“The little flap that could.”

Flappy Bird

SpaceX’s turbulent Starship launch on Thursday shook the space exploration community to its core.

The company’s gargantuan spacecraft and Super Heavy booster roared to life at SpaceX’s South Texas testing facilities, releasing a star-shaped cloud of fire and smoke.

While Super Heavy’s return to Earth saw the rocket successfully slowing its descent right up until it toppled into the ocean, Starship had a far rockier return to the surface after surviving a picture-perfect journey through outer space.

Dramatic footage shows one of the vehicle’s two flaps bearing the brunt of the plasma generated by its plummet through the atmosphere, slicing away Starship’s heat shield tiles and insulation.

Miraculously, the flap endured the brutal conditions — jumping into life to flip the colossal rocket for its “soft” landing in the Indian Ocean just over an hour into its mission. As exterior camera footage came back online after a brief outage, SpaceX staff erupted into cheers and applause, celebrating the “little flap that could.”

Cooked to Perfection

And as it turns out, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk predicted what happened almost perfectly.

“Sealing that hinge gap and not having hot gas just go flowing super fast through the interface” would be critical to ensure that the heat shield tiles don’t get “cooked,” he told SpaceX enthusiast Tim “Everyday Astronaut” Dodd the day before the launch.

“One of the key questions is, does that seal work?” Musk added. “We think it’ll work, but it may not work.”

“He turned out to be right as it was the exact spot that burned through,” Dodd tweeted later.

“Not a difficult prediction!” Musk replied. “We will have this nailed for next flight.”

Needless to say, memes abounded.


Despite the area getting “cooked” by the rocket’s fiery return, the Starhip’s flaps somehow managed to stay in one piece, a testament to the engineering that went into its construction.

As for upcoming missions, Musk added in a followup tweet that a “newer version of Starship has the forward flaps shifted leeward,” or towards where the wind is going. “This will help improve reliability, ease of manufacturing and payload to orbit.”

Despite shredding its wings, SpaceX claimed on its website that Starship successfully ignited “its three center Raptor engines” and executed “the first flip maneuver and landing burn since our suborbital campaign, followed by a soft splashdown.”

In short, it may have taken a beating, but the latest Starship launch represented a considerable step forward for the company’s efforts to deliver it to the Moon and beyond.

“The fourth flight of Starship made major strides to bring us closer to a rapidly reusable future,” SpaceX noted.

More on the launch: Starship’s Flight Was Going Great. Then Pieces Started Falling Off on Livestream