SpaceX conducted the third and most successful test flight yet of its Starship launch vehicle—the world’s largest and most powerful rocket ever built—on March 14, 2024.

The Starship is central to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s goal to send humans to the Moon and, eventually, to Mars.

Troubled track record

SpaceX’s Starship is designed to be a two-stage, fully reusable launch vehicle. The first stage booster is known as the “Super Heavy”, while the upper stage is known as the “Starship.” The launch vehicle stands over 400 feet tall and can launch up to 165 tons (150 metric tonnes) into Earth orbit. 

SpaceX’s first Starship test flight was in April 2023, which saw the Starship fail to separate from the Super Heavy first-stage booster before the launch vehicle was detonated just four minutes after lift-off. Undeterred, SpaceX tested the Starship again in November 2023. This time, the Starship separated successfully from the Super Heavy. However, both the Starship and Super Heavy exploded shortly afterward.

Third-time lucky

SpaceX’s latest Starship test flight proved the most successful to date. The Starship reached the Earth’s orbit for the first time, traveling halfway around the planet before disintegrating upon re-entry at the 49-minute mark. The Starship performed several tasks successfully while in orbit, including opening and closing its payload doors. 

The Super Heavy booster separated successfully from the Starship but was lost after initiating its return to Earth.

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The SpaceX Starship potential

The ability of SpaceX to deliver its Starship spacecraft will have a significant impact on the volume of satellites being launched in the next five years. The company has suggested the Starship could fly daily, sending up to 100 tons of hardware into space with each launch and reducing launch costs to as low as $100 per kilogram to low Earth orbit (LEO).

Realistically, daily Starship flights are unlikely to happen anytime soon. For subsequent launches, SpaceX would require a significant fleet of Starship launch vehicles—which it currently lacks—to make this a reality.

The 2023 McKinsey report Space Launch: Are We Heading for Oversupply or a Shortfall? also highlights the problem of matching the supply to the demand for satellites. Satellite demand estimates vary from 27,000 to 65,000 by 2030 depending on how quickly satellite constellations are needed for communications or broadband purposes. McKinsey fears that the space industry faces a double problem: in the short term, a shortfall in rocket capacity, but long term, if satellite launch demand is lower than expected, there is a risk of oversupply.

Space X’s Starship will also play a central role in growing US-China competition in space. Both countries are competing to build the first permanent base on the Moon by 2030. NASA has selected the Starship Human Landing System (HLS), a lunar variant of the Starship launch vehicle, to take US astronauts to the Moon by 2026.

China aims to land astronauts on the Moon by 2030. The first to establish a base on the Moon could have a significant first-mover advantage in the exploration of billions of dollars’ worth of untapped resources. Eventually, the Moon could also offer a launch point for SpaceX’s future missions to Mars. Ultimately, SpaceX will have to get its Starship into space and return it safely to Earth and SpaceX’s next Starship test flight could achieve just that. Watch this space.