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SpaceX successfully launches and lands Starship and Superheavy

Damaged but working flap on Starship
Damaged but working flap on Starship

SpaceX this morning successfully launched and landed both Starship and Superheavy in the ocean, with both vehicles splashing down in a vertical position as planned.

Some quick details:

  • One engine on Superheavy failed during launch, but the vehicle completed its job, successfully releasing Starship as planned.
  • Superheavy then completed a controlled splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico, landing softly and vertically. It then tipped over into the water as planned. At this moment it is unclear how successful it was in landing precisely at its planned location. One engine during the landing burn failed.
  • Unlike the previous test, Starship flew under control for its entire flight, even though the camera view showed a flap actually begin breaking up.
  • That flap, despite damage, appeared to function through landing. The screen capture to the right was taken just before landing, as the flap adjusted its position despite the significant damage near its attachment point to the ship.
  • It appeared that Starship successfully completed its flip to vertical just before landing.
  • At landing it was unclear if the landing burn occurred as planned. It did appear the spacecraft splashed down softly, and the controllers announced the burn occurred, but the indicators on the screen showed no engine burn.

Overall, this launch was an incredible success. Based on the results, the fifth test flight should be approved by the FAA relatively quickly. The FAA’s responsibility is supposed to be limited to just issues of safety. As long as SpaceX demonstrates the rocket landed where it was intended, the FAA has no cause to delay future approvals.

If so, the next launch could occur very quickly, as the next prototypes are ready and waiting. We could see another launch within two months, at the most. I predict late July, though it could be a bit later if SpaceX engineers need more time to analyze what happened to Starship during descent and then apply that knowledge to the next prototype.

UPDATE: China also had a successful launch this morning. Pseudo-company Galactic Energy’s Ceres-1 rocket placed three satellites into orbit, lifting off from the Jiuquan spaceport in the northwest of China.

Little information was released by China’s state-run press, which didn’t even bother to mention the pseudo-company’s name in its report. The solid-fueled lower stages landed somewhere inside China, but we have no idea where or how close to habitable areas.

The leaders in the 2024 launch race:

60 SpaceX
27 China
8 Russia
7 Rocket Lab

American private enterprise now leads the world combined in successful launches, 70 to 41, while SpaceX by itself leads the entire world, including other American companies, 60 to 51.

Note that for context the U.S. total at this moment, 70 launches and achieved in less than half a year, matches the nation’s previous annual record set in 1966 and held until 2022.

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The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit. If you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and the author gets a bigger cut much sooner.

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  • sippin_bourbon

    Watched Tim Dodd (Everyday Astronaut) through the event.
    It was amazing. The flap at the end, still actuating while missing a significant amount of surface area, and suffering burn through speaks to solid engineering or amazing luck. Or perhaps a bit of both.

    I hope they publish some good feedback.

  • geoffc

    This is the 4th flight, so next would be 5th not the 6th as you suggested.

    Watching that flap melt lose tiles and then continue to actuate till the end was astonishing! Reusable, ok, maybe some work to do. Survivable? Heck Ya!

    The hot stage was great to watch, ejecting the ring was liek something out of Star Wars (Coloured like a Star Destroyer it seemed to me). The boostback and landing was amazing. Seemed like they waited to long for landing burn but it nailed it. The hover, then the tip over. Wild.

    Then watching that flap melt, every time thinking, this is the end, but we got further this time, and then the video would come back to finally that flip! Amazing.

    Cannot wait for flight 5. Wow.

    PS: Starship marshmellow torches was a great and silly touch.

  • geoffc: I have corrected the flight number error. Thanks.

  • Rockribbed1

    Starship slowed down before hitting the water, the engines must have worked

  • Dick Eagleson

    In honor of the 80th anniversary of D-Day, Starship did its own impression of a badly shot-up bomber or transport still making it back to base.

  • M Puckett

    Does this flight count in SpaceX annual total?

    It should, IMO.

  • M Puckett: It does. I have included both the March and this launch, because both reached their planned orbit.

  • Steve Miller

    Decision to use stainless steel looking good. Amazing to see flap hang on as pieces burned off. Just wow. More important this flight shows Starship as designed is feasible.

  • Andi

    Minor edit in first paragraph: “both vehicles splashing down”

  • F

    In honor of Starhip’s (and Superheavy’s) success, I make the following unrelated proclamations:

    Despite the advances in CGI and special effects that have been achieved since, the best looking ships in the “Star Trek” universe came from the Original Series. Federation, Romulan, Klingon, and even the Tholians!

    Regarding the Enterprise specifically, however, the best looking was the Refitted/Enterprise A.

    Thank you!

  • Jeff Wright

    Not everything has to be re-used…in addition to the hot staging ring, perhaps a length of RCC could cover the hinge area–with the tips of the fins themselves having tiny RCC winglets used in conjunction with thrusters.

    After re-entry, the fins actuate and shatter the RCC hinge cover, leaving a pristine joint.

  • TGeorge

    The Thunderf00t live was fun to watch :))))

  • Jeff Wright

    Perhaps LOFTID materials at the wing join in a bellows configuration.

    The melt seemed to propagate from the bottom of the fins upward. Usually melt in metal wings flying nose forward starts at the WLE and shoulder.

    Perhaps ablative end caps could be slid on from either side. Portree’s Beyond Apollo articles for WIRED once had a stop-gap plan for shuttle orbiter ablatives.

    The shuttle orbiter itself had a flap of sorts under the SSME’s, right?

    Anything of use there?

  • M Puckett

    Jeff, the Shuttle had wing flaps in addition to the center flap and the rudder.

  • Ron

    I’m blind, but I still can’t get enough of watching this video. I know there’s much work to be done, but incredible success.

  • Doubting Thomas

    In a pre-launch (day before I think) interview with Tim Dodd, Elon Musk noted that the fin join was a major concern and that some “sealing steps” had been taken.

    He noted that upcoming versions of the Ship portion of Starship, would have the fins placed further leeward to help alleviate the intrusion of plasma into the joins.

    The robust nature of the design, materials, hardware and software was impressive on this flight. Even seriously damaged the Ship managed the intended ocean landing. Amazing!!!

  • Edward

    SpaceX is making great strides in getting Starship to work as planned.

    For the most part, the thermal protection tiles seem to have worked well enough. They had glued some tiles to the body in areas where the tiles had been coming off regularly. The desired method for fastening the tiles is not glue but a fastener that allows for quick removal and replacement for any cases where repair is necessary. Glue does not fit that condition and was a reason why the Space Shuttle was so costly and time consuming to turn around for its next launch. SpaceX is looking for ways to attach to these problem areas without glue for ease of maintenance.

    After SpaceX can show that they have the ability to restart Raptor engines on orbit and to change the craft’s attitude, demonstrating that they can reenter the atmosphere whenever — and therefore wherever — they want, they will be able to launch into orbits that are more useful for Starlink, and their test flights can become operational Starlink flights. Until then, they are stuck with orbits that are not good for Starlink satellites but are good for safety concerns.

    I agree with several commenters. Once I saw that the fin was being destroyed from the inside to the outside, I was convinced that the rest of the hinge was being destroyed. I think the important question for SpaceX to ask and answer is: why did the burn-through and damage occur at this part of the hinge and seam but not at other parts?

    We were shown this one camera, but there could have been others, or there could have been thermistors or thermocouples in other locations that could give SpaceX engineers important information as to whether similar problems occurred at similar locations on the other fins.

    The decision to not perform other tests, such as an engine relight, is curious. In previous flight tests, SpaceX has tried to maximize the information it can gain from the flight. In this case, they chose to postpone a test that is important to advancing the project.

  • Steve Richter

    Is the US Navy, the federal government even trying to help SpaceX as it conducts these tests? Put some ships, helicopters in the landing area to take photos of Starship as it lands. That would help access damage to all parts of the heatshield, no? Does the US have any remote federal land that can be used as a landing zone?

  • Richard M

    Hello Steve,

    Half an hour ago, for what it is worth, SpaceX released footage of SuperHeavy’s landing via a camera they had on a nearby buoy:

    Jaw dropping!

  • Richard M: That footage is awesome and very informative. First the bad news: That SpaceX cuts off the drone footage just before landing is very revealing. Just before landing that footage shows that Superheavy is struggling to get vertical. I suspect it wasn’t at touchdown.

    Now the good news: The booster touched down exactly where it was supposed to. Like the early Falcon 9 failed landings, SpaceX has solved landing precision right off the bat. It needs only figure out how to get the booster to land. And in this case, even if my bad news is correct that bad news is not very bad. I bet the next landing will be perfect, setting the stage for a tower landing using chopsticks.

  • Edward

    Richard M,
    Thank you for the video link. Very good stuff.
    I didn’t get the impression that the booster was struggling to become vertical. It looked similar to the animations that we have been seeing for many months. However, I’m not sure that it hovered before touching down in the water, and I think that the engines may have reached the water before shutting down. That is how I interpret what I saw.

  • Richard M

    Hello Bob,

    Well, Elon is now saying that they are planning to attempt a “chopstick” catch landing on IFT-5! Apparently they must have really liked what they saw in their footage and data.

    (In this regard, Elon says, in response to a Scott Manley tweet this evening: “Booster landing was on target, ship landing was several km off due to flap damage, but both were soft landings.” Which, as Manley says, is impressive, in that the software clearly was able to adapt to failures of the hardware (i.e., that engine that failed on descent) and still nail the landing. )

    Elon hinted at this on Twitter yesterday; then confirmed it in his interview with Eliana Sheriff (aka “Ellie in Space”) yesterday, and today, he underlined it in a post on Twitter: “Starship booster makes soft landing in water, next landing will be caught by the tower arms.”

    So apparently they are going for it! I assume that they will use a not dissimilar protocol as they do for Falcon 9 landings on their land-based LZ’s: Initially target the landing target for a point just offshore, and only have the onboard computer switch it to the Starbase pad if all necessary conditions they assign are met, in order to minimize their risks.

  • Richard M: If they try a chopstick landing, then I think my prediction for a late July launch might be a bit optimistic. Such a landing will immediately raise hackles at the FAA, because the booster will be returning to Boca Chica and will thus pose a safety risk.

  • Richard M

    Yeah, I’m unclear how the launch license treats this kind of option. Maybe it covers it. But maybe, this could be the opportunity for more FAA kibitzing.

    Either way, this is the kind of risk that SpaceX still embraces in its development programs. They move fast and they are willing to break things. NASA could never get away with this in a million years.

  • Richard M

    P.S. Elon repeats himself again, a few minutes ago:

    Adrian Dittmann @AdrianDittmann·
    The landing burn and soft splashdown of Super Heavy in the Gulf of Mexico demonstrated that a mechazilla catch is not only possible but may occur as early as IFT5.

    Elon Musk @elonmusk
    Next flight is the goal

    Stay tuned.

  • wayne

    thanks for that additional video-link!

  • As the Ship flap burned thru during reentry, it evolved off debris that hit and stuck to the camera lens. My guess is that it was molten metal that wore off during the rest of reentry as the camera lens cleared a bit toward the end. You could see a thump in the video (no obvious splash) right at the end. Splashdown?

    During the early stages of reentry, there was view from a camera on one of the trailing flaps looking forward. That view went away about halfway into reentry. It might have also picked up burnthrough of whatever forward flap it was looking at.

    Looks like they are using landing burn timing similar to that of Falcon 9, starting somewhere about 2 km altitude. The inner ring of engines and the core 3 all relight. One didn’t. The outer ring goes out after the initial pulse and the rest of landing is flown on the inner 3 engines. Gimballing of that set was obvious as they maneuvered for landing. Didn’t know the video was from a buoy. Thought they had a boat out there. Cheers –

  • Edward

    agimarc noted: “My guess is that it was molten metal that wore off during the rest of reentry as the camera lens cleared a bit toward the end.

    There are a variety of materials that could have been sticking to the “lens,” but metal is a good guess.

    As time went on, we could see some cracks that we could see through the fogging “lens.” This was likely not the lens itself but a protective covering over the lens, perhaps made of glass, crystal, or plastic. The fogging of this cover would be something like smoke, some sort of material coming off the disintegrating fin and condensing onto the cover. As the cover cracked, we could see through some of the holes made by the cracks, and eventually the cover seems to have fallen away enough for us to make out a much clearer picture right around the time of landing.
    Jeff Wright wrote: “Not everything has to be re-used…in addition to the hot staging ring, perhaps a length of RCC could cover the hinge area–with the tips of the fins themselves having tiny RCC winglets used in conjunction with thrusters.

    For fast turnaround time, Starship will need as little refurbishment as possible. During development, though, it is acceptable to do things differently in order to learn enough to make it to the next step. Throwing away the heavy hot staging ring for now helps them to make this kind of progress. They may even learn more about how to lighten up this ring for operational flights.

    Because this booster, and a few others, were designed and built before they added a lot of weight to the staging ring, losing the ring allows them to have enough propellants in their already-sized-and-built header tank to succeed with the landing. Otherwise, they may run out of propellants before demonstrating a successful landing. Later boosters may come with a slightly larger header tank to account for the increased mass of the staging ring section.
    Steve Richter asked: “Is the US Navy, the federal government even trying to help SpaceX as it conducts these tests? Put some ships, helicopters in the landing area to take photos of Starship as it lands. That would help access damage to all parts of the heatshield, no? Does the US have any remote federal land that can be used as a landing zone?

    Part of the timing of the very first orbital test flight, two years ago, was waiting for the availability of a NASA airplane that is equipped to observe a reentering body so that NASA and SpaceX can assess the craft as it reenters. SpaceX undoubtedly hired this airplane for each of its orbital test flights. This airplane could be flying a hundred miles away from the targeted landing point, giving it a great deal of safety from the chance of collision with the spacecraft, if it should stray from the path, or with any debris, should the spacecraft break apart during reentry. As Richard M noted: “ship landing was several km off due to flap damage

    Being several kilometers off from its landing point is a good reason to not have a landing point on land. There is too much danger that the craft may come down in a populated place or on remote buildings or hardware. If it had once again broken up during reentry, the likelihood increases of some large part of the vehicle landing on something or someone we don’t want struck. It is better to first prove the concept that something as large as Starship can not only survive reentry but can be controlled during and after reentry. And while on orbit, for that matter.

    As Starship gets better at reaching its target point, it will become safer to put manned vessels closer to that target, similar to a Dragon splashdown. SpaceX already believes that Super Heavy may be safe enough to bring it back to the launch site, similar to Falcon launches.
    Robert Zimmerman wrote: “Such a landing will immediately raise hackles at the FAA, because the booster will be returning to Boca Chica and will thus pose a safety risk.

    The experience with the Falcons may demonstrate that safety is not such a great risk, although Richard M could be right that “maybe, this could be the opportunity for more FAA kibitzing.

    The problem that I see is the disposal of the hot staging ring, for the next few flights. That must be done at a time that assures it will not reach the ground in an unsafe location.

    Another challenge for catching Super Heavy is moving and stopping (controlling) those immensely massive “chopsticks.” SpaceX wants them to close quickly, but they also have to stop with a timing and precision that could be difficult. Not only do they have to be pointed correctly so that they catch the vehicle without striking it, they have to stop their swing in a way that does not induce a vibration that may cause the arm(s) to strike it or to miss either of the nubs that they use as mount points to support the vehicle. When it comes to vibration, everything is a spring.

    If you are impressed with Starship surviving despite some burn through, catching a falling rocket should take your breath away and rock your world!

  • Steve Richter

    Elon says the heat shield tiles to be used on the next flight will be much improved. Sounds very promising.

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