SpaceX Scores Many Successes on Third Starship Test Flight

SpaceX Scores Many Successes on Third Starship Test Flight

SpaceX is still collecting and analyzing data from the third Starship test flight, but it is clear it scored many successes. They may have lost Starship over the Indian Ocean, but the vehicle made it almost three quarters of the way around the world. The Super Heavy first stage almost made it to a soft splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico and various tests were conducted as Starship flew through the atmosphere including a propellant transfer and opening and closing the payload door. For most of the ride, SpaceX broadcast spectacular images of Starship in flight that were sent back through ground stations as well as satellites, including Starlink.

Although they are often called Orbital Flight Tests, these Starship test flights actually are not intended to go into orbit. They remain suborbital and SpaceX refers to them as Integrated Flight Tests. The first test on April 20, 2023 ended after just about 4 minutes. The second on November 18, 2023 got further, but ended in an explosion.

The first two tests were intended to splash down near Hawaii, but today’s headed towards the Indian Ocean. SpaceX said the new trajectory “enables us to attempt new techniques like in-space engine burns while maximizing public safety.”

Today’s liftoff of OFT-3/IFT-3 was at 9:25 am ET from Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas.

The silver first stage is called Super Heavy or “the booster” and the second stage, covered in black thermal protection tiles, is called Starship or “the ship.” (Confusingly, the combination of Super Heavy and Starship also is called Starship.) The booster and the ship separated as planned about 4 minutes into flight during “hot staging” where the second stage engines begin firing while still attached to the first stage.

The booster then does a flip maneuver to position itself for landing. In the future, the boosters will be caught and reused, but for these tests are intended to make a soft splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico. Today, not all of the engines relit to slow the vehicle down and it was lost, but it came close.

Starship continued to ascend and reached space. Onboard cameras sent back amazing views as it made its way eastward towards the Indian Ocean and then began its fiery reentry.

SpaceX communicated with Starship through a number of ground stations along its path as well as through NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) and its own Starlink system.  Contact was lost through both satellite systems as Starship neared its reentry point, however, and about 10 minutes later SpaceX announced that Starship did not survive to splashdown.

Nonetheless, the test flight achieved many successes including opening and closing the payload door, humorously referred to as Pez because it resembles a dispenser for Pez candy. It will be used to deploy second-generation Starlink satellites.

SpaceX also conducted a propellant transfer test under a $53 million “Tipping Point” contract with NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. Transferring propellant in orbit is critical for Starship, which can only reach Earth orbit with the 10 million pounds of propellant onboard when it lifts off. Sending people and payloads to the Moon and Mars will require refueling at a fuel depot in orbit, which does not yet exist. SpaceX will need that fuel depot and the ability to refuel by 2026 to fulfill its $2.9 billion contract with NASA for a Human Landing System (HLS) to take astronauts from lunar orbit down to and back from the surface on Artemis III, the first time astronauts will land on the Moon since Apollo 17 in 1972.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson congratulated SpaceX on X (formerly Twitter) and SpaceX founder and chief engineer (and X owner) Elon Musk replied that “We look forward to supporting NASA in returning American astronats to the moon.”

One goal that was not achieved was restarting a Raptor engine in-flight. Dan Huot, one of three SpaceX hosts for the company’s webcast, simply noted at about 40 minutes into flight, when restart would have happened, that “it does sound like we are skipping past the on-orbit relight demo this time.”

Despite all the successes, the flight did not achieve all of its objectives. The two stages did not make successful soft splashdowns in the Gulf of Mexico and Indian Ocean, respectively, and they skipped the in-flight engine restart.

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation(FAA/AST) regulates commercial space launches and reentries with a focus on public safety. Because the two stages made uncontrolled splashdowns, they will initiate a mishap investigation as they did for the first two flights.

SpaceX certainly made significant progress on this third test flight, however, and are ready to move on to the next one. FAA/AST head Kelvin Coleman said last month that SpaceX is planning as many as nine Starship launches this year.

Indeed, Siva Bharadvaj, another SpaceX commentator, said they already have “four ships and four Super Heavy boosters built, with more coming off the production line.”


As the broadcast came to a close, SpaceX’s Kate Tice noted that today is SpaceX’s 22nd birthday. The company was founded on this day in 2002 “when it basically consisted of this small team, a carpet, and a Mariachi band.”

Credit: SpaceX

Today’s achievements were quite a fitting tribute, even if success was not 100 percent.

This article has been revised and updated.

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