Debris explosion from SpaceX rocket launch renews environmental concerns

April 27 (Reuters). While the blast-off of SpaceX’s new Starship rocket over the Gulf of Mexico grabbed the public’s attention, the government this week turned its attention to ground-level launches.

The concussive force of last Thursday’s launch in south Texas sent a cloud of pulverized concrete raining over a small town nearby, federal regulators said, raising new questions about the environmental impact of increased launch activity at the site.

The blast from the SpaceX facility, located next to a national wildlife refuge near Boca Chica Beach, also threw large chunks of concrete and metal thousands of feet and ignited a 3.5-acre (1.4-hectare) fire in a nearby area, according to the US. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Damage to the launch pad, the floor of which was largely demolished during takeoff, was visible in photographs of the aftermath. No one was injured and no dead birds or wildlife were found on the refuge’s property or managed lands, the agency said.

The rocket itself fell out of control and exploded in the air a few minutes before the flight.

Environmentalists used the report as evidence that an in-depth study of potential threats to public safety and wildlife should be conducted before any future Starship launches in Boca Chica.

“They thought the debris from those launches, but not part of the launch pad itself, would be blown miles away and scattered across the landscape,” said Jared Margolis, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “What happened is not what they expected.”

NASA is counting on Starship as a key component of its Artemis program, which aims to return astronauts to the Moon in the coming years as a stepping stone to possible human exploration of Mars.

SpaceX did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Fish and Wildlife Service’s findings.

The April 20 launch came days after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted SpaceX a license to launch Starship using its Super Heavy rocket booster. The unmanned test flight was the first for a combined two-stage vehicle.

Despite the outcome, SpaceX hailed the aborted mission as a qualified success. The company said it was pleased to lift Starship off the ground on its first test flight, a valuable source of data for the spacecraft’s future development.

The report by the Fish and Wildlife Service, part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, was the first review by government regulators of the extent of additional damage caused by the launch beyond the aerial explosion of the Starship itself.

SpaceX’s billionaire founder and CEO Elon Musk said Friday that the California-based company now plans to install a water cooling system and steel base for the next launch of the rocket, the most powerful rocket ever built.

The FAA announced last week that it had opened an “accident” investigation, as defined by law, effectively grounding the rocket until SpaceX determines the root cause of the failures and takes corrective action.


On the ground, the force of about 30 rocket engines firing at full power slammed into the floor of the launch pad during takeoff, sinking a crater several feet deep into the ground.

The plume of concrete dust drifted up to 6.5 miles (10.5 km) to the northwest, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Pulverized material fell over tidal flats in the area and in Port Isabel, a town near the state’s southeastern tip, agency spokesman Aubrey Buzek said.

An environmental assessment approved by the agency last year for the recently expanded Starbase facility predicts that blast debris remains in a 700-acre (about one square mile) area around the launch pad.

Chunks of concrete and metal shrapnel hurled thousands of feet from the launch pad likely would have hit the endangered shorebird, the lapwing, in a critical spot, Margolis said.

Before the FAA granted the license, environmentalists had requested a more extensive environmental impact study. Margolis said the launch failure proved that the initial environmental analysis was inadequate.

Reopening the SpaceX facility to conduct a full-scale environmental review would delay Starship development, complicating NASA’s Artemis timeline as well as the spacecraft’s anticipated use for Pentagon and commercial missions.

Musk suggested last week that SpaceX could have planned upgrades to the launch site that would be ready for installation before the next launch attempt in one to two months.

Reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Joey Roulette and David Shepardson in Washington; Edited by Rosalba O’Brien

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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