Starship’s live-streamed Test 4 is a giant leap toward our lunar future

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jun11,2024

If Test 3 of the SpaceX Starship was “awesome,” Test 4 of Elon Musk’s super rocket, which took place on June 5, was on another level that looked like something from science fiction happening in the real world. For the most part, the fourth test met the objectives for the launch vehicle that promises to take humans back to the moon, on to Mars, and beyond.

The major accomplishments of the test flight included soft landing the Super Heavy stage intact in the Gulf of Mexico and soft landing the Starship intact in the Indian Ocean. One of the Starship’s control flaps was shredded and it lost many of the heat shield tiles, as Musk posted on X. But the flight was a complete success. SpaceX has helpfully posted a summary of its accomplishments.

One accomplishment SpaceX does not list but is worth mentioning is providing sights for those viewing the flight on a live stream that had never before been seen in any space flight. The Super Heavy’s first stage, after it separated from the Starship, descended gently into the Gulf of Mexico on a tail of fire. For the first time ever, thanks to Starlink, the reentry of a spacecraft could be seen without a blackout period as Starship dropped toward the Indian Ocean, colorful plasma flaring all around it.

That the Starship’s fourth test flight impressed the world would be to put the matter mildly. Even space observers in China, the West’s main rival in space race 2.0. were awestruck at what SpaceX accomplished. State-owned China Space News is quoted as saying that Starship “surpassed the space shuttle to become the largest and most massive re-entry spacecraft in human history.”

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson posted on X, “Congratulations @SpaceX on Starship’s successful test flight this morning! We are another step closer to returning humanity to the Moon through #Artemis — then looking onward to Mars.”

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk congratulated the team that accomplished the test flight, “Today was a great day for humanity’s future as a spacefaring civilization! Nothing unites us more than working together towards inspiring objectives.”

Accolades aside, the test flight was just one small step toward the day that fleets of Starships will travel to and from the moon, Mars, and other destinations in the Solar System,

Musk is already preparing for the next Starship test, which may take place in July. Since the Federal Aviation Administration will not conduct an accident investigation for Test Flight 4, that date is more likely than not. The heat shield tiles will be more resilient and the flaps will be relocated so that they’ll be less likely to be damaged by the stresses of reentry.

Musk also plans to bring the Super Heavy down to the launch pad after it separates from the Starship. The plan will be for the Megazilla arms to grab the massive rocket in midair and bring it gently down to the same pad it launched from. The maneuver, once mastered, will go a long way toward making the giant rocket reusable.

Other milestones for the Starship’s development into an operational vehicle include:

Launching the Starship to orbit, operate in low Earth orbit, then return it intact for reuse.

Refueling the Starship in Earth orbit, which will require multiple launches of Starships configured as tankers.

Fly to the moon, land on its surface and take off again.

Fly to Mars, land, take off and return to Earth.

Starship is awesome not just because it is impressive launching, flying in space and then landing. It is inspirational because of the future it is likely to enable.

That future includes bases on the moon, a settlement on Mars and mining expeditions to the asteroids. Human beings from Earth will venture to space, not just to study its secrets, but to prospect for and bring home its abundant wealth.

Just as the 16th-century racing galleon opened the Americas and the entire world to merchant adventurers seeking riches and settlers looking for a new life across the oceans, the Starship carries the hope of doing the same for 21st-century humans in space. Space travel is not just a glorious pastime or a means of superpower competition. It is a way to solve many of the problems of poverty and environmental degradation using the natural and energy resources of space.

Elon Musk often speaks of his dream of making humankind a multi-planet species. Somehow, he has discovered a way to give that dream form.

Mark R. Whittington, who writes frequently about space policy, has published a political study of space exploration entitled “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and, most recently, “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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