Science

SpaceX’s Starship rocket successfully completes its first return from space

SpaceX’s launch of the giant Starship rocket on Thursday achieved a number of ambitious goals set by Elon Musk, the company’s CEO, before the fourth test flight.

Starship lifted off from SpaceX’s launch pad in South Texas, near Brownsville, at 7:50 a.m. and flew into the sky.

After the upper stage booster detached, it was able to land peacefully in the Gulf of Mexico, while the second stage spacecraft circumnavigated halfway around the world, surviving the scorching temperatures of reentry and making a controlled landing in the Indian Ocean made.

The flight did not go smoothly and difficult technical obstacles remain. The successes, which exceeded what was achieved during the previous test flight in March, provided optimism that Mr Musk can realize his vision of a rocket that is the largest and most powerful ever yet fully reusable.

The outcome also helps validate the company’s ‘break-it-then-fix-it’ approach to engineering, with steady progress since the first test launch in April last year, when the rocket had to be deliberately destroyed when it flew off course.

“They’re showing that they can make progress faster than we might have thought,” said Daniel L. Dumbacher, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a professional society for engineers. “They have a team that knows what they’re doing, has the capacity, is willing to learn and, just as importantly, is not beholden to past assumptions.”

If Starship could fly again and again, more like a jet plane than a conventional rocket, it could be transformative for the global space industry, which SpaceX already dominates.

Today’s flight is also likely to be encouraging for NASA officials, who are counting on SpaceX to provide a version of Starship to ferry astronauts to the moon’s surface during NASA’s Artemis III mission, currently scheduled for late 2026.

Bill Nelson, NASA’s administrator, offered his congratulations for X, the social media site that Mr. Musk owns.

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

After reaching a peak altitude of about 130 miles (210 kilometers), the Starship upper stage vehicle fell back to Earth as planned and reentered the atmosphere. Cameras on the spacecraft captured a vibrant glow from gases heating underneath.

At an altitude of about 30 miles, pieces began to separate from one of the control valves on top of the spacecraft, while the valve continued to operate. The camera’s view was then obstructed when debris broke the lens.

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

Real-time data continued to flow via SpaceX’s Starlink Internet satellites to the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, until the altitude was reported at 0, the surface of the Indian Ocean.

A final engine burn caused the Starship to enter a vertical position just before landing.

“From South Texas to the other side of the Earth, Starship is in the water,” said Dan Huot, one of the other SpaceX webcast hosts. “What a day.”

A crowd of onlooking SpaceX employees outside mission control in California cheered wildly, arms raised in celebration.

“Despite losing many tiles and a damaged flap, Starship made a soft landing in the ocean!” Musk wrote on X.

The damaged flap and loss of heat-resistant tiles indicate critical upgrades that are still needed. Otherwise, like the space shuttles, Starship would require extensive renovations after each flight.

“But that can all be remedied,” Mr. Dumbacher said. “It’s a step in the right direction, and more steps need to be taken.”

Earlier in the flight, the rocket’s first stage also allowed the giant Super Heavy booster to perform maneuvers that would return it to the launch site in the future. For this flight, it simulated such a landing by landing in the Gulf of Mexico. All three previous attempts to do so have ended in explosions.

With the Starship vehicle stacked on top of the Super Heavy booster, the rocket is the tallest ever built: 400 feet tall, or about 100 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, including the pedestal.

The Super Heavy has 33 powerful SpaceX Raptor engines protruding from the bottom.

As those engines lift Starship off the launch pad, they generate up to 16 million pounds of thrust at full throttle. During this flight, one of the engines failed to ignite, but that did not stop the aircraft from continuing its journey into space.

A few weeks ago, after a successful launch rehearsal, Mr. Musk wrote on X that for this flight, “The primary goal is to get through maximum re-entry heating.”

In other words, he didn’t want the vehicle to burn down. And on Thursday, it didn’t.

The Starship launches have drawn spectators to SpaceX’s launch site near the southern tip of Texas.

On Thursday, they sat in beach chairs or atop pickup trucks and campers, listening to the SpaceX broadcast as the countdown continued.

“It’s crazy what they’re doing here,” said Chris Thomassen, who came from the Netherlands to watch the launch. He camped on a beach near the launch pad for three days and then moved to a spot just on the edge of the safety zone.

Robert Opel, 56, pitched a tent outside the launch site four days before Thursday’s launch. He was so determined to watch the launch up close that he had arranged to travel across the Rio Grande to Mexico, just a few miles from the launch pad.

“It’s like all your birthdays wrapped into one,” Mr Opel said, adding that this was the fourth – of four – Starship test launches he had witnessed.

Eric Lipton contributed to the reporting from Boca Chica, Texas.

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