SpaceX first launched the largest rocket ever built on Thursday from its spaceport in Boca Chica, Texas. The Starship spacecraft, designed to fly people on a mission to Mars one day, lifted off its launch pad and exploded mid-flight, with no crew on board.
Now, residents and researchers are trying to assess the impact of the blast on local communities, their health, habitat and wildlife, including endangered species. Of primary concern is the large amount of sand- and ash-like particulate matter and heavier debris kicked up by the launch. The particulate emissions have spread far beyond the expected debris field.
Following the explosion, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) halted the launch schedule of the company’s Starship Super Heavy pending the results of an “accident investigation,” part of standard practice, according to an email from the airline. agency sent to CNBC after the launch. No injuries or damage to public property had yet been reported to the agency as of Friday.
SpaceX did not immediately return a request for comment.
Not in plan
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, speaking publicly on Twitter Spaces on April 16 before the test flight, acknowledged that a vehicle with 33 engines is similar to “a box of grenades” and that the Starship vehicle probably would not have reached the orbit but was likely to explode.
However, Musk and SpaceX did not accurately predict that their launch pad would be destroyed, or that particulate matter would rain down on residents and habitat as far north as Port Isabel, a city about six miles from the launch pad, and South Padre Island, a few miles up the coast from the site.
Images captured during the test flight show that SpaceX’s launch pad also exploded, with chunks of concrete flying in multiple directions leaving a giant crater in its wake. According to Dave Cortez, the Lone Star chapter director for the Sierra Club, a 501c4 environmental advocacy group, “Cement blew up in the ocean and nearly hit the fuel storage tanks which are these silos adjacent to the launch pad.” “.
Jared Margolis, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an environmental assessment — which SpaceX completed to obtain a launch license — the company told the FAA and other agencies that in the event of an “anomaly” they expected the debris would have fallen within a limited 700-acre area surrounding the launch site.
That would result in a debris field a square mile, with debris emanating about three-quarters of a mile away from the site, he said, referencing SpaceX’s site environmental assessment documents that are in the public domain.
In fact, according to Cortez, after the test flight and explosion, people in Port Isabel reported windows broken in their businesses, glass shattered in their homes, and dust and particulate matter unexpectedly blanketing their homes, schools and grounds. .
Port Isabel is a mainland city near the SpaceX spaceport and facing off South Padre Island that also has a share of particulate matter, according to correspondence between researchers and residents shared with CNBC.
It is not yet known whether the ash-and-grit-like particulate matter is dangerous to touch or breathe in and what effect it might have on soil health, Cortez and Margolis noted.
An industry columnist who reported locally on the launch, Lavie Ohana, wrote that the launch was also “one of the noisiest” she had ever witnessed, “with shockwaves that seemed to be being pummeled again and again and again”.
Effects on threatened species
Margolis said the Center for Biological Diversity is concerned about the effects of noise, particulate matter and heavier debris on endangered species living in the area, including the plover, red knot, jaguarundi, populations of ocelots and sea turtles including the Kemp’s Ridley , which nests on the beaches of Boca Chica and is one of the most endangered sea turtles in the world.
February to June is nesting season for the Kemp’s Ridley.
The lands of the National Wildlife Refuge, which are very close to the launch pad, are designated as critical habitat for the plover, he pointed out.
Cortez added that members of the Sierra Club were particularly concerned about the impacts on human health and how the aftermath of the blast could limit people’s ability to get outdoors, whether it’s fishing for dinner, enjoying the beach or take a hike to the many parks and protected wildlife. areas close to the starbase.
The impacts of particulate emissions from SpaceX’s launch won’t be understood until samples are evaluated and the debris field comprehensively measured.
But in general, particulate emissions are governed by the Federal Clean Air Act and Texas state law.
Eric Roesch, an environmental engineer who has tracked the impact of SpaceX’s facilities and launches on his blog, ESGHound, said the particulate matter emissions are associated with lung and respiratory problems and are considered a high-priority pollutant by the EPA. . Health impacts depend on the time and amount of exposure, as well as particle size and particulate matter content, he added.
Roesch has been warning the public for months that the FAA and SpaceX hadn’t been careful enough in their environmental analysis to comfortably proceed with a launch of this magnitude. He said, “The possibility of a widely dispersed emissions plume was not disclosed by the FAA or SpaceX during the initial environmental clearance and approval process.”
Margolis and Cortez both noted that the roads had been damaged, with gates and cordons closed soon after SpaceX Starship’s test flight. This meant that wildlife biologists and other field researchers could not immediately come over to study the full extent of any damage that had occurred to a nearby wildlife refuge area, even though some were reportedly at the scene on Saturday, April 22.
One concern is that evidence of damage to endangered species could be removed from the site before regulators have an opportunity to assess it, Margolis said.
Returning to fly
Elon Musk he wrote in a tweet on April 21, 2023, after the test flight: “3 months ago, we started building a huge water-cooled steel plate to go under the launch pad. It was not ready in time and we incorrectly assumed, based on static fire data, that Fondag would pass 1 launch. It looks like we can be ready to launch again in 1 to 2 months.”
CNBC asked the FAA what it will take for SpaceX to be cleared to conduct another test flight or launch of the Starship Super Heavy vehicle from Boca Chica, Texas.
The agency said in an email that a return to flight for the Starship Super Heavy will require the FAA to decide that “any system, process or procedure related to the incident is without prejudice to public safety.”
Because they are still gathering information, the FAA and the Texas regional office of the US Fish and Wildlife Service have not yet been able to answer questions about any environmental impacts of Thursday’s launch. SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.
However, the FAA told CNBC by email that the explosion triggered something it called an “anomaly response plan,” which is part of a 2022 programmatic environmental assessment completed by the company along with state and federal agencies, and that SpaceX has additional “environmental mitigations” that must be completed before launching again. The plan “was triggered by debris entering adjacent properties,” the FAA noted.
After completing the list of activities in the plan and the mitigations, SpaceX will have to ask the FAA to modify its launch license, to obtain authorization for another test flight.
Center for Biological Diversity attorney Jared Margolis believes the FAA requirements will be minimal and easy for the company to meet, but ultimately not effective in safeguarding the well-being of local residents and endangered species.
He explained: “We are not against space exploration or this company. But as we look to the stars, we shouldn’t have to readily sacrifice communities, habitats and species.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com