Jason DavisApr 20, 2023

SpaceX's Starship test flight succeeds despite not reaching orbit

On April 20, 2023, SpaceX’s Super Heavy booster and Starship spacecraft rose from their launch tower in Boca Chica, Texas, around 9:33 a.m. EDT (13:33 UTC) in the first integrated test of the vehicles. SpaceX officials had repeatedly stressed that the test flight’s main goal was to have the rocket clear the launch tower, which it did. All other objectives were a bonus. 

As the rocket rose, camera views and on-screen status displays showed that at least five of Super Heavy’s 33 engines were no longer active. According to published timelines, Starship should have separated from Super Heavy and ignited its own engines just shy of three minutes into the flight. Seconds later, Super Heavy was scheduled to start a flip maneuver and boostback burn, testing its ability to return to the launch pad for reuse by splashing down upright in the Gulf of Mexico.

The vehicles did not separate as planned and slowly began to tumble. At the flight’s four-minute mark, both vehicles broke apart, ending the test mission.

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Starship flight test SpaceX's Starship vehicle completed its first flight test on April 20, 2023. The vehicle broke apart four minutes after liftoff.Video: SpaceX

To the Moon and Mars

SpaceX already has more Starship vehicles under construction and says it will be ready to repeat the test flight in a few months. The company has customers lined up for its massive rocket system, the most visible of which is NASA, which selected it to carry humans to the lunar surface during the Artemis III mission as early as 2025.

For that mission, SpaceX will send an uncrewed Starship to lunar orbit, where it will rendezvous with an Orion spacecraft carrying astronauts. The crew will fly with Starship to the lunar surface for an upright landing. After walking on the Moon for the first time since 1972, the astronauts will take Starship back into lunar orbit, where they will transfer back to Orion for the trip home to Earth.

SpaceX plans to get a lot of Starship launches under its belt before Artemis III. Company president Gwynne Shotwell said that she would prefer as many as 100 launches before flying humans, although that is not a firm requirement.

Some of those flights will deploy Starlink internet satellites as part of the company’s growing orbital megaconstellation. SpaceX notched 61 total flights in 2022 and is aiming for 100 in 2023.

Mars remains Starship’s ultimate destination. SpaceX recently released a new concept video showing how the vehicle could carry humans to the Red Planet. The animation ends with four astronauts opening Starship’s hatch, gazing across a twilight Martian city surrounding a large glass dome.

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Starship Mission to Mars SpaceX's Starship transportation system is designed to carry humans to Mars. This concept video from the company shows a conceptual Mars mission from liftoff to landing.Video: SpaceX

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