Third time is almost the charm for SpaceX's Starship

Booster hit the water hard and monster rocket lost during re-entry, but otherwise a success!

SpaceX has launched its third Starship Super-Heavy rocket on a test flight that went almost entirely to plan.

The 110-minute test window opened at 0700 CT on March 14, and, after a delay to clear boats from the range, the 33 Raptor engines of the Super Heavy booster were lit, and the Starship stack left the pad at 0825 CT.

Things initially seemed to go perfectly. Staging occurred as expected, and the booster began its journey back to Earth. However, it appeared there was a loss of control as the booster descended for landing, and the required engines did not all relight. The result was a crash into the Gulf of Mexico.

Still, at least the second stage, the Starship, made it into near-orbit and re-entry. SpaceX demonstrated the opening and closing of the payload door and called out propellant transfer operations, but a number of observers noted that something was venting from Starship.

SpaceX elected to skip a planned Raptor restart but did not disclose the reasons, and the vehicle continued on to its planned re-entry. Despite some stunning imagery being returned, the last telemetry from the vehicle was received as it passed through an altitude of 65km.

One space industry insider told The Register that it appeared the vehicle was tumbling, but SpaceX has yet to confirm the final fate of Starship. Only that it had indeed been lost.

The go-ahead [PDF] for the launch was given yesterday by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

As well as the modifications required following the previous launch attempt, the trajectory for the rocket was changed. SpaceX asked for, and was granted, permission to extend its operational area to include the Indian Ocean, something that merited extra scrutiny from the FAA [PDF].

The FAA's environmental assessment said: "Landing operations in the Indian Ocean would give SpaceX the flexibility to design and execute launch trajectories that meet additional mission objectives."

SpaceX had said: "This new flight path enables us to attempt new techniques like in-space engine burns while maximizing public safety."

Musk's biz has a checkered record regarding previous Starship launches. Its first launch memorably destroyed a large chunk of ground infrastructure before exploding shortly after lift-off. The second fared better, although the first stage exploded shortly after staging. The second stage encountered an anomaly that SpaceX boss Elon Musk attributed to venting of liquid oxygen.

In February, the FAA closed the investigation into the problems that occurred during the second launch. Changes made to the design by SpaceX included alterations to reduce leaks in Starship and measures to mitigate slosh in the tanks of the Super Heavy stage.

Musk had yesterday posted on his favorite mouthpiece that he hoped that there could be "at least six more flights this year," underscoring SpaceX's "rapid iterative development approach."

And rapid it needs to be. NASA is depending on the company for a vehicle to deliver a crew to the Moon in 2026. In addition to the landing itself, multiple Starship launches will be required to deliver propellant.

Unless, of course, the Artemis schedule slips again. ®

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