1. Home
  2. Science
  3. news
  4. Starship's 3rd-launch success: Rocket finally soared to space without blowing up, but SpaceX lost it on reentry

Starship's 3rd-launch success: Rocket finally soared to space without blowing up, but SpaceX lost it on reentry

Morgan McFall-Johnsen,Marianne Guenot,Ellyn Lapointe   

Starship's 3rd-launch success: Rocket finally soared to space without blowing up, but SpaceX lost it on reentry
  • SpaceX successfully launched the world's tallest and most powerful rocket into space for the first time.
  • But Starship lost communication with SpaceX during its reentry to splash down in the Indian Ocean.

SpaceX's Starship megarocket finally thundered through the skies, past the stratosphere, and into space Thursday morning.

It was a spectacular finale to years of secretive development, explosive test flights, and regulatory hurdles. With the launch, SpaceX has proved it can not only build the tallest and most powerful rocket on Earth but also fly it beyond this world.

However, during its red-hot plummet back to Earth, Starship dropped out of communication with SpaceX, and the company shortly thereafter said the rocket had been lost.

It's possible that the spacecraft was severely damaged or broken apart by the extreme temperatures created by its fall through the atmosphere, as it traveled at about five times the speed of sound.

Regardless, Thursday's launch is a huge win for the company.

"This is failing forward at its finest," Eric Berger, a senior space editor at Ars Technica, said on X. "One of SpaceX's secret sauces is an acceptance of failure as a means to an end."

Elon Musk's plans to settle on Mars hinge not only on Starship's unprecedented power but also on its capacity to be fully reusable.

In 2002, Musk founded SpaceX with the goal of making spaceflight cheap enough to establish a permanent human settlement on the red planet. This is the rocket that's supposed to make that happen.

Musk is also counting on Starship to help blanket the Earth in high-speed Starlink satellite internet, while NASA is relying on the megarocket to return astronauts to the moon for the first time in more than 50 years.

Starship has finally proved it may be up to its immense tasks.

Starship's historic flight to orbital heights

Sitting atop its stainless-steel Super Heavy booster, Starship stood taller than the Statue of Liberty at the company's new orbital launchpad in South Texas, while a crowd of SpaceX employees cheered, applauded, and counted down with the clock.

At about 8:25 a.m. CT, the booster's array of 33 Raptor engines roared to life, blasting the steel-enforced launchpad with up to 16 million pounds of thrust to heave the rocket past its launch tower and through the sunrise-tinted skies above.

Starship has become famous for its explosions. Several early prototypes of the spaceship exploded on previous test flights. The rocket's first two attempts at orbit also exploded in midair, in April and November of last year.

"Many of the innovations that we've developed have come from our failures," Siva Bharadvaj, a SpaceX operations engineer, said on the launch livestream.

Well, the third time's the charm. The Starship that launched on Thursday was the first to achieve orbital heights.

About three minutes after liftoff, Starship fired its engines and separated from its Super Heavy booster, in a risky maneuver called hot staging. As the booster fell back to Earth, Starship continued to climb toward the heavens, then shut off its engines to glide through space.

"Wow, what a liftoff, what a hot stage, what an amazing sight to see Starship in space," Dan Huot, SpaceX's communications manager, said on the company's livestream.

Starship spent about an hour cruising above the globe in orbit. Then it fell back toward Earth during a fiery plummet through the thick of the atmosphere.

It reached a terminal velocity of over 15,500 mph, then cut communications shortly afterward at about 40 miles above the surface.

Shortly after the communications blackout, SpaceX announced that Starship was lost.

Starship is the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built

Up to this point, the tallest rockets were the Saturn V, which launched NASA's Apollo missions, and the agency's Space Launch System, which it developed to return astronauts to the moon.

Once fully operational, Starship is expected to be able to carry up to 150 metric tons (165 tons) to space, per SpaceX. That jumps to 250 metric tons (275 tons) if you forgo reusability and discard the spaceship when the mission is done.

To put that in perspective, the most powerful operational rocket right now is SpaceX's Falcon Heavy, which carries up to 70 tons to low Earth orbit.

Starship and Super Heavy are designed to be fully reusable

Starship-Super Heavy is designed to be the world's first fully reusable launch system. Eventually, Starship and its booster should be able to fire their engines as they fall to Earth, lowering themselves to an upright landing on solid ground or on ocean barges so that they can fly again another day.

However, that technological milestone will have to wait.

On Thursday's flight, SpaceX didn't test those fully reusable capabilities. The booster splashed into the water, and Starship lost communication with SpaceX, so it's unclear whether it reached the Indian Ocean or blew up during reentry.

Reusability is an integral part of SpaceX's mission to reduce the cost of spaceflight.

The company already achieved partial reusability with its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters, which land safely back on Earth after launching payloads to orbit. But their upper stages are discarded after launch.

Safely landing both rocket stages back on Earth to fly again is a new level of engineering complexity that's never been done before, Musk said at a Morgan Stanley conference in March 2023. If SpaceX succeeds, it will change commercial spaceflight forever.

"It'll probably take us a couple more years to achieve full and rapid reusability," Musk said at the time, adding that reusability was "the profound breakthrough that is needed to extend life beyond Earth."

Starship has already demonstrated its ability to launch and land itself for reuse, a feat you can see for yourself in the video below.

Starship could bring NASA back to the moon

Starship reaching orbit is also an important stepping stone on the way back to the moon.

Though NASA's SLS rocket is meant to be its workhorse for its new Artemis moon program, the agency has enough faith in SpaceX to tag Starship for a crucial part of its upcoming missions: returning astronauts to the lunar surface.

The agency has awarded SpaceX $4 billion to turn the spaceship into a reliable moon-landing vehicle.

SLS is supposed to take astronauts to the moon's orbit, but Starship is the vehicle NASA has chosen to carry people down to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972. That mission, called Artemis III, could happen sometime this decade.

Later, Starship could support NASA's construction of a permanent base on the moon.

Musk's ultimate goal is much bigger: The billionaire has said he aims to eventually build 1,000 Starships to fly 100,000 people to Mars a year to build a city there and make humans a multiplanetary species.

SpaceX has high hopes for Starship

Musk expects Starship's fully reusable capability to translate to major savings and faster turnaround between launches since SpaceX could reuse its rockets instead of having to rebuild them for every launch.

SpaceX also hopes to use Starship to deliver giant batches of satellites to orbit. And Musk has said the behemoth rocket could run point-to-point transport on Earth, carrying passengers anywhere on the planet in an hour or less.

The company has another unique plan to fly the biggest payloads to deep space in history.

For maximum efficiency, the company aims to build "tanker" ships, which could refuel a Mars-bound Starship in Earth's orbit, replenishing the gargantuan quantities of fuel the rocket must burn to heave itself past the atmosphere.

That would allow the spacecraft to carry more cargo to Mars — up to 100 tons, according to SpaceX.

To compare, the rockets that launched the Apollo missions, the fleet of Saturn Vs, could send 130 tons into Earth's orbit and only 50 tons to the moon. NASA's new moon rocket, SLS, could send 46 tons into orbits beyond the moon.

The hope is that Starship's enormous capacity will allow SpaceX to transport all the necessary materials to build a settlement on the red planet, then populate it. One Starship should be able to carry 100 people to Mars, according to SpaceX.

SpaceX's tankers — essentially windowless, fuel-filled Starships — could also be reusable.

All that efficiency and power will be necessary to bring Musk's fantastical Mars dreams within financial reach.

Popular Right Now