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SpaceX Starship blasts off on fourth test flight

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

Stacked on a Super Heavy rocket, the Starship capsule blasted off at 5:50 a.m. Pacific time from the company’s Boca Chica, Texas, launchpad. The rocket, the most powerful ever built, is designed to eventually send astronauts to the moon and to Mars.

The goal of Thursday’s uncrewed test flight of Starship is to have the spacecraft and its rocket return 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 recover the stages.

In future flights, Elon Musk’s Hawthorne-based company is expected to attempt landings on pads so the spacecraft and rocket can be reused, an essential technology to making space flight cheaper.

The space-launch system, at 397 feet, is taller and has about twice the thrust of the Saturn 5 and Apollo capsule that carried men to the moon. It is collectively referred to as Starship.

This was the second major launch this week and came after Boeing on Wednesday finally launched its Starliner spacecraft with a crew aboard to the International Space Station. Starliner, which has had its launches repeatedly delayed, is competing to service the station with SpaceX, which already has sent more than half a dozen crews to the orbiting lab. Starliner is expected to dock with the station at 9:15 a.m. Thursday.

Thursday’s flight came about three months after a March 14 test flight when Starship reached several milestones. However, the capsule burned up in the atmosphere on descent while the rocket failed to achieve a controlled reentry to earth.

Starship did reach orbit, though, opened and closed its payload doors and transferred fuel from one tank to another, a critical function for flights into space. The test flight also was the longest yet of the spacecraft.

The craft’s first flight in April 2023 lasted only a few minutes before the booster lost power and exploded on ascent. 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., views flight failures as part of its development process, an approach that differs 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 circled the moon in a successful 25-day mission that blasted off in November 2022 without a crew. A mission carrying astronauts is scheduled for no earlier than September 2025.

Starship also has a commercial component. It would allow the privately held company to launch more and larger Starlink broadband satellites than the company’s existing lineup of Falcon 9 rockets.

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

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