8 Most Important Spaceflight Stories of 2014

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko
Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as seen from the Rosetta orbiter on Nov. 20, 2014. The Philae lander soft-landed on the surface of the comet on Nov. 12. (Image credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0)

From accidents to soaring daredevils to space capsules, 2014 was a big year in spaceflight.

Humanity soft-landed a probe on the face of a comet for the first time, while Virgin Galactic experienced a tragedy making it a bittersweet 12 months for people involved with space.

Here are Space.com's most important spaceflight stories of 2014:

NASA's Orion capsule debut

NASA successfully launched an uncrewed test of its Orion spacecraft, built to take humans to deep-space destinations like Mars or an asteroid, for the first time. The space capsule — designed to carry four astronauts — is the first spacecraft built by NASA to take humans to the Red Planet eventually.

Orion made two orbits of Earth during its approximately 4.5-hour test in early December. The flight was designed to help engineers test key systems onboard the spacecraft that could be needed during eventual crewed missions. The capsule reached an altitude of about 3,600 miles (5,793 kilometers), marking the first time a NASA spacecraft built for humans has been out of low-Earth orbit in more than 40 years. [Images of Orion Test Flight]

NASA's Space Launch System — the agency's mega rocket built to take Orion into deep space — also hit a big milestone in 2014. Completing a critical design review that will allow engineers building the rocket to go forward.

Private rocket explodes after liftoff in Virginia

A privately built rocket carrying a capsule stocked with supplies for the International Space Station exploded just after liftoff on Oct. 28. The Antares rocket explosion at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia marked the first major mishap in NASA's commercial cargo program.

The Orbital Sciences Corp.-built rocket destroyed the robotic Cygnus cargo spacecraft bound for the space station. Orbital is now in the process of replacing the Russian engines used to power the first stage of the Antares before launching any more. Officials are still investigating the exact cause of the explosion, but experts think the issue occurred in the rocket's AJ26 engines.

Orbital Sciences representatives have now bought space aboard two United Launch Alliance Atlas V rockets that will fly two Cygnus missions to the space station for NASA in 2015. Orbital Sciences expects that the newly upgraded Antares rockets could begin flying missions again in 2016.

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo tragedy

Virgin Galactic experienced a tragic spaceflight accident in 2014. The commercial spaceflight company's space plane called SpaceShipTwo disintegrated with two pilots onboard during a test flight. Test pilot Michael Alsbury died during the accident, but Peter Siebold survived the crash. The prototype space plane was destroyed in the crash in California's Mojave Desert.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the tragedy. Initial results of the inquiry show that the wings of the ship feathered, moving into a downward position to create drag, too early. This may have been the cause of the craft breaking apart.

Virgin Galactic has sold more than 700 tickets to space enthusiasts to fly aboard SpaceShipTwo when the craft begins commercial operations. Tickets currently sell for $250,000.

Europe's Philae lands on a comet

Humans landed a robotic probe on the face of a comet for the first time ever this year. The European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft dropped its Philae lander onto the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Nov. 12. The washing machine-size lander bounced off the surface twice when its harpoons failed to deploy before coming to its final landing place in the shadow of a cliff on the comet.

European officials are still using Rosetta to hunt for Philae's landing spot. The small lander beamed back some data from the comet's surface before going silent after a couple days due to bad sunlight conditions in its landing spot. Officials hope that Philae will wake up again if sunlight conditions improve as the comet makes its way around the sun next year. [Pictures from Rosetta Mission Orbiting a Comet]

SpaceX, Boeing tapped as space taxis

NASA has tapped the private spaceflight companies Boeing and SpaceX to start flying American astronauts to the International Space Station in 2017. The space agency awarded its much-anticipated commercial crew contract to the two companies this year, paving the way for the first United States-launched flights to the space station since the end of NASA's space shuttle program in 2011.

SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp. and Blue Origin had all been working toward a commercial crew contract with NASA. Agency officials ultimately selected two companies, awarding $2.6 billion to SpaceX and $4.2 billion to Boeing, allowing them to continue in the program. Astronauts working on the space station will perform a series of spacewalks to prepare the orbiting outpost for the arrival of the commercial crafts expected in 2017.

Both Boeing's CST-100 space capsule and SpaceX's crew-carrying Dragon V2 can hold up to seven astronauts.

India starts orbiting Mars

The Indian space agency's Mars Orbiter Mission probe arrived at Mars this year, making India only the fourth agency to put a spacecraft in orbit around the Red Planet. The Mangalyaan craft (Sanskrit for "Mars Craft") launched to space in November 2013, but arrived in orbit around Mars in September 2014.

Mangalyaan is mostly a technology demonstration for the Indian space agency. The $74 million mission is carrying a camera and other instruments designed to study the surface and atmosphere of Mars. The probe has also beamed back some amazing images of the Red Planet, showing the entire cosmic body within the frame of the photo.

NASA, the European Space Agency and the former Soviet Union have also successfully put spacecraft in orbit around the planet. Mangalyaan's mission is expected to last up to about 10 months.

A daredevil makes an amazing jump from space's edge

A Google executive broke the record for the highest-altitude skydive on Oct. 24. Alan Eustace, a  senior vice president at Google, jumped back to Earth from more than 25 miles (40 kilometers) above New Mexico, breaking the previous record set by Felix Baumgartner in 2012 as part of the Red Bull Stratos "space jump." The Stratospheric Explorer (StratEx) team at the Paragon Space Development Corp. put together the October space jump. [Amazing Space Jump Video]

Eustace wore a pressurized suit for the jump from the edge of space. The experienced skydiver broke the sound barrier during his jump, reaching Mach 1.23 at his fastest speed. Reportedly, Eustace's team members on the ground heard a sonic boom when the skydiver broke the sound barrier.

Eustace's jump from the edge of space was something of a surprise. Unlike the Red Bull challenge two years earlier, Eustace didn't publicize the event widely, and only put out a news release announcing the successful jump after it was completed.

The moon saw a lot of activity

The moon has been a busy place for space probes in 2014. China successfully launched its first lander and rover to the moon in 2013, but the Chang'e-3 lander and Yutu rover's operations started in earnest this year. The landing and operation of the Chang'e-3 mission on the moon marked the first time a spacecraft has successfully landed on the lunar surface in 37 years. 

NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft performed science from lunar orbit this year as well. LADEE made its planned crash into the moon's surface on April 18 after finishing its science mission. The space probe probably vaporized on impact, but another NASA orbiter captured an image of the crash site.

What were your favorite spaceflight stories of 2014? Let us know in the comments bellow.

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Miriam Kramer
Staff Writer

Miriam Kramer joined Space.com as a Staff Writer in December 2012. Since then, she has floated in weightlessness on a zero-gravity flight, felt the pull of 4-Gs in a trainer aircraft and watched rockets soar into space from Florida and Virginia. She also served as Space.com's lead space entertainment reporter, and enjoys all aspects of space news, astronomy and commercial spaceflight.  Miriam has also presented space stories during live interviews with Fox News and other TV and radio outlets. She originally hails from Knoxville, Tennessee where she and her family would take trips to dark spots on the outskirts of town to watch meteor showers every year. She loves to travel and one day hopes to see the northern lights in person. Miriam is currently a space reporter with Axios, writing the Axios Space newsletter. You can follow Miriam on Twitter.