Rocket revolution: Starship’s fourth launch with two controlled stage re-entries and splashdowns makes fully reusable rockets a reality

by | Jun 6, 2024 | Launches, Seradata News, SpaceX

Partially reusable launches have been done many times.  The Space Shuttle Orbiter was, in fact, the main stage of a partially reusable rocket system.  More recently Elon Musk perfected the concept of fully reusable first stage rockets via his very successful Falcon 9/Falcon Heavy series. However, the holy grail is to create a rocket which FULLY reusable stages. If this could be achieved this would so dramatically reduce the cost of spaceflight that it would make all other rocket systems redundant overnight.  And that is just about what Elon Musk and his SpaceX company has done.

The Super Heavy lost an engine on the fourth flight, but had enough thrust in reserve to make its trajectory. Courtesy: SpaceX/Twitter-X

On its own D-Day of sorts on the 6 June, the firm launched its 121 m tall Starship/Super Heavy rocket combination into a near orbital trajectory of its Starship IFT-4 mission. While launching had been previously achieved, this new flight had the aim of testing out its first and second stage re-entry and landing systems.  The previous three launches had ended in failure at various points of the flight, the most recent being the re-entry failure of the Starship upper stage.

The launch took off as planned at 1250 GMT from the Starbase launch site near Boca Chica, Texas. But as the rocket blasted itself into the air, it soon became apparent that one of the 33 first stage Raptor engines, used for the initial climb, was out.  No matter. The rocket had enough thrust to make this work. Having separated from the Starship hot firing upper stage – the hot staging ring was discarded on this flight for weight reasons – the Super Heavy rocket pitched itself backwards and used the core 13 inner engines to fire itself towards the Atlantic Ocean close to the launch site. The Starship blasted onwards to an apogee of 214 km.

Starship IFT-4’s staging event. Courtesy: SpaceX/Elon Musk

The Starship stage ploughed on, albeit that there was a hiccup in its on board TV feed for a time. There was another slight problem, as again, two engines failed to reignite. No matter again. There was enough thrust to perform its deceleration to make a controlled landing in the sea, seven and a half minutes after launch.

SpaceX on X: “Super Heavy landing burn and soft splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico” / X

But first there would have to be a fiery re-entry to survive as the craft slowly bleed off its velocity. The onboard TV coverage was thankfully restored to view this key part of the mission: to prove that an upper stage can survive re-entry and land in a controlled way – albeit that this time it would be a controlled soft-landing to a splashdown in the Indian Ocean an hour after launch.  The previous mission showed that the tile protected stainless steel craft’s thermal protection system was just about holding up, until the spacecraft broke apart due to an uncontrolled roll and tumble. The TV views of the re-entry were spectacular, beautiful colours of the fiery plasma being on display.

The plasma flow during Starship’s re-entry turned a pretty green on the flap. Courtesy: SpaceX/Twitter-X

However, then, on examination of the control flap, it became obvious that the plasma was starting to burn through its hinge, an area that Elon Musk predicted could be its Achilles Heal.  And yet, despite being nearly hollowed out by thermal melting, the flap just about managed to stay attached to the main body, which was also losing thermal protection tiles.  But impressively, the Starship rocket stage stayed intact, enough for the final gimballing manouvre to make the rocket vertical for its powered soft landing into the Ocean.  And as it managed it, even if the “chopsticks” pad capture mechanism started to go through the motions of a similated grab, albeit as its charge fell into the drink 20 km away.

Science Simplified on X: “What a video of Starship Flap getting roasted by plasma, thanks to amazing broadcasting by Starlink @elonmusk #starship #IFT4” / X

As Elon Musk and his team received congratulations from around the world, the billionaire noted the end result of the mission on his own X/Twitter feed: “Despite loss of many tiles and a damaged flap, Starship made it all the way to a soft landing in the ocean!”

Elon knows that if the final wrinkles of his fully reusable launch system can be ironed out, and a proper on landing and reuse achieved, this makes all other expendable and part reusable launch vehicles obsolete.

Comment by David Todd:  While we have sometimes been critical of Elon’s over-optimism – not least over his Human Landing System Starship – we give our total congratulations to him and his team for this world changing achievement.

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