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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

SpaceX prepares for fourth starship test flight

The Federal Aviation Administration and SpaceX have agreed on a new approach to handle potential anomalies during the test flight.

SpaceX is set to embark on its fourth Starship test flight, marking another significant milestone in the development of the most powerful launch vehicle ever built. Scheduled for Thursday, June 6, this flight aims to demonstrate further advancements toward a fully reusable space transportation system designed to carry crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

Launch Approval and Schedule

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has granted SpaceX a launch license for this critical test mission, stating that SpaceX has “met all safety and other licensing requirements.” The test flight is expected to lift off from SpaceX’s private Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas, during a 120-minute window that opens at 8 a.m. ET. Space enthusiasts can watch the event live on SpaceX’s website, with streaming beginning approximately 30 minutes before liftoff.

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Objectives and Challenges

The primary objectives of this fourth test flight include executing a landing burn and achieving a soft splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico with the Super Heavy booster, along with a controlled re-entry of the Starship vehicle. SpaceX aims to return and reuse both the Starship and the Super Heavy booster, aligning with their long-term goal of developing a fully reusable space transportation system.

Preparations and Modifications

In preparation for this flight, SpaceX has implemented several hardware and software upgrades based on lessons learned from previous tests. The third test flight, conducted in March, achieved multiple milestones before breaking apart after re-entry. This flight provided valuable data that has informed the modifications for the upcoming test.

Safety and Regulatory Measures

The FAA and SpaceX have agreed on a new approach to handle potential anomalies during the test flight. The FAA has approved three specific scenarios involving the Starship’s entry that would not require a detailed investigation if the vehicle is lost. These scenarios include the failure of a thermal shield, some loss of control of the vehicle in mid-flight, and the failure of an engine during a landing burn. This agreement allows for a more streamlined process in the event of test-induced damage, ensuring that SpaceX can continue its rapid development pace.

Historical Context and Future Goals

SpaceX’s Starship program is crucial not only for the company’s ambitions but also for NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to return astronauts to the Moon. Starship has been selected as the lander for the Artemis 3 mission, set to carry astronauts to the Moon’s south pole in 2026. The success of Starship is also central to Elon Musk’s vision of enabling human settlement on Mars.

Previous Test Flights

The journey of Starship has been marked by both spectacular achievements and fiery failures. The first two test flights in 2023 ended in explosions, with the rockets failing to reach their intended landing sites. SpaceX, however, views these failures as integral to its development process, using them to rapidly iterate and improve the design.

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The nearly hour-long third test flight managed to reach space before breaking apart after re-entry. This flight demonstrated several critical capabilities and provided a wealth of data for future improvements. Each test builds on the successes and lessons of previous flights, moving SpaceX closer to achieving a fully operational Starship.