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SpaceX 3rd try at Starship launch makes it to space without exploding

SpaceX’s powerful Starship and Super Heavy rocket is amid a much more successful third orbital test flight from Texas on Thursday morning so far with no explosive endings that marred the first two test flights in 2023.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced late Wednesday it had granted SpaceX a license for the Orbital Flight Test 3, and the 396-foot-tall rocket took flight at 9:25 a.m. EDT from the company’s Starbase launch site in Boca Chica, Texas.

“The FAA determined SpaceX met all safety, environmental, policy and financial responsibility requirements,” reads an FAA statement.

The Super Heavy booster’s 33 Raptor engines that produce more than 17 million pounds of thrust performed just as well as the last flight remaining lit until SpaceX performed a hot staging maneuver during which all but three of the Raptor engines shut down while letting the Starship upper stage light its engines while still connected. The two stages separated with Starship continuing its climb into space for a suborbital trip that aims to take it halfway around the Earth for a splashdown in Indian Ocean.

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The second launch attempt in November saw both the Super Heavy booster explode on its way back down to the Gulf of Mexico and Starship self destruct before it completed its ascent burn.

This time, though, the Super Heavy booster made it closer back to Earth, although not completing what SpaceX had planned, a controlled burn right above the surface of the Gulf to demonstrate its capability to land similar to Falcon 9 first-stage boosters. SpaceX lost control of the booster still traveling more than 600 mph when it hit the water.

The Starship upper stage, though, made it through its burn less than 10 minutes after launch and then began a 30-minute coast phase during which SpaceX had already performed one of its additional testing parameters for the day, the open and closing of the spacecraft’s payload door.

Key to the license was determining there would be no significant impact on a new target destination for the upper Starship stage’s return to Earth on its suborbital path in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Plans call for the Super Heavy booster to also make a water landing, but in the Gulf of Mexico, which was the same plan for the previous two test launches. Those launches, though, had originally aimed to send the Starship upper stage 2/3 the way around the Earth with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.

Eventually, plans are for both halves to make vertical safe landings as part of the spacecraft’s reusable design.

At a combined 397 feet tall, the fully-stacked rocket takes off from a 469-foot-tall launch integration tower, which SpaceX CEO Elon Musk refers to as “Mechazilla.” It’s designed to one day capture the Super Heavy booster on its return with the aid of two pivoting metal arms called the “chopsticks,” but not for this test launch.

Neither the April or November launches ended according to plan, but instead had explosive ends. The first attempt saw the Super Heavy booster and Starship upper stage fail to separate prompting SpaceX to send a self destruct command while it was over the Gulf.

The second attempt saw a successful separation, but the Super Heavy still blew up on its way down to the water and the Starship upper stage, while it made it into space, did not finish its ascent burn and had an automatic self destruct sequence enacted.

“Starship’s second flight test achieved a number of major milestones and provided invaluable data to continue rapidly developing Starship,” reads a launch preview on SpaceX’s website. “Each of these flight tests continue to be just that: a test. They aren’t occurring in a lab or on a test stand, but are putting flight hardware in a flight environment to maximize learning.”

The Super Heavy booster’s 33 Raptor engines produce near 17 million pounds of thrust on liftoff, and the second launch’s upper stage technically made it to space despite the explosion, making Starship the most powerful rocket to ever make it to space. It bested NASA’s Space Launch System rocket’s 8.8 million pounds of thrust produced when it flew the Orion capsule to space on the Artemis I mission back in 2022.

For the third flight, SpaceX aims to surpass that accolade while adding more facets to the flight.

So while still targeting successful ascent burns of both stages, SpaceX will now attempt to open and close a payload door on the upper stage during flight as well as perform a propellant transfer demonstration while the upper stage is coasting.

It will also try to relight one of the upper stage’s six Raptor engines while in space and attempt a controlled reentry, although won’t be attempting any sort of landing on a droneship like its Falcon 9 first-stage boosters.

The change in flight path to the Indian Ocean allows for more public safety while attempting the new rocket features.

“This rapid iterative development approach has been the basis for all of SpaceX’s major innovative advancements, including Falcon, Dragon, and Starlink,” reads the post on SpaceX’s website. “Recursive improvement is essential as we work to build a fully reusable transportation system capable of carrying both crew and cargo to Earth orbit, help humanity return to the moon, and ultimately travel to Mars and beyond.”

The propellant transfer demonstration is one thing NASA is keenly interested in as SpaceX has been contracted to use a version of its Starship as the human landing system for the forthcoming Artemis III mission that will return humans including the first woman back to moon’s surface since the end of the Apollo program in 1972.

That mission is on the calendar for as early as September 2026, and NASA needs SpaceX to get Starship up and running, including its plans to do in-space refueling on its way to the moon.

Elon Musk said this week he hopes to get as many as six more test Starship launches this year, but once it has a working rocket, the company plans to send up hundreds and then thousands of Starship launches a year.

To support that, it’s pursuing multiple launch pads beyond its test site in Texas including potential launches from Kennedy Space Center at Launch Complex 39-A where it has already begun to build a Starship launch tower, but also potentially taking over Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, for which the Department of the Air Force has begun an Environmental Impact Statement expected to be complete by next summer.

Space Coast launches would not happen until Starship achieves several successful test flights.