SpaceX’s Starship destroyed on return to Earth at end of third test flight

Starship flies off the launch pad during IFT-3. (Source: Elon Musk /Twitter (X))

Image: Starship flies off the launch pad during IFT-3. (Source: Elon Musk /Twitter (X))

By Oliver Holmes,
Published by The Guardian, 14 March 2024

Spacecraft’s cruise vessel flew around globe for first time, but lost contact in final stages before planned splashdown

SpaceX’s Starship, the largest and most powerful rocket ever built, was destroyed during its return to Earth after nearly completing its third test flight.

The 120-metre system, which weighs about 5,000 tonnes when fully fuelled, took off from SpaceX’s spaceport, named Starbase, on the Gulf of Mexico in Boca Chica, Texas. SpaceX aims to use the spacecraft to one day carry astronauts to the moon and Mars.

For the first time, the spacecraft’s cruise vessel flew around the globe, but contact was lost during the final stages of the test, just as it re-entered the atmosphere.

SpaceX never intended to recover the ship, which was nearing a planned entry into the Indian Ocean minutes later. It presumably either burned up or came apart during re-entry.

“The ship has been lost. So no splashdown today,” said SpaceX’s Dan Huot. “But again, it’s incredible to see how much further we got this time around.”

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s billionaire founder, said on X, his social media platform: “SpaceX has come a long way.”

Source: Guardian graphic. Source: SpaceX, Nasa
Source: Guardian graphic. Source: SpaceX, Nasa

Two previous attempts ended in the explosion of both the spacecraft’s 33-engine booster, nicknamed Super Heavy, and the cruise vessel, which is designed to eventually carry up to 100 astronauts. Stacked together, they stand at 10 metres taller than the Saturn V rocket that sent humans to the moon in 1969.

The first Starship launch attempt lasted four minutes and the second lasted eight, with the latter reaching space. The third lasted more than 50 minutes.

SpaceX is much more tolerant of risk than Nasa and has a flight-testing strategy that aims to frequently push its spacecraft prototypes to the limit and beyond. The company says frequent flight testing will provide valuable data that will help it design and develop a more robust rocket.

“Each of these flight tests continue to be just that: a test,” SpaceX said in a statement before the third launch attempt, in an apparent attempt to manage expectations in case the system exploded. “They aren’t occurring in a lab or on a test stand, but are putting flight hardware in a flight environment to maximise learning.”

The third flight conducted several tests, including opening a payload door and making an internal fuel transfer while in space.

Both the upper and lower segments of Starship are designed to eventually power themselves safely back to Earth for a soft landing so that they can be reused, which will be significantly cheaper than building entirely new parts for each mission.

Musk hopes Starship will be the first step on a human journey further into space that ever before. He says he developed Starship, previously named the BFR (heavily hinted to mean “big fucking rocket”), so that humans can eventually become a “multiplanetary species”. To do this, Musk intends to begin the colonisation of Mars so that humanity can survive a planet-destroying event on Earth, such as a sentient AI takeover or asteroid strike.

Nasa has contracted SpaceX to land astronauts, including the first woman, on the moon as soon as 2026, although that date is likely to be pushed back. Several other Starship systems are already in production for future tests.

Nasa’s chief, Bill Nelson, congratulated SpaceX on what he called “a successful test flight” in a statement posted on X.

Despite the outcome of Thursday’s test, all indications are that Starship remains a considerable distance from becoming fully operational.

Musk has said the rocket should fly hundreds of uncrewed missions before carrying its first humans.

Musk had previously said the total development cost of Starship could be between $2bn and $10bn. Each launch is estimated to cost tens of millions of dollars.

The company makes money by operating smaller rockets to launch satellites as well as sending astronauts to the International Space Station. It has announced longer-term plans to use the spacecraft as a shuttle for commercial travel on Earth, promising trips from London to Tokyo in less than an hour.

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