SpaceX Has Just Left Its Competition in the Dust: Starship Is One Step Away From Becoming a 100% Reusable Rocket

While there’s still a long journey ahead before it becomes the spacecraft that will take us to the Moon and Mars, Starship has outclassed all other rockets in the world.

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The crazy team at SpaceX has done it. Starship, the tallest and heaviest rocket in history, successfully landed for the first time on its fourth attempt. While there’s still a long road ahead to make this rocket capable of taking us to the Moon and Mars, one thing is certain: SpaceX has just taken a huge leap ahead in the space launch race and left its competition in the dust.

Everything Starship Demonstrated in Its Groundbreaking Flight

1. The reliability of the Raptor engine. This was a major concern in the Starship program, even before it was officially named. The engine’s combustion chamber operates at higher pressures than any other rocket engine, and it uses methalox (methane and liquid oxygen) for clean combustion.

The real issue is that Starship has 39 Raptor engines. During its first launch, many Raptor engines failed, fueling doubts about their reliability. However, these concerns were alleviated during the fourth launch test when a Raptor engine on the Super Heavy stage failed seconds after ignition but didn’t impact the rocket’s performance. The same was true for the re-ignitions during landing.

2. Starship’s structural integrity. Starship prototypes, which used to resemble unfinished water tanks, are now being constructed rapidly from stainless steel. Today, there’s no doubt that the rocket's design and the materials chosen were good calls.

This was evident during its first flight. After Starship’s two stages failed to separate, the rocket–with a height of 398 feet and a mass of 5,000 tons–started to spin out of control, but managed to maintain control without disintegrating.

However, the most impressive display of its durability came during its fourth flight. With the help of Starlink antennas, viewers were able to watch the launch live online and observe Starship crossing the atmosphere at speeds exceeding 12,400 miles per hour. Despite losing several tiles from its heat shield, the Starship successfully ignited its engines and simulated a landing in the Indian Ocean, with a damaged flap that continued to function despite significant surface loss.

3. The launch pad’s structural integrity. Starship’s first flight test resulted in the destruction of the launch pad. However, SpaceX engineers have addressed these problems by implementing a flame deflector with high-pressure water jets, making ground reinforcements, and improving the entire ground infrastructure (also known as Stage Zero).

Additionally, SpaceX has made significant progress in the fueling process for Starship. The company is now able to fill both the spacecraft and the Super Heavy booster with 4,600 tons of methane and liquid oxygen in just 45 minutes.

4. Super Heavy’s ability to land. SpaceX has successfully landed the Falcon 9 more than 300 times, but the 233-feet-tall Starship booster has faced challenges. In the last two flights, the Super Heavy booster had trouble restarting some of its engines due to a blockage in the oxygen supply filter, caused by a sudden maneuver to separate from the Starship spacecraft.

In Thursday’s flight, Super Heavy successfully ejected the hot separation ring for the first time. SpaceX added this 9-ton piece between the booster and the spacecraft to ensure stage separation. Because of this and several structural improvements to the filters, the Super Heavy reignited its engines and landed successfully.

As it happens, the Super Heavy has successfully simulated a landing in the Gulf of Mexico for the first time. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk plans to move this maneuver to the launch tower for the next flight. The launch tower, nicknamed “Mechazilla,” will use its large robotic arms to attempt to catch the booster before it touches the ground.

During the Super Heavy's splashdown on Thursday, the tower’s arms moved to simulate catching it. This shows that SpaceX is planning ahead and potentially devising several different maneuvers to ensure the mechanism works.

5. Starship’s ability to go to orbit and back. During Flight 2, Starship managed to cross the space frontier for the first time. In Flight 3, it demonstrated its capability to reach orbit. In Flight 4, it successfully returned from space without disintegrating.

Starship 29, the spacecraft that flew on Thursday, was equipped with additional roll control thrusters to facilitate re-entry on its “belly.” This configuration aimed to concentrate friction with the hot air on the heat shield, which is made up of thousands of ceramic tiles. The heat shield lost several pieces during the flight, but the spacecraft remained intact. It managed to reignite its engines to simulate a landing in the Indian Ocean.

SpaceX Is Light-Years Away From the Competition

Starship 1 Starship’s flap on fire before the spaceship landed in the Indian Ocean.

These five milestones make SpaceX’s competitors look like they're stuck in prehistoric times with their disposable rockets. While there are Chinese companies working on rockets capable of landing, and some U.S. companies, notably Blue Origin with the New Glenn, Starship aspires to be much more revolutionary.

Starship is designed to be the first fully and rapidly reusable rocket. Until a few days ago, the idea of it launching a 100-ton-rocket into space and then bringing it back to fly it out again sounded utopian. Musk once said that the Super Heavy would be able to fly three times a day and that Starship would be able to fly once a day. Thursday’s flight leaves no doubt that SpaceX is very close to achieving that.

As I mentioned earlier, there’s still a long way to go. The Super Heavy needs to demonstrate that it can be caught mid-air by the launch tower. Starship needs to re-enter the atmosphere in one piece. SpaceX needs to prove that it’s truly possible to reuse these spacecraft. However, after witnessing Thursday’s events, I have no doubt that SpaceX will succeed. In the meantime, the competition will continue to focus on its Falcon 9.

Image | SpaceX

Related | Starship Successfully Completes Fourth Flight. SpaceX Celebrates That It Didn’t Explode

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