April 15, 2024

SpaceX has launched the third test flight of its Starship spacecraft, the largest and most powerful rocket ever built, which aims to carry astronauts to the moon and eventually to Mars.

The 120-meter system, which weighs about 5,000 metric tons when fully fueled, lifted off from SpaceX’s spaceport, called Starbase, on the Gulf of Mexico in Boca Chica, Texas. It entered space a few minutes later.

Two previous attempts ended in the explosion of both the spacecraft’s 33-engine booster, nicknamed Super Heavy, and the craft, which is designed to eventually carry up to 100 astronauts. Stacked together they stand 10 meters higher than the Saturn V rocket which sent men to the moon in 1969.

SpaceX is much more risk tolerant than Nasa and has a flight test strategy aimed at regularly pushing its spacecraft prototypes to the limit, and beyond. His first Starship launch attempt lasted four minutes and the second lasted eight, with the latter reaches space. The company says regular flight testing will provide valuable data that will help it design and develop a more robust rocket.

“Each of these flight tests remains just that: a test,” SpaceX said in a statement ahead of the third launch attempt, in an apparent attempt to manage expectations in case the system explodes. “They do not occur in a laboratory or on a test stand, but place flight equipment in a flight environment to maximize learning.”

The third flight aimed to perform the first re-ignition of SpaceX’s signature Raptor engine while in space, open a payload door and make a controlled re-entry of Starship in the Indian Ocean. Both the upper and lower segments of Starship are designed to eventually drive themselves safely back to Earth for a soft landing so they can be reused, which will be significantly cheaper than building entirely new parts for each mission.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s billionaire founder, hopes that Starship will be the first step on a human journey further into space than ever before. He says he developed Starship, formerly called the BFR (heavily hinted to mean “big fucking rocket”), so that humans can eventually become a “multiplanetary species”. To do this, Musk intends to begin the colonization of Mars so that humanity can survive a planet-destroying event on Earth, such as a sentient AI takeover or asteroid strike.

NASA did SpaceX contracted to land astronauts, including the first woman, on the moon as soon as 2026, although that date is likely to be pushed back. Several other Starship systems are already in production for future tests.

Musk previously said the total development cost of Starship could be between $2 billion and $10 billion. Each launch is estimated to cost tens of millions of dollars.

The company makes money by operating smaller rockets to launch satellites as well as send astronauts to the International Space Station. It announced longer-term plans to use the spacecraft as a shuttle for commercial travel on Earth, promising journeys from London to Tokyo in less than an hour.

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