SpaceX’s Starship rocket successfully completes first return from space

SpaceX launched its massive Starship rocket on Thursday, fulfilling a set of ambitious goals set by the company’s chief executive, Elon Musk, ahead of its fourth test flight.

The Starship blasted off from the SpaceX launch pad in South Texas at 7:50 a.m. near Brownsville.

After disengaging from the upper stage, the booster was able to slowly descend into the Gulf of Mexico, where the second stage spacecraft traveled halfway around the world and was controlled by maintaining the temperature of re-entry into the atmosphere. , in the Indian Ocean.

The plane is not flawless, and there are difficult technical hurdles. These successes surpassed those achieved during the previous test flight in March, Mr. That gave Musk hope that he could pull off his vision of a bigger and more powerful rocket.

With steady progress since the first test launch in April last year, the rocket had to be deliberately destroyed when it flew off course.

Daniel L., executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a professional society for engineers. “They’re showing the ability to move forward faster than we thought,” Dumbacher said. “They’ve got a team that knows what they’re doing, is willing to learn, and most importantly, doesn’t conform to past assumptions.”

If Starship can fly repeatedly, more like a jetliner than a conventional rocket, SpaceX could revolutionize the already dominant global space launch industry.

Today’s flight will inspire officials at NASA. They are counting on SpaceX to deliver a version of the Starship to carry astronauts to the lunar surface during NASA’s Artemis III mission, currently scheduled for late 2026.

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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.

After reaching a maximum altitude of about 130 miles, the Starship upper-stage vehicle fell back to Earth as planned and re-entered the atmosphere. Cameras aboard the spacecraft captured the vibrant glow of gases heating beneath it.

At about 30 miles altitude, pieces began to peel off one of the steering flaps on the top of the spacecraft, and the flap continued to work. The camera’s view was obstructed when debris broke the lens.

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

Real-time data were continuously transmitted via SpaceX’s Starlink Internet satellites to the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, until the Indian Ocean surface elevation was recorded at 0.

A final engine burn turned the starship into a vertical position just before landing.

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

A crowd of SpaceX employees watching outside Mission Control in California cheered wildly, raising their arms in celebration.

“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.

Damaged flaps and loss of heat-resistant tiles point to important upgrades still needed. Otherwise, the starship, like space shuttles, would require extensive overhaul after each flight.

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“But that’s fixable,” Mr. Dumbcher said. “This is a step in the right direction, and there are many more steps to be taken.”

Earlier in the flight, the rocket’s first stage, a giant super-heavy booster, was able to perform maneuvers that would take it back to the launch pad in the future. For this flight, it simulated landing in the Gulf of Mexico. All three previous attempts at that feat ended in implosion.

With the Starship vehicle stacked atop a superheavy booster, the rocket is the tallest ever built — 397 feet tall, or 90 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, including the pedestal.

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 up to 16 million pounds of thrust at full speed. On this flight, one of the engines failed to ignite, but that didn’t stop it from continuing its journey into space.

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

In other words, he didn’t want the vehicle to catch fire. And on Thursday, it wasn’t.

Starship launches have drawn visitors to SpaceX’s launch pad near the southern tip of Texas.

On Thursday, they sat in beach chairs or pickup trucks listening to SpaceX broadcasts. As the countdown continued.

“What they’re doing here is crazy,” said Chris Thomassen, who traveled from the Netherlands to watch the launch, camped for three days on a beach near the launch site, and then moved to a site on the edge of safety. Exclusion zone.

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Robert Opel, 56, pitched a tent outside the launch pad four days before Thursday’s launch. He was so determined to get a close-up look at the liftoff, just a few miles from the launch pad, to get across the Rio Grande to Mexico.

“It’s like all your birthdays rolled into one,” said Mr. Opel said it was the fourth — out of four — Starship test launches he saw.

Eric Lipton Contributed reporting from Boca Chica, Texas.

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