SpaceX’s third test flight of its massive Starship rocket, which NASA is counting on as part of its mission to return astronauts to the moon, ended the same as the first two, with the oversized vehicles breaking up before the flight was complete, but officials are celebrating the launch, calling it successful.

That might sound like a curious description to some people given the complete loss of the rocket, but, at this stage, success doesn’t have to mean a picture-perfect landing. In this case, it meant that the vehicle was able to achieve most of its goals in the course of its short flight.

For instance, Starship was able to reach orbital velocity, and while the spacecraft was empty, had it been carrying cargo on board, it would have been able to successfully deploy that, as the craft was able to both open and close the payload doors. It also completed a fuel transfer demonstration, a process similar to the aerial refueling the military does with fighter planes.

The total flight time for the journey was almost one hour, which is considerably longer than the first two flights.

“Starship has soared into the heavens. Together, we are making great strides through Artemis to return humanity to the Moon—then look onward to Mars,” NASA’ Administrator Bill Nelson wrote in a post on X/Twitter.

This was also the first time SpaceX’s super-heavy booster has reentered the atmosphere. The flight path for this journey was different than usual, letting it attempt new techniques like in-space engine burns. The plan was to splashdown in the Indian Ocean, but the spacecraft was lost on reentry, presumably due to either burning up or coming apart during the process. SpaceX did not immediately detail the reasons for the loss.

A lot is riding on Starship becoming a reliable mode of space transportation. NASA has a multibillion-dollar contract with SpaceX to use it to land astronauts on the moon, and it is key to plans to send a crew to Mars at some point. The booster is designed to be reusable, but so far, SpaceX hasn’t been able to achieve that goal.

That’s to be expected, though. SpaceX deliberately pushes its test vehicles, often to the point of failure. The point of those exercises is to gather data, which can inform future flights. Even the first flight, last April, which blew up (or, as SpaceX categorized it, “experienced a rapid unscheduled disassembly”) moments into its flight, was deemed a success for clearing the launchpad, despite some environmental concerns.

Aerospace experts say that despite the loss of the ships so far, SpaceX is doing a very good job in its tests of the Starship, pointing to the complexity of the rocket and all the systems whose functionality needs to be examined.

“They’re doing well,” says Glenn Lightsey, professor of space systems technology at Georgia Tech’s Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering. “[SpaceX] is a private venture that takes a different approach than a government program. There’s more willingness to accept risk and move more quickly. There might be failure along the way, but there’s more tolerance to accommodate that—and in the long run, you might be able to develop a system faster.”

SpaceX founder Elon Musk warned last year that onlookers should not expect the early test flights to go smoothly. “Success is not what should be expected,” he cautioned. “It may take us a few kicks of the can here before we reach orbit.”

Starship is a massive rocket, unlike anything that has been attempted before. Standing at 397 feet tall—232 feet of which belong to the booster—it uses 33 Raptor engines. Collectively, they give the spacecraft 16.7 million pounds of thrust, nearly twice that of NASA’s most advanced system.

The Raptor spacecraft, which sits atop the super-heavy booster, has six additional engines, which are designed to be used in both Earth’s atmosphere and in the vacuum of space.

SpaceX has said previously that it expects to fly hundreds of unmanned missions on Starship before it attempts to put a crew in the rocket.

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2 thoughts on “SpaceX’s third Starship broke apart again, but the launch was still a big success. Here’s why”
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