Slide 1 of 23
2011: The Year in Space2011 was a very eventful year in spaceflight, with many vessels launching toward the heavens — and a few crashing back to Earth.
Here's a look at the top 11 spaceflight stories of the year, from the last mission of NASA's venerable space shuttle program to China's first-ever docking of two spaceships in Earth orbit:
Private Spaceflight Makes StridesSlide 2 of 23
Private Spaceflight Makes StridesA private space race is developing among companies that hope to ferry NASA astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit in the post-shuttle era, and 2011 saw that race heat up.
Several different companies made strides this year in their private spacecraft development. The chief contenders — firms such as Blue Origin, SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada — generally say they should be ready to fly by 2015 or 2016.
Private suborbital spaceflight also made progress this year. The space tourism company Virgin Galactic conducted more glide tests of its SpaceShipTwo vehicle, and company officials have said that in-vehicle rocket tests should start in the first half of 2012.
NEXT: Giant Mars Rover LaunchesSlide 3 of 23
Giant Mars Rover Blasts OffSlide 4 of 23
Giant Mars Rover Blasts OffNASA launched its own Mars mission Nov. 26, less than three weeks after Russia's left the pad. But unlike Phobos-Grunt, the $2.5-billion Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission is speeding toward the Red Planet, apparently in perfect health. [Launch Photos]
The mission will drop the car-size Curiosity rover at Mars' huge Gale Crater in August 2012, using a rocket-powered sky crane to lower the robot to the planet's surface. Curiosity's main task is to assess whether the Gale Crater area is, or ever was, capable of supporting microbial life.
NEXT: International Space Station CompletedSlide 5 of 23
International Space Station CompletedSlide 6 of 23
International Space Station CompletedAfter 13 years of construction work, the International Space Station finally reached a measure of completeness in 2011.
In March, the space shuttle Discovery delivered NASA's final contribution to the assembly of the orbiting lab, a new room called the Permanent Multipurpose Module. While Russia may attach one more module in the coming years, construction from a U.S. standpoint is now 100-percent done.
NASA and its international partners began building the orbiting lab in 1998. The 431-ton space station is as big as a football field and has about as much living space as a five-bedroom house. With an estimated price tag of $100 billion, the orbital outpost is the most expensive structure ever built.
NEXT: Russia's Space WoesSlide 7 of 23
Russia's Space WoesSlide 8 of 23