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SpaceX Starship lost on return to Earth after completing most of test flight

BOCA CHICA — SpaceX’s Starship rocket, designed to eventually send astronauts to the moon and beyond, completed nearly an entire test flight on its third try today, making it much farther than before with a cruise through low orbit before being destroyed during a return to Earth, the company said.

During a live webcast of the flight, SpaceX commentators said mission control lost communication with the spacecraft during its atmospheric re-entry. The vehicle was nearing a planned splashdown in the Indian Ocean about an hour after launch.

A few minutes later, SpaceX confirmed that the spacecraft had been lost, presumably either burning up or coming apart during re-entry or crashing into the sea.

Still, the completion of most of the intended hour-plus test flight trajectory of Starship marked a major milestone in the development of a spacecraft crucial to Elon Musk’s satellite launch business and Nasa’s moon programme.

Nasa chief Bill Nelson congratulated SpaceX on what he called “a successful test flight” in a statement posted on the social media platform X.

The two-stage spacecraft, consisting of the Starship cruise vessel mounted atop its towering Super Heavy rocket booster, blasted off from the Elon Musk-owned company’s Starbase launch site near Boca Chica Village on the south Texas Gulf Coast.

During its flight, Starship reached peak altitudes of 234 km, the company said.

SpaceX engineers had hoped to improve on the Starship’s two past performances, which both ended in explosions minutes after launch. However, the company had acknowledged in advance a high probability that its latest flight might similarly end with the spacecraft’s destruction before the planned mission profile was finished.

SpaceX’s engineering culture, considered more risk-tolerant than many of the aerospace industry’s more established players, is built on a flight-testing strategy that pushes spacecraft to the point of failure, and then finetunes improvements through frequent repetition.

Despite the outcome of today’s test, all indications are that Starship remains a considerable distance from becoming fully operational.

Musk, SpaceX’s billionaire founder and CEO, has said the rocket should fly hundreds of uncrewed missions before carrying its first humans. Several other ambitious milestones overseen by Nasa need to be met before the craft can execute a moon landing with American astronauts.

Still, Musk is counting on Starship to fulfil his goal of producing a large, multi-purpose next-generation spacecraft capable of sending people and cargo to the moon later this decade, and ultimately flying to Mars.

Closer to home, Musk also sees Starship as eventually replacing the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket as the workhorse in the company’s commercial launch business. It already lofts most of the world’s satellites and other payloads to low-Earth orbit. — Reuters