What’s Next For SpaceX’s Starship After Successful Fourth Test Flight?

27th Jun 2024
What’s Next For SpaceX’s Starship After Successful Fourth Test Flight?

Almost in contrast to the staccato of boasts from its maker-in-chief and mercurial brain-father, the SpaceX Starship’s recent trajectory of steady strides points squarely, steadily skyward. Beginning in April of 2023, the world’s largest and most powerful rocket has completed four test flights, with another four launches slated for the remainder of the year. The most recent test, Flight Four, achieved its soft, watery landing on June 6th. 

So what’s next for Starship? 

Sustaining only minor damage to the shielding tiles and forward flaps, Flight Four might make Starship’s 2026 Moon launch under NASA’s Artemis program seem more credible than critics widely contend. SpaceX has identified more heat-resistant alloys with a tweaked flap design for its next iteration — far fewer changes than were necessary after Flight Three’s uncontrolled, spinning descent in a plasma plume. 

“Despite the loss of many tiles and a damaged flap, Starship made it all the way to a soft landing in the ocean! Congratulations, @SpaceX team, on an epic achievement!!” SpaceX Founder and CEO Elon Musk posted on X.

The question remains: are the world’s best and brightest, backed by the forces of unrestrained private capital and the benefit of over 50 years in aerospace advancements, ready to take Strarship to the Moon — and Mars?

A few details need sorting before the spacecraft will be ready to safeguard humanity’s light-years-long future. In concert with SpaceX and Blue Origin, the Artemis program envisions the Moon as a launchpad, no longer a peak to be summitedas in ‘69. To transport humans and infrastructure to make life on the Moon possible, Starship must eclipse the Apollo in nearly every way — hauling more payload, more times, safely and reliably, with the ability to refuel in orbit. 

So what’s next for Starship? As part of a close collaboration between SpaceX and NASA, the remaining tests will focus on a few critical capabilities to define the future of space travel. 

Super Heavy Booster Recovery

From the beginning, SpaceX has envisioned a fully reusable rocket system at the core of the new space-travel paradigm, with Starships launching and landing as reliably as commercial airliners. Flight Four’s soft splashdown got close, but the ultimate goal was more ambitious — catching the booster with the launch tower’s “chopsticks.” Demanding that both the launcher and booster operate in perfect sync, this intricate manoeuvre will allow for multiple Starship launches per day from both the Starbase facility and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. 

Musk gives successful super heavy booster recovery an 80 to 90 percent chance by the end of the year — provided that SpaceX can fix the shielding tile and flap issues made apparent in Launch Four. The next step will involve Mechazilla, the Starbase launch tower, catching the entirety of the rocket. This milestone will mark a significant step towards making space travel more economical and sustainable, propelling SpaceX closer to its Mars ambitions and allowing SpaceX to ratchet up its production scale.

In-Orbit Propellant Transfer

Just as fighter jets refuel in flight, Starship tankers may soon be able to pass rocket fuel to other Starships in low-Earth orbit. Unlike with jets, this type of transfer occurs in near-zero gravity with cryogenic propellant, introducing an entirely different set of engineering challenges. In-orbit propellant transfer is a top priority because it enables longer missions and allows Starship to carry more payload in a single trip. Ship-to-ship propellant transfer testing is also part of NASA’s Human Landing System (HLS) contract with SpaceX to land an uncrewed Starship on the lunar surface. 

According to Amit Kshatriya, leader of the Moon to Mars program, solving the propellant problem is fundamental to building “a blueprint for deep space exploration.” It represents a paradigm shift — one that makes Musk’s vision of a self-sustaining human presence on Mars both technologically and economically feasible. Starship tankers could efficiently pass fuel from Earth to Mars, refuelling spacecraft on missions to have enough for the return journey. 

In essence, in-orbit refuelling will transform space travel from a series of isolated missions into a continuous, reusable transportation system. SpaceX conducted a tank-to-tank test during the launch in March and is projecting its first ship-to-ship demonstration sometime in the next year. 

Crewed Flights

With Starship recovery and in-orbit refuelling in place, SpaceX needs a few more successful tests, including an uncrewed lunar landing, to put astronauts on the Moon in partnership with NASA. Unlike the Apollo, the Starship must carry more weight and be completely reusable. While Apollo’s boosters broke away during launch, the Starship will need to withstand the heat and higher speeds of reentry in its entirety to ensure the safety of its crew and cargo.

With a demonstrated ability to land on and launch from the Moon, SpaceX will ramp up production capacity significantly, eventually producing as many as multiple Starships per day in its “giant factory”. With the long-term goal being a viable human presence on Mars, SpaceX envisions an armada of Starships, each with a unique function, launching consistently to maintain a supply chain of people, material, and fuel into deep space.

While landing one million people on the Red Planet in 20 years may sound farfetched to most, the technological feasibility, at this point, is hard to refute outright. Given a successful crewed lunar mission in 2026 or soon after, it won’t be long until the Starship Armada sets its crosshairs on Mars when the orbits align.

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