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SpaceX's Starship had its third test flight

All in all, I'd say it was successful

SpaceX’s third test flight of Starship was a success! Let’s break down what happened during this test flight. And if you need a refresher on what this flight is about, or why it matters, check out my previous newsletter because I won’t be covering that today. Now, onto the launch!

It’s important to note I’m writing this before any postflight briefing, so as the week goes on, we’ll get more information.

The launch was originally scheduled for 7:00 AM Central Time, but there was a range violation — an issue with boats in the safety zone off of the coast of South Texas. The SpaceX team worked to clear out those boats, and set a new launch time of 8:10 am CT/9:10 am ET.

Liftoff occurred around 8:25 AM CT, and even if you don’t care about spaceflight, it’s not hard not to be in awe of this spectacle. As someone who loves spaceflight, I’ll admit I was a little teary watching Starship’s jaw dropping ascent. (Even if you’re not usually a video person, I highly recommend watching my video of this if you’re so inclined, because the liftoff is really something. I tried to link to the official video, on the service formerly known as Twitter, and SHOCKER the service is down.)

Starship cleared the pad and proceeded towards space. They achieved a successful MECO, or which usually stands for main engine cutoff, but for Starship it’s most engine cutoff. Then about 2 minutes and 50 seconds after launch, they achieved successful stage separation with hot staging. Starship headed towards its suborbital flight, while Super Heavy flipped and started its boostback burn to prepare for splash down in the Gulf of Mexico.

Everything was going incredibly well for the Super Heavy booster’s boostback burn and descent, you could see the grid finds deploy, and it was impressive. But unfortunately, not all the engines lit up for the landing burn, so that meant the splashdown was not controlled — “hard splashdown in the Gulf”. There were no plans to vertically land or recover the booster, so while it didn’t go perfectly, it was a big improvement.

Meanwhile Starship successfully ignited its six Raptor engines and continued its ascent into the atmosphere and had successful “orbital” insertion (really suborbital because this flight didn’t take Starship to orbit). At that point it cut off its engines, and then there was a coast phase. As expected, for the next 30 minutes or so, communication was in and out. We had GREAT views for most of the flight because there were Starlink terminals aboard Starship, which made for a high bandwidth livestream connection— that’s why we had such great views of Starship during flight.

During the coast phase, Starship had two test objectives: opening and closing its payload bay door, which will be used to deploy Starlink satellites in the future, and a propellant transfer demonstration — a preview of future in-flight refueling tech. Both of these happened — there were calls for the opening and closing of the payload bay door (called the Pez door) as well as the start and completion of the propellant transfer demo. We still don’t have the granular details of how they went, but they seem to have been successful.

Starship skipped the Raptor engine burn in space. This was a demonstration of the tech, and the ability to re-light that engine in space. We’re not quite sure why, but it’s up to Starship itself to look at all the data and light the engine. It didn’t do it, the time that it was supposed to happen passed. We still don’t know exactly why. Basically they didn’t need to do this test for successful re-entry, but for operational orbital flights, they need to demonstrate they can light the Raptor engines in space for controlled re-entry and landing. So we’ll see what happened there.

Honestly, some of the best part of this mission were the unprecedented views we got during the coast phase and re-entry. As it came in for a landing, the Starlink connection managed to maintain the video feed during the intensity of re-entry, and the views were unreal. We saw Starship’s flaps try to maneuver the vehicle and heat up during re-entry, as well as the plasma formation that usually causes communication blackouts.

It’s a huge test of the vehicle’s re-entry from hypersonic flight. The big challenge here is that it’s very different to land a vehicle vertically from orbital speed versus a first-stage booster that separates within the Earth’s atmosphere. 

This was also a huge test of Starship’s heat shield — because of how Starship re-enters, similar to the Space Shuttle, it has to bear a lot of heat. That’s why it has these tiles, versus an ablative heat shield that burns off like Dragon and other capsules. But Starship lands vertically (+57:16), not a gliding landing like Space Shuttle.

But for this launch, landing vertically was not an objective. There was not supposed to be a landing burn, and there was no expectation that Starship would survive impact into the Indian Ocean. Even without the Raptor engine burn in space, Starship’s mission profile was designed to have it hit the landing area with or without that burn.

That didn’t happen for this mission because unfortunately, SpaceX lost that Starship first stage during re-entry. The TDRSS, or tracking and data relay satellite system, telemetry and Starlink data cut out at the same time, which was a good indication that they’d lost the spacecraft and around 65 km above the Earth’s surface. They made it official a few minutes later; we’ll see what exactly happened later on.

I said earlier this week that my personal threshold for a successful mission was successful launch, stage separation, splashdown of the Super Heavy booster, and ascent of Starship into space. Now, the Super Heavy booster landing wasn’t 100 percent successful, and they lost Starship — but that’s what honestly I expected given the challenge of re-entry. I’m not a SpaceX apologist, but the threshold for success is really improving on what came before — and I think they accomplished that. They’ve never brought a spacecraft back for landing from that altitude or at that speed before, and it’s a great learning opportunity.

We’ll see what data we get over the next few days, but all in all, I think this was an unqualified successful third test of Starship.