1. Fifty years of manned spaceflight. April marked the 50th anniversary of the first manned spaceflight by Yuri Gagarin aboard Vostok 1 in 1961. Russia continued regular launches with its Soyuz becoming the only way too carry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and making their first unmanned launches from Europe's spaceport at French Guyana. But the crash of a Progress cargo ship in August led to questions of relying too much on Russia. In February, the European Space Agency (ESA) successfully launched its second unmanned Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) Johannes Kepler to the ISS.
2. End of the road for the Space Shuttle. Atlantis touched down in July, marking the final spaceflight and the end of the Space Shuttle programme. It also meant that construction of the ISS was essentially complete. Meanwhile, as NASA's own manned space launches appeared to be temporarily abandoned, China's began to accelerate, including the launch of its own first space station module, Tiangong-1, in September.
3. Big strides by commercial space companies. The growing interest in the US and beyond to turn space exploration over to private enterprise got a boost in April when NASA awarded $269 million to companies including SpaceX, Sierra Nevada, Boeing and Blue Origin. Meanwhile, seven years after the first successful suborbital flights by prototype SpaceShipOne, Virgin Galactic is steadily preparing to carry its first paying tourists to the edge of space.
4. New missions to deep space. NASA continued to pioneer exploration of the Solar System. Probes were launched both to Jupiter in August (Juno) and Mars in November (Mars Science Laboratory, or Curiosity). In March, their Messenger probe went into orbit around Mercury, and in July, Dawn began circling the asteroid Vesta. Twin Grail probes to investigate the interior of the Moon are arriving this weekend following a September launch. Russia's bid to fly to Mars failed when its Phobos-Grunt craft became stranded in Earth orbit.
5. Advances in astronomy. The number of planets discovered around other stars climbed above 700 as the year drew to a close including the first two Earth-sized worlds discovered by NASA's Kepler space mission and others found in the so-called habitable zones of their host suns. Another boost for astronomy came with fresh support for the successor to Hubble, the James Webb Space Telescope after a battle in Congress over its budget. In other astronomical news, the Sun roared back into activity with many sunspots and eruptions plus the closest flypast by a giant asteroid ever witnessed was watched in November when 2005 YU55 came well inside the orbit of the Moon.