SpaceX gets green light for fourth Starship test flight

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SpaceX has received a launch license authorizing the fourth test flight of its massive moon rocket.

Starship, the most powerful launch vehicle ever built, is expected to take off Thursday, during a 120-minute launch window that opens at 8 a.m. ET. A livestream of the flight test will be available on SpaceX’s website about 30 minutes before liftoff.

The Starship vehicle, which includes the upper Starship spacecraft and a rocket booster known as the Super Heavy, will launch from the company’s private Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses commercial rocket launches, gave SpaceX their approval for the flight test Tuesday and said the company “met all safety and other licensing requirements for this test flight.”

SpaceX proposed three scenarios involving Starship’s entry into the atmosphere that would not require an investigation if the vehicle is lost, according to the agency. Those potential mishaps include a failure of a thermal shield, some loss of control of the vehicle in midflight, and the failure of an engine during a landing burn.

“If a different anomaly occurs with the Starship vehicle an investigation may be warranted as well as if an anomaly occurs with the Super Heavy booster rocket,” the agency said in a statement.

“In addition, the FAA approved the mission profile that included a controlled and uncontrolled entry of the Starship vehicle. If SpaceX chooses to execute an uncontrolled entry, it must communicate that decision to the FAA prior to launch,” according to the statement. “As such, the loss of the Starship vehicle would be considered a planned event and an investigation will not be required.”

Each of Starship’s test flights have different objectives that build on lessons learned and milestones achieved during the previous flights.

This time, SpaceX is focused on “demonstrating the ability to return and reuse Starship and Super Heavy. The primary objectives will be executing a landing burn and soft splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico with the Super Heavy booster, and achieving a controlled entry of Starship,” according to a release shared by the company.

If successful, Starship is expected to splash down in the Indian Ocean.

SpaceX made multiple software and hardware upgrades on Starship to incorporate lessons learned from the third flight.

“The fourth flight of Starship will aim to bring us closer to the rapidly reusable future on the horizon,” according to SpaceX. “We’re continuing to rapidly develop Starship, putting flight hardware in a flight environment to learn as quickly as possible as we build a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars and beyond.”

Three wild test flights

The first two attempts to get Starship to orbital speeds in 2023 ended in explosions, with the spacecraft and booster erupting into flames before reaching their intended landing sites.

SpaceX is known to embrace fiery mishaps in the early stages of spacecraft development, saying these failures help the company rapidly implement design changes that lead to better results.

SpaceX has said its approach to rocket development is geared toward speed. The company makes use of an engineering method called “rapid spiral development.” This process essentially boils down to a desire to build prototypes quickly and willingly blow them up to learn how to construct a better one — faster than if the company solely relied on ground tests and simulations.

After the explosive first and second Starship test flights, the company immediately sought to frame these mishaps as successes.

The nearly hour-long third test flight, conducted in March, achieved several milestones before breaking apart after reentry, rather than splashing down in the Indian Ocean.

Much is riding on Starship’s eventual success. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has repeatedly characterized the rocket as central to the company’s founding mission: putting humans on Mars for the first time.

Crucially, the Starship spacecraft is also the vehicle NASA has selected to land astronauts launched from the United States on the moon for the first time in more than five decades as part of its Artemis program. The space agency is in a race with China, vying to become first to develop a permanent lunar outpost and set the precedent for deep-space settlements.

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