SpaceX hits distance, speed milestones in third Starship test; rocket lost in re-entry

By Mike Heuer & Daniel Uria
SpaceX prepares to launch its third flight test of its Starship booster from Launch Complex 1 at Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas on Wednesday. The launch was successful on Thursday. Photo by Joe Marino/UPI
1 of 5 | SpaceX prepares to launch its third flight test of its Starship booster from Launch Complex 1 at Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas on Wednesday. The launch was successful on Thursday. Photo by Joe Marino/UPI | License Photo

March 14 (UPI) -- SpaceX on Thursday conducted the third launch test of its Starship rocket in Texas, flying further and faster than the previous two tests.

The company confirmed at 10:31 a.m. that it had "lost" the ship as it was attempting to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere after reaching orbital velocity and was unable to complete splashdown in the Indian Ocean.


SpaceX had said it hoped the test would "maximize learning" for engineers as the world's largest rocket performs a series of maneuvers during and after launch.

"While it's not happening in a lab or on a test stand, this is absolutely a test. What we're doing today will provide invaluable data to continue rapid development of Starship," SpaceX said.

The rocket, touted as the world's largest, lifted off at 9:25 a.m. EDT from the SpaceX Starship base in Boca Chica, Texas.


The launch was set to take place earlier Thursday morning but was delayed as SpaceX said it had to clear boats from the "keep out area" in the Gulf of Mexico.

During the third test flight its Raptor engines successfully ignited during hot staging and completed an engine burn sending it into a coast phase, flying further than previous tests.

SpaceX completed a propellant transfer demo while the upper stage was coasting but chose not to test relighting a Raptor engine.

SpaceX engineers also tried opening and closing the Starship's payload door.

The launch test was live streamed on SpaceX website and X.

The Federal Aviation Administration gave launch approval Wednesday afternoon.

"The FAA determined SpaceX met all safety, environmental, policy and financial responsibility requirements" to proceed with the scheduled test launch Thursday, the agency announced in an emailed statement to UPI.

Thursday's test flight used a longer flight trajectory than the previous test. It includes a splashdown in the Indian Ocean, which will enable SpaceX officials to test the in-flight engine burns without potentially endangering lives with a similar test on the ground.


The FAA assessed the potential environmental effect of the planned Indian Ocean landing and issued a "finding of no significant impact."

"Each of these test flights continue to be just that: a test," SpaceX officials said. "They aren't occurring in a lab or on a test stand, but they are putting flight hardware in a flight environment to maximize learning."

Starship is the largest vehicle built with the intent of going into space. Its Super Heavy booster and attached Starship vehicle make the machine the world's tallest at 400 feet. It's also the most powerful, with 33 Raptor engines in its first stage and six Raptor engines in its upper stage.

Prior tests end in destruction

SpaceX tested the Starship rocket system twice in 2023, but each test ended in failure and the destruction of the rocket.

The first test was launched on April 20 and was intentionally destroyed when the rocket's two stages did not separate.

SpaceX said some of the 33 Raptor engines powering the Super Heavy booster didn't ignite due to leaking fuel and other malfunctions. The booster rocket's lower stage didn't separate from the upper stage as intended, so the test was ended by destroying the rocket system.


The April launch also caused significant damage to the launch pad and spread debris into nearby Boca Chica State Park.

The rocket's destruction caused the FAA to ground the Starship while the agency investigated the matter. FAA officials ordered SpaceX to adopt 63 corrective actions and on Sept. 8 closed its investigation.

The corrective actions included redesigning hardware to prevent leaks and fires, redesigning the launch pad to make it more robust, and undertaking initial review of the design process. The FAA also ordered SpaceX to test safety systems, such as the Autonomous Flight Safety System, and apply other change-control practices.

The second test flight of the Starship platform lifted off on the morning of Nov. 18 from Texas and achieved several "major milestones," SpaceX officials said.

All 33 Raptor rocket engines on the Super Heavy booster ignited and completed a full-duration burn during the rocket's ascent during the second test. The Starship successfully executed a hot-stage separation, powered down all but three of those engines and ignited the six Raptor rocket engines that power the Starship's second stage.

SpaceX said it was the first time that a vehicle the size of Starship successfully performed those tasks.

After separation, the Super Heavy booster executed a flip maneuver and started its "boostback" burn before experiencing a "rapid unscheduled disassembly" that occurred more than 3.5 minutes into the flight and while it was about 56 miles high.


SpaceX said it lost communications capability with the rocket, which triggered an automatic destruct mechanism.

Despite the booster rocket's destruction, SpaceX officials said the second test flight provided them with invaluable data that enabled the continued rapid development of the Starship platform.

"This rapid iterative development approach has been the basis for all of SpaceX's major innovative advancements, including Falcon, Dragon and Starlink," SpaceX said. "Recursive improvement is essential as we work to build a fully reusable transportation system capable of carrying both crew and cargo to Earth orbit, help humanity return to the moon and ultimately travel to Mars and beyond."

Environmental lawsuit

The initial test flight's sudden destruction triggered a federal lawsuit filed in the Washington, D.C., district court by environmental groups seeking a court order to halt future flights from the Boca Chica SpaceX Starbase.

The Center for Biological Diversity, American Bird Conservancy, Surfrider Foundation, Save RGV, and the Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation of Texas said the Starbase is located next to the natural habitat of several endangered species, including the Kemp's ridley sea turtle, which is the world's smallest turtle.

Because the first test of the SpaceX Starship severely damaged the launch pad, it raised concerns about potential environmental dangers if the vehicle were to explode on or shortly after lifting off.


SpaceX was not named as a defendant in the federal court filing, but SpaceX officials in May sought inclusion as a defendant in the lawsuit.

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