Elon Musk Outlines Future Starship Goals After Successful Fourth Flight Test

Elon Musk‘s SpaceX on Thursday successfully completed the fourth flight test of its Starship launch vehicle, checking all its test flight goals, and the CEO is already outlining future launch objectives.

What Happened: The vehicle lifted off at 7:50 a.m. CT from Starbase in Texas on Thursday. The two stages of the vehicle- the Starship spacecraft and the Super Heavy booster- separated and the booster subsequently had a soft splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico. The spacecraft ignited its own engines and went on to space, made a controlled re-entry to Earth, and had a soft splashdown in the Indian Ocean. The entire flight lasted one hour and six minutes from launch.

The key objective of this test flight was to re-enter Earth. The mission achieved it but lost many hexagonal heat-shield tiles designed to protect against the extreme heat of reentry to Earth’s atmosphere in the process.

“Despite loss of many tiles and a damaged flap, Starship made it all the way to a soft landing in the ocean!” Musk wrote on social media platform X afterward.

“A fully and immediately reusable orbital heat shield, which (as you know) has never been made before, is the single toughest problem remaining,” he wrote in another post.

Past Flight Tests: SpaceX has launched the Starship thrice before. During Starship’s previous flight test on March 14, the spacecraft lost contact and broke apart while re-entering the atmosphere instead of splashing down in the Indian Ocean as planned. The booster also lost contact before achieving a soft splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico. The entire flight lasted about an hour.

Starship did not reach space at all on its first flight test. On the second flight, it reached space but blew up soon afterward.

Looking Forward: Starship is still in its development phase and will require further testing before it takes humans back to the surface of the Moon as part of NASA’s Artemis mission. In March, Musk said that the company will ‘hopefully’ have at least six flights of the Starship this year.

For upcoming flights, Musk said that SpaceX will further hone its SX300 alloy to withstand higher temperatures. A newer version of the vehicle also has the forward flaps shifted leeward to help improve reliability and ease of manufacturing, he added.

“I think we should try to catch the booster with the mechazilla arms next flight!,” Musk said, hinting that on the next flight, the company will attempt to land the booster back at the Starbase launch tower instead of splashing it down into the Gulf of Mexico in what would be a significant demonstration of its reusability.

SpaceX's Falcon rocket is about 80% reusable, and the company is currently looking to ensure full reusability for its Starship rocket. Reuse of rockets, the company believes, is integral to bringing down the costs of spaceflight as the most cost is taken up in building the launch vehicle.

Starship is touted as the world's most powerful launch vehicle, standing 121 meters tall and weighing approximately 5,000 tonnes. NASA is currently relying on the success of Starship to land humans back on the moon as part of its Artemis program. The last crewed lunar mission occurred in 1972 with Apollo 17. Since then, no crew has traveled beyond low-Earth orbit.

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Image: Created with artificial intelligence on MidJourney and Official SpaceX Photos on Flickr

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