescope’s radio view of M87’s supermassive black hole, 55 million light-years from Earth, ranks as the year’s top science story. “These are just singular moments in history,” White House science adviser Kelvin Droegemeier told me in April when the image was unveiled in Washington, D.C. “We as humans need this.”

The best part is that the story isn’t over.

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Year in Science: Genetic hopes and fears come true

He Xiankui
Chinese researcher He Jiankui discusses his lab’s effort to produce babies whose genes have been altered to protect them from future HIV infection. (The He Lab via YouTube)

In science, it was the best of times, and the worst of times.

2018 was a year when researchers focused in on ways to head off disease by reprogramming a patient’s own cells, but also crossed what many thought were ethical red lines in genetic experimentation. It was the first year in which women won a share of the Nobel Prize for physics as well as for chemistry, but also a year when the #MeToo issue came to the fore in the science community.

And it was the year that marked the passing of British physicist Stephen Hawking, who was arguably the world’s best-known living scientist.

As I look back at 2018, I’m seeing some stories that I missed but ended up featuring prominently in other folks’ year-end recaps. So, to even things out, my top-ten list focuses on five developments that we featured in the course of the last 12 months, and five more that didn’t get much play at the time.

Feel free to use the comment section to cast write-in ballots for the year’s science highlights and low lights. (For example, the sad tale of Tahlequah and the Southern Resident orca population tops The Seattle Times’ year-end list).

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Year in Space: From launch pad to beyond Pluto

Falcon Heavy launch
SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket clears the tower in February 2018. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Launches, launches, launches! 2018 was a big year for liftoffs, particularly for SpaceX and its billionaire CEO, Elon Musk. The past year also saw a number of notable trips to interplanetary destinations, including the Martian surface and two asteroids. What’s up for next year? More of the same, only way different.

For more than two decades, I’ve been writing year-end roundups of the top stories in space science and exploration, with a look-ahead to cosmic coming attractions. 2019 could well bring about developments I’ve been predicting on an annual basis going as far back as a decade, such as the rise of commercial human spaceflight.

Other trends are easier to predict, because they’re based on the cold, hard facts of celestial mechanics. Check out these tales from 2018, expected trends for 2019 and my year-end space roundups going back to 2001 (with lots of failed predictions). Then feel free to weigh in with your comments to tell me what I missed.

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Year in Space: From a black sun to a brighter moon

Eclipse watchers
Eclipse watchers turned Aug. 21’s event into a party at Kerry Park in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

The first total solar eclipse to go across America from coast to coast in 99 years has to rank as the top space story of 2017. But where do you go from there?

Would you believe the moon?

The moon was a supporting player in this year’s brush with totality. After all, you can’t have a solar eclipse unless the new moon gets in the way. And it certainly held center stage for a phenomenon witnessed by an estimated 215 million. That’s abigger audience than the Super Bowl gets on TV.

But in 2018, the moon really gets its day in the sun, figuratively speaking. It starts next month with a New Year’s Day supermoon, followed by a total lunar eclipse on Jan. 31.

We lay out other reasons to moon over the moon in our annual roundup of the five top space stories from the year that’s ending, plus five trends to watch in the year ahead.

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Year in Science: Neutron star smashup leads the list

Neutron star merger
An artist’s conception shows the “cocoon” that is thought to have formed around the smashup of two neutron stars. (NRAO / AUI / NSF Image / D. Berry)

For the second year in a row, the journal Science is hailing a discovery sparked by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory as the Breakthrough of the Year.

Last year, the breakthrough was LIGO’s first-ever detection of a gravitational-wave burst thrown off by the merger of two black holes. This time, the prize goes to the studies spawned by the first observed collision of two neutron stars.

More than 70 observatories analyzed the data from the Aug. 17 event, which came in the form of gravitational waves as well as electromagnetic emissions going all the way from radio waves to gamma rays.

“The amount of information we have been able to extract with one event blows my mind,” Georgia Tech physicist Laura Cadonati, deputy spokesperson for the LIGO team, told Science.

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AI platform picks Putin as Person of the Year

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin on Time’s cover? It could happen, based on the prediction from Unanimous AI. (Kremlin / MagazineYourself Photoillustration)

The guessing game has already begun for Time’s Person of the Year pick, and according to a Silicon Valley company called Unanimous AI, Russian President Vladimir Putin is favored to follow in the footsteps of President Donald Trump.

To reach that conclusion, Unanimous uses a hybrid of crowdsourcing and artificial intelligence that it calls “Swarm AI.” The company assembles a group of about 40 folks who are familiar with the topic at hand, and then uses software to guide them through an iterative process of ranking and eliminating prospects.

The computer-aided tug of opinions eventually focuses the swarm on a single choice. The process has been known to outperform movie critics when it comes to predicting Oscar winners. And last year, Unanimous AI correctly anticipated Trump’s selection as Person of the Year (although that seems to be an obvious choice in retrospect).

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Sex! Brains! Mystery! The Weirdies have ’em all

Image: Brain cap
University of Washington graduate student Jose Ceballos wears an EEG cap that records brain activity and sends a response to a second participant over the Internet. (UW photo)

When the calendar turns, it’s time to reflect on the biggest sensations of the past year: Time’s Person of the Year, AP’s Top News Story, Hollywood’s Oscar picks — and, of course, the Weirdies.

The Weirdies?

Since 2008, my annual Weird Science Awards have thrown a spotlight on the weirdest tales from the lab and from the field, ranging from glow-in-the-dark clones to lab-grown rabbit penises and an ancient Chinese marijuana stash.

This year’s lineup includes a couple of projects from the University of Washington, which provides a nice Seattle angle for GeekWire’s first running of the Weirdies. Without further ado, here’s the top 10:

Get the full list on GeekWire.