The sun sets behind the SpaceX Starship ahead of its fourth flight test at Boca Chica beach on June 05, 2024 in Brownsville, Texas. 

Brandon Bell | Getty Images

SpaceX completed a test flight of its Starship rocket for the first time on Thursday, as the company pushed development of the mammoth vehicle past new milestones.

“Our first ever ship landing burn after a launch into space … that was incredible,” SpaceX communications manager Dan Huot said on the company’s broadcast.

Elon Musk’s company launched Starship at about 8:50 a.m. ET from its Starbase facility near Boca Chica, Texas.

The SpaceX Starship launches during its fourth flight test from Boca Chica beach on June 06, 2024 in Brownsville, Texas. 

Brandon Bell | Getty Images

A few minutes after launch, the rocket’s booster successfully splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico, a new milestone for its development. This was the first time SpaceX returned the booster in one piece — a controlled return of the booster is key to the company’s long-term goal of being able to launch and land Starship regularly, a practice it’s made routine with its Falcon 9 rockets.

About an hour after the launch, Starship visibly survived reentry through the Earth’s atmosphere, and the company confirmed that the rocket splashed down in the Indian Ocean to complete the mission. Starship appeared to withstand external damage during the intense heat of reentry, with debris apparent on the broadcast.

“Splashdown confirmed!” SpaceX posted on social media after the flight.

There were no people on board the fourth Starship spaceflight. The company’s leadership has previously emphasized that SpaceX expects to fly hundreds of Starship missions before the rocket launches with any crew.

The Starship system is designed to be fully reusable and aims to become a new method of flying cargo and people beyond Earth. The rocket is also critical to NASA’s plan to return astronauts to the moon. SpaceX won a multibillion-dollar contract from the agency to use Starship as a crewed lunar lander as part of NASA’s Artemis moon program.

Shortly after the flight, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson congratulated SpaceX on its progress.

“We are another step closer to returning humanity to the Moon through Artemis — then looking onward to Mars,” Nelson wrote in a social media post.

SpaceX has flown the full Starship rocket system on three spaceflight tests previously, with launches in April 2023, November and March. Each of the test flights has achieved more milestones than the last, but in each result prior to Thursday the rocket was destroyed before the flight’s end.

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During the company’s third test flight SpaceX tested new capabilities including opening and closing the payload door once in space — which would be how the rocket deploys payloads such as satellites on future missions — and transferring fuel during the flight in a NASA demonstration.

SpaceX’s next-generation Starship spacecraft, atop its powerful Super Heavy rocket, lifts off on its third launch from the company’s Boca Chica launchpad on an uncrewed test flight, near Brownsville, Texas, U.S. March 14, 2024. 

Cheney Orr | Reuters

SpaceX heavily emphasizes an approach of building “on what we’ve learned from previous flights” in its approach to develop Starship. The company says its strategy focuses on “recursive improvement” to the rocket, where even test flights with fiery outcomes represent progress toward its goal of a fully reusable rocket that can deliver people to the moon and Mars.

Musk last year said he expected the company to spend about $2 billion on Starship development in 2023.

The rocket

Why Starship is indispensable for the future of SpaceX

Starship is both the tallest and most powerful rocket ever launched. Fully stacked on the Super Heavy booster, Starship stands 397 feet tall and is about 30 feet in diameter.

The Super Heavy booster, which stands 232 feet tall, is what begins the rocket’s journey to space. At its base are 33 Raptor engines, which together produce 16.7 million pounds of thrust – about double the 8.8 million pounds of thrust of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, which launched for the first time in 2022.

Starship itself, at 165 feet tall, has six Raptor engines – three for use while in the Earth’s atmosphere and three for operating in the vacuum of space.

The rocket is powered by liquid oxygen and liquid methane. The full system requires more than 10 million pounds of propellant for launch.

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