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The Year Space Got Sexy All Over Again

Space was hard to avoid thinking about in 2021. We entered a new era of star treks, with the long-promised era of space tourism finally upon us — at least for those who are extremely well-funded. The rest of us terrestrial plebes made do with video clips and telescopes, watching the six-hour partial lunar eclipse last month, the longest in duration since the days of the Medicis.

Conspiracists and alien enthusiasts rejoiced at reading headlines about U.F.O.s in reputable outlets such as The New York Times. Thinking about the infinite cosmos also provided a psychological release from the grinding pandemic, when “space” tended to be measured in square feet.

Here are some highlights.

Space became a retreat for plutocrats more exclusive than Bohemian Grove this year, as two billionaire earthlings — Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson — took maiden voyages as space tourists, and made the term “masters of the universe” just a bit more literal.

In this space race, Mr. Branson went first on July 11, soaring 50 miles above the New Mexico desert aboard the V.S.S. Unity, which looked eerily like a hood ornament from a 1956 Chevy.

But Amazon’s 200 billion dollar man refused to concede. Nine days later, Mr. Bezos soared 65 miles above Texas wearing a flyboy-meets-cowboy ensemble not seen in aerospace circles since Slim Pickens in “Dr. Strangelove,” and claimed victory, noting that he actually crossed a boundary known as the Kármán line 62 miles above sea level into so-called “real” space.

Yes, a rocket is a phallic symbol. But does it have to be so blatant, like something Carrie Bradshaw might have picked up at the Pleasure Chest?

Mr. Bezos had scarcely blasted off for his 10-minute maiden voyage to space when social media erupted with X-rated memes. One porn site even created a line of sex toys called the Billionaire Flesh Rocket Series.

After the snickering died down, engineers pointed out that the rocket’s bulbous tip and roomy shaft allowed for maximum occupancy and, also, stability on re-entry. No jokes, please.

U.F.O. sightings no longer occupy the same cultural space as Bigfoot or Jim Morrison sightings at Burger King.

In June, the federal government declassified an intelligence report in which it admitted there is no earthly — or, at least, governmental — explanation for more than 120 reports of “objects in the skies,” as former President Barack Obama put it on “The Late Late Show With James Corden.”

Sure, that mysterious Kubrickian metal slab in the red canyons of Utah was likely an artwork or a hoax, not alien. And an eerie radio signal from the direction of Proxima Centauri was, alas, probably just human radio frequency interference. Given the state of the world, though, you can’t blame people for hoping to find intelligent life somewhere in the universe.

When the United States Space Force unveiled its uniforms in September, it was hard not to make joking references to “Star Trek,” or the Netflix show “Space Force,” starring Steve Carell, that parodies the sixth and newest branch of the military.

The asymmetrical dark blue coat with gray pants looked to many observers like it had been designed by science fiction nerds. “The U.S. Space Force Will Wear Battlestar Galactica Uniforms,” declared a headline on Giant Freakin Robot, an entertainment website.

The rivalry between the United States and China extended far beyond national borders. In February, NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down on Mars and achieved a “Wright Brothers moment” by launching the first powered flight on another planet (a small robotic helicopter named Ingenuity).

Then in May, China landed a rover called Zhurong in a huge basin known as Utopia Planitia, which was not only its first exploratory trip on Mars, but also ushered in a new era of space competition, as it showed its ability to compete in a space race long dominated by Americans and Russians. The Chinese rover even planted a wireless camera on the red dirt and snapped a picture of itself. How 2021. What’s the point of traveling if you don’t get the selfie?

Space travel movies are as old as cinema itself, thanks to Georges Méliès’s landmark 1902 film, “A Trip to the Moon.” In 2021, however, a Russian film crew spent 12 days aboard the International Space Station, filming scenes for “The Challenge,” the first feature-length drama containing scenes shot in space.

Time will tell if the film, about a surgeon rushing to space to save an ailing cosmonaut, will become a science fiction classic. If nothing else, however, the filmmakers beat the Americans to the punch. (Plans for a Tom Cruise action-adventure movie shot in space were announced last year.)

First Sputnik, now this. At least the Americans got that gold medal in hockey.

In July, Oliver Daemen, 18, the son of a Dutch private equity executive, became the youngest person to travel to space when a would-be Blue Origin passenger, who had paid $28 million for the privilege, had to drop out for a scheduling conflict. Must have been some conflict.

Humans being humans, we leave a mess wherever we go. In May, a 10-story, 23-ton piece of a Chinese rocket came crashing down to the Earth in an uncontrolled path, leading some to wonder if it would fall on their heads. Luckily, it landed harmlessly in the Indian Ocean.

In November, the Russians created another mess when they tested an antisatellite weapon on a defunct spy satellite, creating an enormous cloud of debris that forced astronauts aboard the International Space Station to batten down the hatches.

Some fear that all that space junk may make space travel difficult or even impossible in the future. But maybe there’s hope. In March, a Japanese company launched a space vacuum of sorts to suck up some of the 3,000 inactive satellites orbiting Earth. If only we could recycle them.

William Shatner, the actor who made space travel safe for sideburns and Beatle boots a half-century ago, seized the record for oldest person to travel to space in October, by tagging along with Mr. Bezos on a Blue Origin voyage.

It was fair to wonder if Mr. Bezos was just using his billions to indulge a boyhood fantasy. Mr. Bezos, after all, is a confirmed Trekkie who once competed with his fourth grade classmates for the right to play Kirk. “We’d have little cardboard phasers and cardboard tricorders, you know,” he said at an event for The Washington Post in 2016.

Mr. Shatner seemed to be a fanboy himself. “Yes, it’s true; I’m going to be a ‘rocket man!’” he tweeted before the trip. He even promised to write a song about the experience. Too bad “Space Oddity” is taken.

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