The Decade in Spaceflight: NASA Shuttles Retired as Private Spaceships Took Flight in the 2010s

The 2010s marked the decade NASA's space shuttles stopped flying, retiring to museums after thirty years of service.
The 2010s marked the decade NASA's space shuttles stopped flying, retiring to museums after thirty years of service. (Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

 As not only 2019 but the whole 2010s come to a close, it's time to review some of the biggest space science stories of the decade. 

From, the space shuttle's retirement to the rise of space startups, the past 10 years have seen some incredible spaceflights. Here are the top stories of the decade. 

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2010: NASA's asteroid plan, SpaceX & Virgin Galactic

While NASA's space shuttle days were numbered in 2010, the U.S. space agency wasn't giving up on human spaceflight vehicles of its own. 

On April 15, 2010, President Barack Obama unveiled a new plan for NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid on a true deep-space voyage. The project, later known as NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission, replaced the canceled Project Constellation aimed at a return to the moon by the mid-2020s set down by the previous administration of George W. Bush. 

The only survivor of Project Constellation was NASA's Orion spacecraft, though elements of its heavy-lift Ares V rocket found new life in the agency's current Space Launch System.

With NASA to private companies to eventually take its place as a low-earth orbit taxi, SpaceX was one of several companies already working with the agency on the issue.  Enter SpaceX's Dragon. 

On Dec. 8, 2010, a SpaceX Falcon 9 launched the first Dragon space capsule, an uncrewed spacecraft, on a short demonstration flight. The mission marked the first private spacecraft to launch into orbit and return safely to Earth. 

On Oct. 10 of 2010, Virgin Galactic made its own bit of space history: the first solo flight of its SpaceShipTwo space plane

The test flight was an unpowered glide flight for the VSS Enterprise, Virgin Galactic's first SpaceShipTwo spacecraft for passenger suborbital flights. The spacecraft glided back to Earth after being dropped from midair from its carrier plane, the WhiteKnightTwo. 

It took 15 minutes for SpaceShipTwo to return to Earth, setting the stage for future powered tests using the vehicle's novel hybrid rocket motor.

2011: A space shuttle farewell

After 30 years of service, NASA retired its space shutle fleet in 2011 with the final flight of the Atlantis orbiter. 

Atlantis landed back on Earth after its final mission on July 21, 2011. This was the 135th flight of NASA’s shuttle program and marked its end. While the craft did have many successes, including helping build the International Space Station, it did also see its fair share of tragedy. A total of 14 astronauts were killed on two shuttle missions, the Challenger accident of 1986 and the Columbia disaster of  2003.

With the retiring of the space shuttle, NASA became dependent on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to fly American astronauts to and from the International Space Station. 

After 13 years of tedious construction, the International Space Station was completed after receiving its final major component in March 2011. While additional pieces can still be added to the station, this final component marked the completion of the initial framework. The station weighs in a 431-tons, is the size of a football field and has as much living space as a five-bedroom house.

The station hosts astronauts from around the world and allow them to work together to conduct a number of experiments in a weightless environment. The structure, coming in at $100 billion, is the most expensive structure ever built. 

2012: A Dragon at ISS

During the summer of 2012, SpaceX performed the first flight of its Dragon cargo ship to the International Space Station. This capsule was the first commercial spacecraft ever docked with the station and the second successful launch of the Dragon capsule by the company. These test missions were performed as part of a billion-dollar contract SpaceX has with NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program.  

On June 16, 2012, China launched one of its most ambitious missions to date: the country's first attempt at docking a crewed spaceflight. The spacecraft, Shenzhou 9, met up with the uncrewed Tiangong 1 space lab. From there the three astronauts aboard the spacecraft will spend 13-days on Tiangong 1 during which they will perform two docking exercises and a few science experiments.

This launch is also monumental because among its crew is China’s first female astronaut, Liu Yang. Another astronaut aboard the spacecraft, Jing Haipeng, was the first astronaut to launch into space twice. The final crewmember, Liu Wang, was a senior colonel in the People's Liberation Army and made his first spaceflight.

On Dec. 12, 2013, North Korea successfully placed a satellite in orbit after many previously failed attempts. 

The launch was made by the country’s Unha-3 rocket and was quick to draw disapproval from countries like the U.S. and South Korea who called it a thinly veiled missile threat. 

However, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, a joint effort between the U.S. and Canada, said that the satellite or any potential debris did not pose a risk to North America. 

2013: India, NASA launch to Mars

The Dulles-based space company, Orbital Sciences Corp., had a successful debut of its Cygnus spacecraft and Antares rocket in September 2013. 

Once launched the Cygnus spacecraft was able to successful be captured by robotic arm at the International Space Station, and later be released and intentionally deorbited. The company (now Northrop Grumman Innovation System) launched the flight as part of a $1.9 billion contract to bring cargo to the space station.

In November 2013, India launched its Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) to the Red Planet. The $73.5 million mission coincided with a NASA mission, MAVEN, which also launched toward Mars in the same month. 

MAVEN is designed to study Mars’ atmosphere while MOM will instead focus on potential indicators of life, like methane. 

In December 2013, China joined Russia and the United States as the third country to complete a successful soft landing on the lunar surface. It was China's third moon mission, but the county's first attempt at landing on the surface. The spacecraft, Chang'e-3, also marked the first extraterrestrial landing for the China National Space Administration. And Chang’e-3 wasn't alone, it brought along with it a lunar rover, Yutu (or, Jade rabbit.) 

Since Chang'e-3's successful landing of the surface China has since landed Chang'e-4 on the dark side of the moon and is expected to land Chang’e-5 on the surface in 2020. 

2014: India at Mars, Space Accidents

On Sept. 24, 2014 India became the fourth nation to have a spacecraft orbit Mars. The craft in question, India's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) probe, is joining the ranks of United States, the European Space Agency and the former Soviet Union, all of whom have crafts orbiting the Red Planet.

The $73 million project was largely a demonstration of technological might and proof that India’s spacecraft could reach Mars, but it’s also equipped with a few scientific instruments as well. In particular MOM is designed to study methane on Mars, a gas that is a key indicator of potential life on the planet and that has become more and more mysterious toward the end of the decade. 

NASA experienced the first failure of its commercial cargo program when an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded just after liftoff from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, destroying its robotic Cygnus cargo ship. 

The rocket had a failure in one of its Russian-made engines. As it was an uncrewed cargo mission, no one was hurt, but Orbital Sciences (now Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems) had to redesign the Antares rocket with different engines before returning to flight in 2016

Also in 2014, Virgin Galactic experienced a tragic failure when its first SpaceShipTwo space plane, the VSS Enterprise, suffered a deadly accident on Oct. 31, 2014. While in the air the plane broke-up with two pilots, Michael Alsbury and Peter Siebold onboard. Alsbury was killed during the incident and Siebold was injured but survived.

An FAA investigation later found that Alsbury unlocked SpaceShipTwo's unique feather system, used during reentry, too early in the flight, leading to training and design changes to prevent the accident in the future. Virgin Galactic resumed SpaceShipTwo test flights in 2016 with a new SpaceShipTwo, the VSS Unity. 

Also in 2014 NASA debuted its first spacecraft designed to take astronauts to Mars and asteroids: Orion

NASA's launched an uncrewed test Orion on Dec. 5 atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket. It made two orbits around Earth and reached an altitude of 3,600 miles (5,793 kilometers.) During this test flight, which took 4.5 hours, the team was able to test key systems on board the craft. 

2015: A Venus arrival, private spaceflight rises


After a long,5-year wait, the Japanese spacecraft Akatsuki finally made it to Venus

The spacecraft had originally tried to reach the planet in 2010 but was sent off to orbit the sun instead after the death of one of its engines. After that setback, the spacecraft bided its time until another window of opportunity would present itself to make a move. And such a day came, exactly five years later. 

Now in orbit with Venus, Akatsuki plans to study the planet’s clouds, atmosphere and weather in order to learn more about how it came to be such a hostile environment. This mission represents the second attempt — and first successful — interplanetary mission from Japan. Before Akatsuki, a previous mission to Mars had failed and a successful mission to the moon had ended.

SpaceX experienced big losses and big wins in 2015. 

In June 2015 the company launched the seventh cargo mission to the International Space Station for NASA, only to have its Falcon 9 rocket explode 3 minutes after liftoff — destroying the rocket and the cargo. SpaceX attributed the failure to faulty steel struts and immediately began re-evaluating and redesigning aspects of the rocket.

After the redesigns the rocket came back strong in December of 2015. The rocket not only made a successful delivery of 11 satellites for Orbcomm, but was also able to successfully land part of the Falcon 9 first stage. This, as well as a similar mission from Blue Origin, were the first to demonstrate how multi-use rockets could dramatically save flight costs. 

2016: Big tests for human spaceflight

 The year 2016 marked the end of a joint NASA and Roscosmos’ year-long mission in space. NASA astronaut (and twin,) Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko both spent 11-months aboard the International Space Stationto learn more about how long-term space travel might affect the human body. Kelly and Kornienko returned safely to Earth in March 2016.

In addition to looking at his own endurance during the year-long space mission, NASA was also able to look at Scott Kelly's identical twin Mark Kelly, also a former astronaut, to compare how long-term space travel might affect genes and DNA between the two brothers. Since the mission ended researchers have observed small changes that took place between the brothers, including a change in Scott’s gut biome, a lengthening of his telemeres, and change in some of his gene expressions.

At the end of 2016, China launched the country's second space station prototype. The space lab, called Tiangong-2, launched on Sept. 15 and followed China's Tiangong 1 module, which launched in 2011. 

Tiangong-2 and was visited in October by two Chinese astronauts, Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong, in the Shenzhou 11 spacecraft. Once docked with Tiangong-2, the two taikonauts spent a month aboard the science lab.

Related: Tiangong-2 in Pictures: China's Second Space Lab

During their time onboard, Jing and Chen conducted experiments with silkworms as well as lettuce seeds. The pair returned safely to Earth in November, doubling the longest previous stint aboard the new station. In 2019, Tiangong 2 fell from space to end its mission. Unlike its predecessor Tiangong 1, which fell uncontrolled from space, Tiangong 2 was intentionally deorbited over the Pacific Ocean under the control of Chinese flight controllers. 

In 2016, Virgin Galactic made its first debut since the fatal crash of its VSS Enterprise spacecraft in 2014

The space company’s new SpaceShipTwo, called VSS Unity, was lifted off by its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, and successfully glided back to Earth. This and a number of other glide flights are meant to prepare the VSS Unity for eventual commercial suborbital flights. Tickets for these flights are estimated to cost $250,000.  

2017: Space Records and the moon

On Feb, 14, 2017 India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) sent 104 satellites into space, the largest number of satellites ever sent by a single rocket. The previous record, 37 satellites, had been held by Russia's Dnepr booster. 

The satellites aboard the PSLV were mostly small cubesats from a San Francisco based company, but other satellites aboard the rocket also came from the Netherlands, Israel, Kazakhstan and Switzerland.

After an already star-studded career as an astronaut, in 2017 Peggy Whitson added another achievement to the books: longest cumulative time spent in space by a U.S. astronaut. Over a handful of different missions Whitson has spent a total of 665 days in space. The previous U.S. record, 534 days, had been set just a year prior by Jeff Williams.

In Photos: Record-Breaking NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson

However, Whitson still doesn't hold the worldwide record for time in space. That is held by a Russian cosmonaut after spending 879 days in space over the course of five missions, some aboard the International Space Station and some aboard the Soviet-Russian station Mir

On Dec. 11, 2017 President Donald Trump signed the "Space Policy Directive 1" which dictates that NASA’s next crewed missions will be heading back to the moon, instead of to a near-by asteroid as President Barack Obama’s administration had decided. Either way, these new moon missions are still meant to act as a stepping stone toward eventual crewed Mars missions. 

Related: Presidential Visions for Space Exploration: From Ike to Trump

The mandate has resulted in the Artemis mission program, which plans on landing a crewed mission on the moon by 2024. NASA says these missions will allow astronauts to test important technology and methodology before making the leap to Mars. 

2018: Close calls, big successes

On Feb. 6, 2018, SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket became launched its first test flight into space. The 23-story rocket has the world's most powerful rocket in use (and second most powerful in history behind NASA's Saturn V), and the heaviest payload capacity at 141,000 lbs (64,000 kilograms). Though the payload this time, a Tesla roadster equipped with a dummy passenger named "Starman," was certainly a little lighter.

The success of the Falcon Heavy paves the way toward a future of reusable rockets as well. Including the launch on Feb. 6, the Falcon rocket family has successfully launched and dozens of times. Musk hopes that this kind of technology can help pave the way toward space tourism as well.

Oct. 11, 2018 was a close call for NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin as their scheduled Soyuz flight to the International Space Staton was abruptly aborted due to a booster failure. The rocket had already launched and the two men began a ballistic descent back to Earth in their Soyuz spacecraft, which performed a harrowing emergency abort escape. They experienced up to 6.7 Gs on their way down. 

Luckily, both men were unharmed and were quickly recovered at their landing site. The anomaly did however disrupt the station's crew schedule and for a short period of time lowered the typical 6-crewed rotation to only three. 

Virgin Galactic officially reached space on December 2018! Technically. During the Dec. 11 launch, two pilots aboard Virgin’s VSS Unity were able to pass the United States Air Force's space demarcation line at 51.4 miles (82.7 km.) However that is still shy of the more popular Karman line, whose boundary lies at 62 miles, or 100 kilometers.

Nevertheless, the consumer spaceflight company has been attempting to achieve this milestone for more than a decade and has continued doggedly at the goal, even after experiencing a fatal crash in 2014. In the future the company hopes to use this craft for commercial, suborbital space flights. 

2018 was also a big year for a smaller kind of spacecraft called a cubesat. These mini, science satellites are small payloads that can be used for data recovery. 

In 2018, the California-based space company Rocket Lab successfully launched 13 cubesats into space for NASA with missions ranging from radiation testing to testing 3D-printed rocket arms.

2019: China & the Moon's Far Side

China made history in 2019 by becoming the first country ever to soft-land a spacecraft and rover on the far side of the moon. 

The Chinese Chang'e 4 lander and its Yutu rover landed Jan. 3 at Von Kármán crater, where both spacecraft continue to operate today. The mission also carried the first plant to the moon and found a weird substance on the surface

NASA also hit a major milestone of human spaceflight in 2019 with the first-ever all woman spacewalk

On Oct. 18, astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir ventured outside together on the first spacewalk by an all-woman team. The two spacewalkers replaced a faulty battery component during the spacewalk and took a congratulatory call from President Donald Trump at the end. 

For Koch, the spacewalk was just one milestone in a record-setting mission. She is currently on NASA's longest single spaceflight by a woman, and will spend nearly a year in space by the time she returns in 2020.

SpaceX and Boeing both crept closer to crewed flights with their respective Crew Dragon and Starliner spacecraft in 2019. 

In March, SpaceX launched the first uncrewed test flight of a Crew Dragon spacecraft, with Boeing achieving a similar milestone in mid-December. Boeing's test flight was marred by a mission clock error, preventing the Starliner from docking at the space station. Instead, it landed two days after launch. 

SpaceX also hit a hurdle in April, when its Crew Dragon capsule exploded during abort system ground tests. The company has pinpointed the source of the malfunction, and aims to launch an In-Flight Abort test in early January

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