SpaceX Successfully Returns Starship to Earth in Fourth Flight Test

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Key Takeaways

  • SpaceX has successfully brought Starship back to Earth for the first time.
  • This fourth flight test splashed both the spacecraft and rocket in the ocean.
  • The test is crucial for Artemis and the Starship program as a whole.

SpaceX’s Starship has returned to Earth for the first time as part of a fourth flight test.

The vehicle launched from Texas at approximately 8:50AM Eastern and completed its signature flip maneuver before intentionally conducting a soft splashdown in the Indian Ocean. SpaceX also deliberately splashed the Falcon Super Heavy booster rocket in the Gulf of Mexico.

The company made a number of modifications to both tackle issues from the third flight as well as to expand the testing. It upgraded both Starship and the rocket to prevent filter blockages, and changed the flight trajectory to both try a hot stage ring jettison as well as the flip.

The test represented the longest Starship flight to date at over an hour, and cleared a key milestone for the spacecraft. Previous missions were focused simply on getting Starship into space, and ended with the destruction of the vehicle. This shows that SpaceX can at least return all components intact.

SpaceX still has a while to go before Starship is truly ready for service. It needs to complete ground landings, whole orbits, and crewed flights. However, those now appear considerably more likely.

Starship will play an instrumental role in the futures of both NASA and SpaceX. An HLS (Human Landing System) variant will participate in Artemis Moon missions, including the Artemis III crewed landing currently slated for September 2026. It should also be useful for other deep space missions, potentially including Mars.

Frequent technical issues and delays with Starship test flights have soured some of SpaceX’s ambitions. Most notably, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa cancelled his dearMoon lunar tourist flight over uncertainties about when Starship would be ready. He’d originally committed to the project in 2018, but had expected to fly by 2023.

The much-improved results aren’t necessarily going to prompt a change of heart. They should minimize delays for NASA, though, and might keep the door open for other private spaceflight opportunities.