SpaceX marks first successful Starship test behind Boeing's debut crewed mission

SpaceX's mega rocket Starship launches for a test flight from Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas, Thursday.

SpaceX's mega rocket Starship launches for a test flight from Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas, Thursday. (SpaceX via the Associated Press)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Just a day after Boeing's oft-delayed debut crewed flight of its Starliner capsule finally left the ground, SpaceX completed a successful test flight of its massive Starship spacecraft on the fourth attempt following a trio of previous flights that ended in fiery destruction.

The unmanned Starship spacecraft lifted off atop the Super Heavy booster Thursday at 6:50 a.m. MDT from SpaceX's Boca Chica, Texas, launch facility. Shortly after launch, the booster rocket separated from the spacecraft, executed a maneuver that will be necessary to recover the component in later flights and splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico. The Starship craft flew for about one hour before reentering Earth's atmosphere and making a controlled splash down in the Indian Ocean.

A live video feed from a camera attached to Starship showed debris coming off the spacecraft during its reentry and a steering fin that was deteriorating in the extreme heat and forces created by atmospheric friction. But, even damaged, Starship was able to perform a "flip" maneuver just a few kilometers from the water's surface in a move that elicited cheers from SpaceX employees gathered at the company's launch center.

SpaceX owner Elon Musk, who's characterized previous Starship mishaps as part of a necessary, iterative process to fine-tune the spacecraft and rocket systems, celebrated the Thursday test flight's success in a post on X.

"Despite loss of many tiles and a damaged flap, Starship made it all the way to a soft landing in the ocean!" Musk wrote.

NASA administrator Bill Nelson also lauded the Starship test in his own social media posting.

Under development for years, SpaceX's Starship system is comprised of the 164-foot tall Starship spacecraft and the 226-foot tall Super Heavy rocket booster. The massive booster is powered by 33 individual Raptor engines that, in unison, create nearly 17 million pounds of thrust. The methane-powered system dwarfs the current record held by NASA's Space Launch System, which flew a successful test flight last November and can achieve almost 9 million pounds of thrust.

SpaceX describes Starship as "a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo to Earth orbit, help humanity return to the moon, and travel to Mars and beyond." As SpaceX does with its workhorse Falcon 9 rockets, the Starship system is designed for booster return and reuse capabilities.

Starship is capable of lifting as much as 250 tons into space and could accommodate 100 people on a potential trip to Mars.

SpaceX has its own plans for putting the Starship to work once it becomes operational, ferrying satellites to low Earth orbit and potentially carrying paying passengers to space. But NASA is also vested in the successful development of the giant rocket system, having struck a $2.9 billion deal with SpaceX in hopes of making Starship part of the Artemis moon mission. Starship's upper stage spacecraft would be used to carry astronauts from lunar orbit to the surface of the moon but the NASA contract stipulates that SpaceX must first prove its abilities by performing a successful unmanned lunar landing.

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