Success! SpaceX’s Starship Makes a Splash in Fourth Flight Test

SpaceX’s Starship earned high marks today in its fourth uncrewed flight test, making significant progress in the development of a launch system that’s tasked with putting NASA astronauts on the moon by as early as 2026.

The Super Heavy booster blasted off from SpaceX’s Starbase complex in South Texas at 7:50 a.m. CT (12:50 p.m. UTC), rising into the sky with 32 of its 33 methane-fueled Raptor engines blazing. Super Heavy is considered the world’s most powerful launch vehicle, with 16.7 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.

Minutes after launch, the rocket’s upper stage — known as the Ship — separated from the first stage, firing up its own set of six Raptor engines. Meanwhile, Super Heavy flew itself to a controlled splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico.

The soft splashdown marked a new achievement for Starship. During the third flight test, which took place in March, only a few of Super Heavy’s engines were able to light up again for a crucial landing burn. As a result, the booster hit the water with an uncontrolled splat.

Eventually, SpaceX plans to have the Super Heavy booster fly itself back to its base after doing its job.

The upper stage reached orbital-scale altitudes in excess of 200 kilometers (125 miles), but completing a full orbit wasn’t part of today’s plan. Instead, SpaceX aimed to have Ship make its own soft splashdown in the Indian Ocean.

Streaming video, relayed via SpaceX’s Starlink satellite network, showed the rocket’s protective skin glowing with the heat of atmospheric re-entry. Burning debris broke off from one of Ship’s control fins, damaging the camera’s lens — but the fuzzy view nevertheless confirmed that the spacecraft successfully hit the mark. That represented another advance over the third test, when the Ship broke up during its descent to the ocean.

“Despite loss of many tiles and a damaged flap, Starship made it all the way to a soft landing in the ocean!” SpaceX founder Elon Musk exulted in a posting to his X social-media platform.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson added his congratulations on X, and noted that the successful test was a plus for the space agency’s Artemis moon program. “We are another step closer to returning humanity to the moon through Artemis — then looking onward to Mars,” he wrote.

A customized version of Ship is slated to serve as the lunar lander for Artemis 3, which would mark the first crewed mission to the moon’s surface since Apollo 17 in 1972. That mission is currently scheduled for 2026, but the timing depends in part on when the Starship system will be ready.

SpaceX’s uncrewed flight tests are following a step-by-step path to get Starship in shape for a wide variety of missions — including the deployment of hundreds of Starlink satellites, point-to-point travel between spaceports on Earth, and crewed odysseys to the moon, Mars and beyond.

Starship rockets aren’t carrying payloads for these early tests. “We said it before, we’re going to say it 9,000 times: The data is the payload,” SpaceX commentator Dan Huot said during today’s flight test.

But as the development program proceeds, the envelope for the flight tests will be widened to include multi-orbit operations, payload deployments and precision touchdowns on landing pads. Before today’s test, SpaceX and the Federal Aviation Administration worked out an arrangement that’s expected to streamline the regulatory process for future flights.

Alan Boyle

Science writer Alan Boyle is the creator of Cosmic Log, a veteran of and NBC News Digital, and the author of "The Case for Pluto." He's based in Seattle, but the cosmos is his home.

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