Conspiracists and alien enthusiasts rejoiced at reading headlines about UFOs 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, 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, 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.
Did ET phone us?
UFO 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.