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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Richard Luscombe

SpaceX’s massive Starship rocket records first successful test flight

a spacecraft launches toward space
SpaceX's Starship launches its fourth flight test from the company's Boca Chica launchpad near Brownsville, Texas, on 6 January 2024. Photograph: SpaceX/Reuters

Starship, the mighty space rocket designed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, recorded its first fully successful test flight on Thursday, splashing down in the Indian Ocean minus any fiery explosion that ended previous attempts.

The demonstration mission from the Boca Chica launch complex in Texas sent Starship to almost 130 miles (210km) of altitude, at a speed above 16,000mph (25,700km/h), showcasing the capability of the world’s most powerful rocket that Nasa is banking on to one day send humans to Mars.

SpaceX celebrated its intact return as the real achievement of the flight. It followed a hard crash landing and fiery destruction of the uncrewed craft last November, seven months after its inaugural test launch ended in similar fashion, and its breakup on re-entry after a trip around the planet in March.

“Despite loss of many tiles and a damaged flap, Starship made it all the way to a soft landing in the ocean!” Musk, SpaceX’s chief executive, wrote in a post to X, the social media platform the billionaire also owns.

Musk hailed Thursday’s hour-long, fourth test flight as “an epic achievement”. The company has frequently expressed “failure” to be a crucial part of its development process towards a safe and reliable crew transportation system.

The Starship flight came the same day as Nasa gave details of a helium leak onboard Boeing’s Starliner capsule, which launched Wednesday on its first crewed mission to the International Space Station.

The space agency has contracted with both SpaceX and Boeing as commercial partners to take astronauts to both lower Earth orbit and deep space. In 2021, Nasa chose Starship as its preferred lander for the Artemis program, which aims to return humans to the moon for the first time since 1972, and ultimately on to Mars before the end of the next decade.

In January, Nasa announced that Artemis III, which will land four astronauts including the first woman on the lunar surface, had been delayed until at least September 2026. The under-development SpaceX lander will rendezvous with the astronauts in orbit before descending to the moon.

Since partnering with Nasa, SpaceX has become an integral part of the burgeoning, next-generation commercial space industry.

It has launched more than 50 humans into space onboard its own Falcon rockets and Dragon capsules, and has pioneered the Starlink chain of internet-providing satellites that has transformed communications in remote areas of the globe.

But Starlink has also run into controversy for allegedly helping Russia in its military invasion of Ukraine.

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