SpaceX’s Starship rocket successfully completes first return from space

SpaceX’s launch of its giant Starship rocket on Thursday accomplished a set of ambitious goals, as the company’s chief executive, Elon Musk, took off ahead of its fourth test flight.

Although this flight was not a perfect success, Mr. Musk’s vision to build the most powerful rocket and make it reusable offered a sign that his company could once again transform the already dominant global space launch industry. That’s especially encouraging for NASA officials, who are using a version of the Starship to transport astronauts to the lunar surface during the Artemis III mission, currently scheduled for late 2026.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, Mr. Musk posted his congratulations on X, the social networking site he owns.

“We’re another step closer to returning humanity to the Moon with #Artemis—and then looking toward Mars,” he wrote.

The upper-stage Starship vehicle lifted off into space, halfway around the world, escaping the heat of re-entry and landing in the Indian Ocean as planned.

During the descent, cameras on the spacecraft captured the colorful glow of gases heating up below it, and at about 30 miles altitude, part of one of the steering flaps began to fall off, but it was still intact. Visibility was obstructed as debris broke the camera lens.

“The question is how much is left on the ship,” said Kate Tice, one of the hosts of the SpaceX broadcast.

But real-time data was transmitted via SpaceX’s Starlink Internet satellites to the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., until the altitude was reported at 0 — back to the surface of the Indian Ocean.

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A final maneuver to turn the starship into a vertical position was ordered just before landing.

“Despite the loss of several shells and a damaged flap, the starship made it to a soft landing at sea!” Mr. Musk wrote in X.

A crowd of SpaceX employees watching outside Mission Control cheered wildly, seeing the result as validation of the company’s break-it-up-fix-it approach.

Earlier in the flight, the rocket’s first stage, a giant super-heavy booster with 33 engines, was able to perform maneuvers that would take it back to the launch pad in the future. For this flight, a simulated landing was made in the Gulf of Mexico.

The rocket system is, by every measure, massive and powerful, with the Starship spacecraft atop what SpaceX calls a super-heavy booster.

The rocket is the tallest ever built – 397 feet tall, or 90 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, including the plinth.

The rocket has the most engines ever in a booster: the superheavy has 33 of SpaceX’s most powerful Raptor engines sticking out of its base. When those engines lift the starship off the launchpad, they generate 16 million pounds of thrust at full speed.

Mr. According to Musk, the Starship is actually a Martian ship. He envisions a fleet of starships carrying settlers to the Red Planet.

For NASA, the vehicle was to be the lunar lander, carrying astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.

Soon, SpaceX plans to use Starship to deploy the next generation of Starlink Internet communications satellites.

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An even more transformative aspect of the Starship is that it is designed to be completely reusable. That capability has the potential to lower the cost of sending payloads into orbit — it costs less than $10 million to send 100 tons into space a day, Mr. Musk predicted.

Two weeks ago, after a successful missile test, Mr. Musk wrote in X that the “primary goal for this flight is to achieve maximum re-entry by heating.”

In other words, he didn’t want the vehicle to catch fire.

During launch, the starship reaches an orbital speed of more than 17,000 miles per hour while reaching an altitude of 145 miles. As the spacecraft reenters the atmosphere, it experiences temperatures of up to 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit.

On Thursday, the starship braved the heat and then landed in a remote part of the Indian Ocean. Another goal is to soft-land the first-stage super-heavy booster in the Gulf of Mexico.

During future operational flights, both vehicles will return to the launch pad and be held in one piece on the launch tower. Those efforts are still in the future.

For the first time, a previous launch in March reached enough speed to enter a starship orbit. The boost included a successful new twist: hot-staging separation, when some second-stage engines ignited before the superheavy booster, or first stage, separated and abandoned.

The Starship’s second stage accomplished some of its goals during spaceflight, including opening and closing the spacecraft’s payload door and moving propellant between two tanks inside the vehicle.

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But while coasting at the highest point of its trajectory, the starship began to spiral out of control. Cameras on board captured the orange glow of hot plasma beneath the spacecraft. 49 minutes after launch, it disintegrated, losing communications at an altitude of 40 miles.

Earlier in the flight, the super-heavy booster was supposed to simulate landing in the Gulf of Mexico. But six of the 13 engines used for the maneuver were shut down prematurely.

SpaceX blamed blockages in the flow of propellants for the losses of the starship and superheavy booster. The company said it has made changes to address those issues.

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