Watching the Starship IFT-4 launch

It has been a long time since I had so much fun watching a launch. I did not watch the full thing but the news reports I read thereafter made it seem like just another launch. Hence, I wrote this!

I missed watching the lift-off and the separation of the Super Heavy Booster and Starship.

Full flight

When I joined the stream on X, it was playing elevator music with the video showing a rotating model of Starship. I loved watching this GIF with background elevator music. We were waiting for the re-acquisition of the signal just like we were waiting for a lift to come to your floor.

The mission was the fourth Integrated Flight Test (IFT-4). In the third flight (IFT-3), Starship had hard landed in the southern Indian Ocean. For this flight, they hoped to soft land in the southern Indian Ocean. While the elevator music was playing on the main webcast, I saw the clips of the launch and Super Heavy Booster separation.


Super Booster separation and splashdown

The exhaust from the 33 Raptor engines (powered by liquid oxygen and methane) that powered the Super Heavy Booster formed an asterisk when you looked at it from the top view. It looked like the asterisk one sees in all advertisements that warn about there being various Terms and Conditions that apply.

I also watched the video of the Super Heavy Booster (added in the second link above) falling back and splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico in a controlled manner. But this did not prepare me for the drama surrounding the splashdown of Starship.

The IFT-4 mission was collecting data on many parameters. The launch commentators kept repeating that on this mission, data was the payload.

When the signal returned Starship was floating over Africa at an altitude of more than 200 km above sea level and coasting at a speed of more than 26000 km/hr. It then began to descend back to Earth. As it hit the Earth’s atmosphere, we got to see the plasma generated by the atmosphere from an onboard camera under the first flap that controlled the vehicle. These were visible in vibrant colors on the body of Starship. Both speed and altitude numbers on the screen began to fall.

Plasma around Starship

Starship then went through regions of maximum temperature and maximum pressure. This exerted so much stress that the camera showed the flap controlling the front of Starship tearing apart. We saw the pictures in real-time and live thanks to the data being sent back by the camera through SpaceX’s Starlink satellite. The camera lens then was filled with debris but was still working and transmitting live images back to us.

I think that at this stage all eyes were on the video. There was no one paying attention to the various statistics displayed on the screen (spacecraft attitude, speed, and altitude). All eyes were on whether the fin would hold.

A little while later, we could see the plasma passing through the rupture on the camera. The debris from within the rupture could be seen flying past the camera and covering the camera’s lens. Kudos to whoever designed or worked on this camera!

The last time (IFT-3), the signal from Starship was lost was when it was 65 km above sea level. The employees at SpaceX rejoiced when they realized that Starship had gone below this altitude. The live feed from the camera got cut off twice this time. Each time it returned, one heard the roar of approval and applause from the employees.

All eyes were still on the fins. They were holding despite the immense damage they suffered as it passed through the atmosphere. The immense temperature and pressure the Starship had survived reduced as it came closer to sea level. Despite the debris on the lens, we could still see the fins intact!

Hope rose every kilometer that Starship descended. As it reached an altitude below 5 km, the grids still seemed to be working and keeping Starship in the right orientation.

Starship flipped and remained vertical for a while just above sea level. The camera showed the flames from the Raptor engines that powered Starship as it floated. You could see the seawater around Starship. As the burn was completed, Starship fell into the southern Indian Ocean. Starship became a ship.

I understand that for the engineers at SpaceX, this was a great achievement and the real work begins now. It was awesome to watch it as a space enthusiast as well. I love watching launch vehicles fly and be tested.

Thank you, SpaceX! This was a great thrill to follow.

It has been a long time since I watched a live webcast on X. I have not always had a good experience watching things on X. But this was completely different.

The next launch (IFT-5) is expected in late June or July 2024. They are expected to try doing a booster tower landing. Starship would then land on land!

Will Starship make everything else redundant?

I heard several people on X say that Starship would remove the need for every other launch vehicle. I do not think this will happen. Miniaturization means an increase in the number of micro and small satellites. There could also be scaled models to test new technologies. These may not prefer to wait for a Starship to be ready for a launch. They may prefer vehicles like SSLV, Agnibaan, Vikram, etc.

There will still be a demand for medium lift vehicles to launch some of the satellite constellations in low Earth orbit if not to launch a few remote sensing satellites. I do not think the demand for these will be reduced.

There may be less demand for other heavy and super heavy-lift launch vehicles given Starship is available but that depends on the number of launches it can do in a year. Reusability reduces the need to manufacture many Starships. I think that it still makes sense for India to develop an NGLV and for rocket entrepreneurs to build small-lift launch vehicles. These are good skills to learn and keep updated.

The lesson to learn from our space history is to not rely on one company or one vehicle to provide all the launch services. We may either have none or unreliable ones.

June 6, 2024