ArtemisHuman SpaceflightNASANew SpaceSpaceXStarbase

Starship Completes Third Test Flight

Starship ascends on its third flight test on Thursday, March 14 2024.
Credit: David Diebold

On Thursday, March 14th, SpaceX completed the third Integrated Flight Test (IFT-3) of its Starship launch vehicle. Notably, IFT-3 successfully achieved the first complete ascent of the combined Starship and Super Heavy system. SpaceX demonstrated several important test objectives during an approximately 40-minute coast phase, but the Starship vehicle was ultimately lost during reentry at the end of the flight. The nominal flight path included only about half of a complete orbit around the Earth; nevertheless, Starship has demonstrated the capability to achieve orbital flight, setting the stage for its test campaign to accelerate in support of its obligations under the Artemis program.

Starship lifts off for its third Integrated Flight Test.
Credit: Astrid Cordero 

The vehicle lifted off at 8:26 AM CDT and completed a nominal first stage ascent, followed by stage separation at approximately 3 minutes into flight. After separation, the Super Heavy booster reoriented and performed a boostback burn, akin to those employed by SpaceX’s smaller Falcon 9 system, to target a water landing in the Gulf of Mexico. However, the booster appeared to experience control instability late in its descent as it used its grid fins to steer towards a landing. Several engines on the booster failed to relight during the startup of its attempted landing burn, and contact was lost. It is presumed to have impacted the ocean shortly thereafter, approximately 7 minutes into flight.

Starship’s ascent as seen from onboard cameras during the livestream.
Credit: SpaceX

The Starship upper stage shut down as planned at T+8:35, completing the first successful ascent of the Starship system. The trajectory for this mission carried Starship across the Atlantic Ocean and over Africa, with a reentry and landing targeted in the southern Indian Ocean. During this suborbital coast period, the vehicle performed in-space operations for the first time, demonstrating important capabilities which will be needed for the Artemis program. Starship was planned to perform a brief engine relight in space, testing its ability to make orbital maneuvers; however, the vehicle chose not to perform this demonstration because of abnormal rotation while in space.

Stage separation as seen from the ground.
Credit: David Diebold

Crucially, Starship attempted a transfer of cryogenic propellant in microgravity between two tanks inside the vehicle. Cryogenic propellant transfer is the cornerstone of the Starship system, and is one of the key technologies that will enable the vehicle to travel beyond Low Earth Orbit and land on the Moon. This demonstration was conducted as part of a Tipping Point contract with NASA. Starship also tested a payload bay door, supporting its role as a launch vehicle for SpaceX’s Starlink satellites. The final results of these tests will emerge as SpaceX reviews data following the flight.

At approximately 49 minutes into flight, Starship attempted reentry from orbital speeds for the first time. SpaceX had been communicating with Starship via both NASA’s TDRSS network, as well as SpaceX’s own Starlink constellation. It is during this reentry period that SpaceX lost contact with the vehicle, which is presumed to have broken up due to aerodynamic heating. Starship debris would have landed in the Indian Ocean, though this has not yet been confirmed at the time of writing.

Plasma flows along the underside of Starship as it reenters the Earth’s atmosphere.
Credit: SpaceX

The third integrated flight of the Starship system accomplished more test objectives than either of the two previous flights. Still, the premature loss of both the booster and the Starship upper stage has triggered a mishap investigation with the Federal Aviation Administration, which will delay the next flight in SpaceX’s test campaign until a failure analysis is concluded.

While SpaceX holds lofty ambitions for Starship as a crewed Mars transportation system, the most immediately pressing obligations for the vehicle come from NASA’s Artemis program. A Starship Human Landing System variant is slated to return humans to the Moon for the first time since Apollo during the Artemis III mission, currently targeted for September of 2026. However, the Starship HLS vehicle does not stand on its own. The full Starship architecture, including tankers, a depot, in-space refueling, and ground support infrastructure, is needed to support its highly complex launch campaign, which is estimated to require over a dozen flights in total.

Stakeholders at NASA have long viewed orbital flight – or a close approximation of it – as a key milestone for the integrated Starship and Super Heavy System; the first Integrated Flight Test was initially presented by SpaceX as an Orbital Flight Test. The first two flights in this campaign, IFT-1 and IFT-2, both ended in a loss of the vehicle during ascent, falling short of this goal. Prior to IFT-3, NASA Associate Administrator Jim Free asserted that SpaceX “haven’t hit the technical milestones” needed to support Artemis III. While NASA’s SLS and Orion spacecraft have encountered difficulties of their own, Starship has been consistently highlighted – including by the Government Accountability Office – as one of the greatest risks to the program’s success and schedule.

A diagram of the concept of operations for Artemis III, highlighting Starship’s role in the mission.
Credit: NASA

The complexity inherent in the Starship architecture will require SpaceX to overcome one technical challenge after the next, and they will need to sustain an aggressive pace in clearing these hurdles if they are to land humans on the Moon in about twenty-nine months. The flight path for IFT-3 did not nominally include a complete orbit around the Earth, and given the nature of its test campaign, it may be some time before SpaceX attempts to launch a Starship into a stable orbit. Still, after completing a successful ascent of both stages to near-orbital speeds, Starship has now essentially demonstrated this capability. Notwithstanding its unconventional development philosophy, SpaceX have succeeded in creating a rocket that can carry mass into orbit. 

The relative success of IFT-3 suggests that SpaceX’s iterative approach to Starship development can bear fruit in time. However, time is a resource the company cannot afford to waste, and the anomalies experienced during the flight mean that there are still obstacles to clear before SpaceX can hit the ground running. The company is negotiating with the FAA to allow nine Starship flights this year; no matter how many flights SpaceX is actually able to achieve, it will need to make every one of them count.

Amit Kshatriya is the Deputy Associate Administrator for NASA’s Moon to Mars program, which takes its first small steps under the Artemis program. In remarks given to the 2024 Human Research Program Investigators’ Workshop in Galveston, Texas, he discussed the importance of the capabilities NASA is developing under Artemis – both for a return to the Moon in the near future, and for its ultimate goal of sending humans to Mars. Outlining the next few missions in the Artemis manifest, Kshatriya called attention to the Starship program and its then-upcoming IFT-3 mission, as well as its critical role in Artemis III. Should IFT-3 go well, he quipped, “then it’s really gonna be on.”

And so it is.

Starship begins its journey to space, leaving the pad at 8:26 AM CDT.
Credit: David Diebold

Edited by Scarlet Dominik and Nik Alexander

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.