Starship completes full test flight without blowing up

7 Jun 2024

Image: SpaceX

The ambitious project has had multiple setbacks, but SpaceX has learned from previous flights and successfully demonstrated its reusable transportation system.

SpaceX has reached a new milestone, as its massive Starship rocket completed its fourth test launch and made a “soft landing” in the Indian Ocean.

The rocket lifted off from the company’s Starbase in Texas yesterday (6 June) in a flight that lasted one hour and six minutes. During this flight, the main spacecraft and its super heavy booster were able to successfully land, demonstrating the reusability of the space vehicle.

After flying around the globe, Starship began its re-entry procedure and was tested to ensure it could handle the heat and pressure that comes with descending through the atmosphere at “hypersonic speeds”. The vehicle was controlled by its flaps during this process.

“Despite loss of many tiles and a damaged flap, Starship made it all the way to a soft landing in the ocean,” SpaceX owner Elon Musk said on X.

In a summary of the mission, SpaceX said the fourth test flight of Starship made “major strides to bring us closer to a rapidly reusable future”.

“Its accomplishments will provide data to drive improvements as we continue rapidly developing Starship into a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the moon, Mars and beyond,” the company said.

Rocky road to Starship

Starship is the biggest rocket ever built and is part of SpaceX’s ambitious goals to take a leading role in humanity’s spacefaring future. The company is working with NASA to support its return to the moon – the Artemis missions – with this vehicle.

But the journey to get to this successful test has been a long and difficult one for SpaceX, with various setbacks for the ambitious project. Starship had its first successful launch and landing in August 2020, but this was followed by the SN8 prototype exploding during a test run in December of the same year.

When launched for its first test in April 2023, Starship exploded minutes after taking off, which SpaceX politely referred to as a “rapid unscheduled disassembly”. The second test launch saw Starship successfully conduct its “hot-stage separation” technique for the first time, before exploding in a second “rapid unscheduled disassembly”.

The third test launch saw Starship reach space for the first time in March, but the vehicle exploded upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic