Starship's Third Flight Test. March 15. 2024 Photo: SpaceX

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On March 14th, SpaceX launched Orbital Flight Test 3 of its Starship/Super Heavy rocket system–less than 24 hours after the FAA had granted a license for it to proceed. The world's largest ever rocket, and first fully and rapidly reusable rocket system, achieved orbital velocity, tested fuel transfer between tanks, and tested its payload dispenser door. Overall, the 2-stage system successfully accomplished 90% of the goals for the test.

The Super Heavy beautifully launched the Starship orbital ship, then the Super Heavy turned around and headed back to splash down in the Gulf of Mexico. It seemed to be successfully maneuvering to the splashdown site; however, the engine burn which was to slow the vehicle to a safe landing speed, did not ignite until about a second before hitting the water. So it hit at a very high velocity and was destroyed on impact.

Meanwhile, the Starship continued accelerating to orbital velocity, performed the tests noted above, and arched back on its ballistic trajectory to the Indian Ocean. From the beautiful video coming from the Starship fin camera, it appeared that the vehicle was rotating in an irregular manner. SpaceX has not commented upon this yet, but perhaps the Starship was unable to completely control its attitude. As the ship began its descent back into the atmosphere, the buildup of pink plasma around the ship was documented by the camera. However, communication was soon lost, and it was assumed that the ship had been destroyed in the descent. SpaceX, in coordination with the FAA, will go through the massive amount of data collected and work out the causes of the problems with the landings of the 2 vehicles. 

This test marks a huge step forward in the project, and the company plans another 5 flights this year. It should be noted that 2 top former NASA officials, Bill Gerstenmaier and Kathy Lueders, are now employed in leading roles at SpaceX, and are working to ensure the success of this project.  Its successful development is key to the success of President Trump’s Artemis Project and continued American leadership in space exploration and commercialization. A modified Starship is scheduled to begin landing astronauts on the Moon in 2026.