SpaceX rocket successfully completes first return from space

SpaceX's launch of its giant Starship rocket on Thursday achieved a series of ambitious goals that Elon Musk, the company's chief executive, had set before its fourth test flight.

Lifting off from SpaceX's launch pad at 7:50 a.m. in south Texas, near Brownsville, the Starship roared into the sky.

After dropping from the upper stage, the booster managed to come to rest gently in the Gulf of Mexico while the second stage spacecraft traveled to the other side of the world, survived the scorching temperatures of atmospheric re-entry, and even made a splashdown checked. , in the Indian Ocean.

The flight was not flawless and difficult technical obstacles remain. The successes, surpassing what was achieved during the previous test flight in March, offered optimism that Musk can realize his vision of a rocket that is the largest and most powerful yet made and yet entirely reusable.

The result also helps validate the company's “break then fix” engineering approach, with steady progress since the first test launch in April last year, when the rocket had to be deliberately destroyed when it flew off course.

“They are demonstrating the ability to make progress more quickly than we thought they would be able to,” said Daniel L. Dumbacher, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a professional society for engineers. “They have a team that knows what they're doing, has the capabilities, is willing to learn and, just as importantly, isn't tied to the assumptions of the past.”

If Starship could fly again and again, more like an airliner than a conventional rocket, it could transform a global space launch industry that SpaceX already dominates.

Today's flight is likely encouraging for NASA officials as well. They're counting on SpaceX to deliver a version of Starship to take astronauts to the surface of the moon during NASA's Artemis III mission, currently scheduled for late 2026.

Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator, congratulated X, the social media site owned by Musk.

“We are one step closer to returning humanity to the Moon through #Artemis – then looking ahead to Mars,” he wrote.

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

At an altitude of about 30 miles, pieces began to break off from one of the steering flaps near the top of the spacecraft, while the flap continued to function. The camera's view was then obstructed when debris broke the lens.

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

The real-time data continued to flow back, transmitted via SpaceX's Starlink Internet satellites, to the company's headquarters in Hawthorne, California, until the altitude was reported at 0, the surface of the Indian Ocean .

A final engine burn flipped the spaceship upright just before landing.

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

A crowd of SpaceX employees waiting outside the mission control center in California cheered wildly, their arms raised in celebration.

“Despite the loss of many tiles and a damaged flap, the Starship managed to land softly in the ocean!” Mr. Musk wrote about X.

The damaged flap and loss of heat-resistant tiles mean crucial upgrades are still needed. Otherwise, Starship, like space shuttles, would require extensive refurbishment after each flight.

“But it's all fixable,” Mr. Dumbacher said. “It's a step in the right direction and there are more to take.”

At the beginning of the flight, the first stage of the rocket, the gigantic Super Heavy booster was also able to perform maneuvers that would return it to the launch site in the future. For this flight he simulated a similar landing by landing in the Gulf of Mexico. All three previous attempts at such a feat ended in explosions.

With the Starship vehicle stacked on top of the Super Heavy booster, the rocket is the tallest ever built: 397 feet tall, or about 90 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, including the pedestal.

The Super Heavy has 33 of SpaceX's powerful Raptor engines protruding from the bottom.

When these engines lift Starship off the launch pad, they generate up to 16 million pounds of thrust at full throttle. During this flight, one of the engines did not ignite, but this did not prevent him from continuing his journey into space.

A couple of weeks ago, after a successful launch test, Musk wrote on X that for this flight “the primary objective is to exceed maximum re-entry heating.”

In other words, he didn't want the vehicle to burn. And that wasn't the case on Thursday.

The Starship launches drew spectators to SpaceX's launch site near the southern tip of Texas.

On Thursday, they sat in lawn chairs or on top of pickup trucks and campers listening to the SpaceX broadcast. as the countdown continued.

“It's crazy what they're doing here,” said Chris Thomassen, who had traveled from the Netherlands to watch the launch, camping for three days on a beach near the launch pad, then moving to a spot right on the edge of safety . exclusion zone.

Robert Opel, 56, set up a tent outside the launch site four days before Thursday's launch. He was so determined to see liftoff up close that he had organized a trip across the Rio Grande to Mexico, which is just a few hundred meters from the launch pad.

“It's like all your birthdays rolled into one,” Opel said, adding that this was the fourth, of four, Starship test launches he has witnessed.

Eric Lipton contributed reporting from Boca Chica, Texas.

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