SpaceX Successfully Launches and Recovers Giant Starship Rocket

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SpaceX has demonstrated once more that testing rocket hardware under real-world flight conditions yields significant results. In its most recent launch, the company reached a critical milestone in its Starship flight test campaign by bringing both the booster and the upper stage back to Earth in controlled ocean landings.

Retrieving the two segments of the launch vehicle—namely, the Super Heavy booster and the upper stage, referred to as Starship—is crucial to SpaceX’s long-term vision of making Starship the first fully reusable rocket. Reusability hinges on recovery, and SpaceX is proving its capability to achieve this with Starship.

The ultimate aim is to return the Super Heavy and the Starship upper stage to Starbase, SpaceX’s dedicated Starship launch and development site in southeastern Texas, where the vehicles would perform vertical landings on solid ground. A controlled ocean splashdown is the initial step in realizing this ambition. SpaceX was the pioneer in reusing parts of rockets that have been to space; even so, its Falcon 9 rocket is only partly reusable, with the second stage being expended in orbit.

Starship launched from Starbase at 8:50 AM CT, marking the fourth launch in its testing campaign. SpaceX’s plans for the rocket involve launching heavier configurations of its Starlink satellites, transporting NASA astronauts to the moon, and eventually making human life multi-planetary.

Despite it being just the fourth occasion that the massive Starship has launched to orbit, the test proceeded remarkably well. Out of the 33 Raptor engines on the Super Heavy booster, only one failed, and the company successfully carried out its innovative “hot-staging” stage separation technique. In “hot staging,” the engines on the upper stage ignite briefly while still attached to the booster, effectively helping to ‘push’ the booster away. For the first time, SpaceX also jettisoned the “hot stage ring” between Starship and Super Heavy to reduce the booster’s weight on its return to Earth.

Following the launch, the booster made a successful splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico. Just over an hour later, Starship also splashed down, enduring the extreme heat from re-entering Earth’s atmosphere at hypersonic speeds, finally landing in the Indian Ocean.

Of the 18,000 heat shield tiles on the Starship, engineers purposely substituted one with a thinner variant and removed two entirely to “measure how hot things get without tiles in those locations, while also testing some thermal protection options,” according to SpaceX. CEO Elon Musk later confirmed on X that the ship successfully splashed down despite having a damaged flap and losing “many tiles.” Musk has previously stated that the heatshield system remains “the biggest remaining problem” in Starship’s development.

Starship has significantly progressed since its initial orbital test flight in April 2023, which resulted in a mid-air explosion of both rocket parts and malfunctioning engines. Each subsequent test has improved, with Starship successfully reaching orbit for the first time in the third test this past March. During that test, SpaceX also evaluated capabilities crucial for delivering payloads to space, such as the operation of the payload door.

Aria Alamalhodaei
Aria Alamalhodaei
Aria Alamalhodaei covers the space and defense industries. Previously, she covered the public utilities and the power grid for California Energy Markets. You can also find her work at MIT’s Undark Magazine, The Verge, and Discover Magazine. She received an MA in art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. Aria is based in Austin, Texas.

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