SpaceX's Starship takes off for its fourth test flight

SpaceX launched its Starship spacecraft into orbit on Thursday in a fourth test flight intended to assess the ability to control the spacecraft's descent.

Stacked on a super-heavy rocket, the Starship capsule blasted off from the launch pad in Boca Chica, Texas, at 5:50 a.m. Pacific Time. The rocket, the most powerful ever built, is designed to eventually send astronauts to the moon and Mars.

The goal of Thursday's Starship unmanned test flight is to return the spacecraft and its rocket to Earth in controlled descents — the capsule in the Indian Ocean and the rocket in the Gulf of Mexico — but there were no plans to return the stages to recover.

On future flights, Elon Musk's Hawthorne-based company is expected to try to land on landing pads so that the spacecraft and rocket can be reused, a key technology to make spaceflight cheaper.

The space launch system is taller at 400 feet and has about twice as much power as the Saturn 5 and Apollo capsules that took humans to the moon. It is collectively called Starship.

This was the second major launch this week and came after Boeing finally launched its Starliner spacecraft with a crew on board to the International Space Station on Wednesday. Starliner, whose launches have been repeatedly postponed, is competing to operate the station with SpaceX, which has already sent more than six crew members to the orbiting laboratory. Starliner is expected to dock at the station at 9:15 am on Thursday.

Thursday's flight came about four months after a March 14 test flight, when Starship reached several milestones. However, the capsule burned up during its descent into the atmosphere, while the rocket failed to achieve a controlled return to Earth.

However, the spaceship did reach orbit, opened and closed its payload doors and transferred fuel from one tank to another, a crucial function for flights to space. The test flight was also the spacecraft's longest yet.

The craft's maiden flight in April 2023 lasted just a few minutes before the booster lost power and exploded during takeoff. A second launch in November was more successful, with the rocket separating from the capsule before both were lost.

SpaceX, formally known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp., considers flight failures as part of its development process, an approach different from traditional aerospace companies that have long preferred to perfect their technology on the ground.

Starship is part of NASA's Artemis program to return humans to the moon, with the goal of establishing a permanent base to facilitate missions to Mars. The program includes a second spacecraft called Orion, manufactured by NASA, Northrop Grumman and Airbus, and a Space Launch System rocket built by Boeing, Northrop Grumman and other companies.

Orion orbited the moon during a successful 25-day mission that launched in November 2022 without a crew. A mission with astronauts is not planned until September 2025.

Starship also has a commercial component. It would allow the private company to launch more and larger Starlink broadband satellites than the company's existing line of Falcon 9 rockets.

Last week, Japanese e-commerce billionaire Yusaku Maezawa tweeted that he had withdrawn from a contract signed in 2018 to fly Starship around the moon due to delays in the spacecraft's development. Maezawa, who wanted to fly with a half-dozen performers, said he had expected the private space trip to take place in 2023.

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