SpaceX’s Starship Gets FAA Approval for Fourth Test Flight

By Lydia Amazouz Published on June 5, 2024 07:30
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SpaceX has received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to proceed with the fourth test flight of its Starship rocket.

This test flight, scheduled for Thursday, marks a significant milestone in SpaceX’s efforts to develop a fully reusable spacecraft capable of carrying humans to the moon, Mars, and beyond.

The Starship, the most powerful launch vehicle ever built, will take off from the company’s private Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas, during a 120-minute launch window that opens at 8 a.m. ET. The event will be livestreamed on SpaceX’s website about 30 minutes before liftoff.

FAA's Conditions and SpaceX's Preparations

The FAA granted the launch license on Tuesday, confirming that SpaceX had met all safety and other licensing requirements for this test flight.

The agency outlined three scenarios involving Starship’s entry into the atmosphere that would not necessitate an investigation if the vehicle is lost: a failure of a thermal shield, some loss of control of the vehicle in midflight, and the failure of an engine during a landing burn.

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The FAA stated, "If a different anomaly occurs with the Starship vehicle, an investigation may be warranted as well as if an anomaly occurs with the Super Heavy booster rocket."

If SpaceX chooses to execute an uncontrolled entry, it must communicate that decision to the FAA prior to launch. This agreement suggests that SpaceX has identified likely failure modes and agreed with the FAA on handling them to streamline the testing process.

Previous Test Flights

SpaceX’s journey with the Starship has been marked by a series of test flights, each contributing valuable insights into the development of the spacecraft. The first test flight in April 2023 ended in an explosion shortly after liftoff, destroying both the spacecraft and its launch pad. This initial setback did not deter SpaceX; instead, it highlighted critical areas for improvement.

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The second test flight, conducted in November 2023, also failed to reach space, with the vehicle experiencing issues that led to its destruction before completing its intended objectives. Despite these challenges, the company embraced these failures as learning opportunities. "We’re continuing to rapidly develop Starship, putting flight hardware in a flight environment to learn as quickly as possible," SpaceX noted.

The third test flight in March 2024 was more successful, achieving several key milestones before breaking apart after reentry. This flight demonstrated Starship’s potential, as it reached space and gathered crucial data that informed subsequent design and procedural adjustments. Each flight builds on the lessons learned from its predecessors, aligning with SpaceX’s "rapid spiral development" approach, which involves building and testing prototypes quickly to accelerate the learning curve.

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Enhancements and Lessons from Previous Flights

For the fourth flight, SpaceX has made multiple software and hardware upgrades to the Starship to incorporate lessons learned from the previous flights. One major enhancement includes improvements to the thermal protection system to better withstand the intense heat of reentry.

Spacex's Starship Gets Faa Approval For Fourth Test Flight

The propulsion system has also been upgraded to enhance reliability and performance during the critical phases of launch and landing. Additionally, SpaceX has refined the flight software to ensure more robust handling of flight dynamics and control scenarios that were problematic in earlier tests.

In response to the issues faced during the second test flight, SpaceX has reinforced the structural integrity of both the Starship and the Super Heavy booster. The launch pad infrastructure has also undergone significant modifications to prevent the kind of damage experienced during the first test flight. These upgrades are designed to mitigate the risk of catastrophic failure and to enhance the overall safety and success rate of future missions.

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"The primary objectives will be executing a landing burn and soft splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico with the Super Heavy booster, and achieving a controlled entry of Starship," according to SpaceX. These improvements are expected to significantly increase the chances of a successful flight and recovery, bringing SpaceX closer to its goal of a fully reusable spacecraft.

Significance for Future Space Exploration

Much is riding on the eventual success of the Starship program. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has repeatedly emphasized the importance of Starship to the company’s mission of putting humans on Mars. Furthermore, Starship has been selected by NASA as the vehicle to land astronauts on the moon for the first time in over five decades as part of the Artemis program. This program is part of a broader competition with China to establish a permanent presence on the moon and set precedents for future deep-space exploration.

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The fourth flight of Starship aims to advance the goal of creating a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the moon, Mars, and beyond. "We’re continuing to rapidly develop Starship, putting flight hardware in a flight environment to learn as quickly as possible," SpaceX stated.

As SpaceX continues to iterate and improve its designs, each test brings the company closer to achieving its ambitious vision for space travel. The world watches with anticipation as SpaceX pushes the boundaries of what is possible in space exploration, striving to make space more accessible and pave the way for future interplanetary missions.


An editor specializing in astronomy and space industry, passionate about uncovering the mysteries of the universe and the technological advances that propel space exploration.

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