SpaceX to launch 3rd Starship test from Texas

It will be the third attempt to launch the super heavy rocket in less than 11 months.

By Shelly Brisbin & Michael MarksMarch 13, 2024 1:08 pm,

SpaceX plans a new try at launching its Starship super heavy rocket on Thursday from its Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas. Starship is an important component of SpaceX’s partnership with NASA on the Artemis program, a mission that’s supposed to return humans to the moon later this decade.

Eric Berger, senior space editor for the tech site Ars Technica, joined the Standard with more about what to expect from the planned launch.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: So if this flight takes off tomorrow as planned – and I’m keeping an eye on the skies, as I’m sure they’re doing the same down in Boca Chica – I think this will be SpaceX’s third attempt at a Starship test launch, right?

Eric Berger: Yeah, it’ll be the third attempt to launch this massive rocket in less than 11 months.

Some people are looking at this saying it’s a spectacular failure. SpaceX maintains that these previous two launches weren’t failures; they were iterative – after all, they’re called test launches for a reason. Could you remind us what happened in the earlier launches?

Yeah, the first launch was pretty challenging. The rocket got off the ground and cleared the pad, but it did cause a lot of damage. It lifted off, kicked up a lot of dust and debris, and did explode about a minute and a half into flight. That was kind of sort of a success because they were really just trying to demonstrate the performance of the 33 main engines on the vehicle and get some data on Starship in flight.

The second vehicle did much better. The first stage of the rocket – this is the largest, most powerful thing ever built, in terms of rocketry – it flew a nominal mission, you know, flying a couple minutes. And it had a problem as it was trying to make a controlled reentry to Earth, and it exploded, but it had done its job.

The second stage burned for a couple of minutes and was performing just fine. And then they had a leak event of some liquid oxygen that led to an explosion in the Starship upper stage after a couple of minutes.

» MORE: How a destroyed rocket actually means progress to SpaceX

So what constitutes success in this third Starship launch?

I think a successful mission would be a nominal performance again of the first stage, and also the upper stage starship making it all the way to the Indian Ocean, where it’s anticipated to splash down. So it’s not going to make orbit. It’s going to essentially reach orbital velocity and then fire its engines to come back to Earth.

And I guess in a sense, part of what would make this a success is whether or not SpaceX has learned what actually caused the problems in the prior two tests. Correct?

Absolutely. They’re building on all those learnings. They’re making technology upgrades. They’re also going to try to do some tests while the vehicle is in space. It really is, as you said, an iterative process.

They’re trying to go as fast as they can. And so they don’t want to spend years sitting around conference tables designing and testing this vehicle. They want to fly it and see what happens and get data and get back into space as quickly as possible.

Well, the whole idea of partnerships and NASA is to expedite the lead time that you have going into these programs. And yet, the Artemis program announced a delay earlier this year. Does that have anything to do with Starship or something else?

Well, it’s a little bit complicated. The first delay they announced was for the second Artemis mission; this is going to fly humans around the moon next year. Starship is not involved in that because it’s the component that actually takes astronauts down to the lunar surface. So that delay was not related to Starship.

However, Artemis 3 will entail Starship, and the current date for that is 2026 and subject to future delays as the Starship development program continues.

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Very interesting. Now, I’ve seen some writeups which suggest that the Starship program is really an attempt to get humans on Mars. Is that a lot of puffery? You know, the sort of ad talk that you hear an awful lot of in the space business? Or is this the real deal we’re talking about here?

Oh, I think it’s the real deal. I mean, SpaceX was literally founded to put humans on Mars. I’ve talked to Elon at length about that. I’ve talked to the earliest employees at SpaceX who were told that when they got there. That is the mission.

They’re helping NASA out with its moon plans. But the goal of Starship is ultimately to carry dozens of people at a time to Mars and also to bring cargo missions with hundreds of tons of cargo to Mars to support settlements there.

So we are sort of on a step along that path. If SpaceX is successful, they have a lot of steps to take. But these test flights are very clearly a formative effort to build a vehicle – a fully reusable, massive rocket – that could support settlement of Mars.

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