- Researchers are scrambling to assess the health and environmental impacts of last week’s test flight of SpaceX’s Super Heavy spacecraft, which is spreading particles far beyond the expected debris field.
- The largest rocket ever built exploded mid-flight, with no crew on board, prompting the FAA to put the Starship Super Heavy launch program pending an “accident investigation”.
- Environmentalists and advocates worry that the ash-like particles could harm people’s respiratory health, and could irreparably harm endangered species in the area.
SpaceX’s next-generation Starship spacecraft atop its self-destructing powerful Super Heavy rocket after launching from the company’s Boca Chica launch pad on a short, uncrewed test flight near Brownsville, Texas, U.S. on April 20, 2023 in a video still.
SpaceX | Reuters
SpaceX launched the largest rocket ever built for the first time Thursday from its spaceport in Boca Chica, Texas. The Starship spacecraft, designed to carry people on a mission to Mars one day, lifted from the launch pad and then exploded mid-flight, without a crew on board.
Now, residents and researchers are scrambling to assess the impact of the explosion on local communities, their health, habitats, and wildlife including endangered species. The primary concern was the large amount of sand-like particles, ash and heavy debris caused by the launch. The particulate emissions spread far beyond the expected debris field.
As a result of the explosion, the FAA halted the company’s Starship Super Heavy launch program pending the results of an “accident investigation,” as part of standard practice, according to an email from the agency sent to CNBC after the launch. There were no reports of injuries or damage to public property as of Friday.
SpaceX did not immediately return a request for comment.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, speaking publicly on Twitter Spaces on April 16 before the test flight, acknowledged that the 33-engine vehicle was like a “grenade box,” and that the Starship was not likely to reach orbit but would likely explode. .
However, Musk and SpaceX did not accurately predict the destruction of their launch pad, nor would the particles fall on residents and habitat as far away as Port Isabel, a town about six miles from the launch pad, and South Padre Island, a few miles away. miles up the coast from the site.
Images taken during the test flight show that the SpaceX launch pad also exploded, with concrete pieces flying off it in multiple directions leaving behind a giant crater underneath. According to Dave Cortez, director of the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club, a 501c4 environmental advocacy group, “The concrete shot into the ocean, and it risked hitting the fuel tanks that are those silos next to the launch pad.”
Jared Margolis, CBD’s chief attorney, said that in the environmental assessment — which SpaceX completed to obtain a launch permit — the company told the FAA and other agencies that if an “anomaly” occurred they expected debris to fall within the limited 700-acre area surrounding the site. launch.
That would translate to a one-square-mile debris field, he said, with debris spewing from about three-quarters of a mile from the site, he said, referring to SpaceX. Environmental site assessment documents This is a public record.
In fact, after the test flight and explosion, people in Port Isabel reported shattered windows at their businesses, windows shaking in their homes, and dust and particulate matter unexpectedly covering their homes, schools, and grounds, according to Cortez.
Port Isabel is a city on the mainland near the SpaceX spaceport, and across from offshore South Padre Island, which also got a share of the particles, according to correspondence between researchers and residents shared with CNBC.
Both Cortez and Margolis noted that it is not yet known whether ash and sand-like particles are dangerous to touch or inhale and what effect they might have on soil health.
One industrial historian who gave a local report on the launch, Ohana’s LaviIn Exclaim!, she wrote that the launch was also “one of the loudest” she had ever witnessed, “with shockwaves that felt like they were being punched over and over again.”
Margolis said the Center for Biological Diversity is concerned about the effects of noise, particulate matter and heavy debris on endangered species that live in the area, including the piped plover, red knot and jaguarundi, groups of ocelots and sea turtles including the Kemp’s ridley. Located on the beaches of Boca Chica, it is one of the most endangered sea turtles in the world.
February through June is nesting season for Kemp’s Ridley.
He confirmed that the grounds of the National Wildlife Refuge, very close to the launch pad, are critical habitat for the plover.
Cortez added that Sierra Club members are particularly concerned about the effects on human health and how the effects of the explosion may limit people’s ability to get outdoors, whether to fish for dinner, enjoy the beach or hike in the many parks and protected wildlife. Areas close to Starbase.
The effects of particulate emissions from a SpaceX launch will not be fully understood until the samples have been comprehensively evaluated and the debris field measured.
But in general, particulate matter emissions are regulated by the federal Clean Air Act and Texas state law.
Eric Roche, an environmental engineer who tracks the impact of SpaceX’s facilities and calls his blog, ESGHound, said particulate matter emissions are linked to lung and respiratory issues, and are considered a high priority pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency. He added that the health effects depend on the time and amount of exposure, as well as the size and contents of the particles.
Roche has been warning the public for months that the FAA and SpaceX have not been careful enough in their environmental analysis to comfortably proceed with a launch of this magnitude. “The possibility of a large-scale plume of emissions was not disclosed by the FAA or SpaceX, during the initial environmental permitting and approval process,” he said.
Both Margolis and Cortez note that the roads are damaged, with gates and cordons closed immediately after the SpaceX Starship test flight. This meant that wildlife biologists and other field researchers could not immediately pass by to examine the full extent of any damage that had occurred in a nearby wildlife refuge area — although some were on site by Saturday, April 22.
One concern, Margolis said, is that evidence of damage to endangered species could be removed from the site before regulators have a chance to assess it.
A newly hatched plover chick stands next to one of its parents, Monty O’Rose, in Montrose Beach on July 10, 2021.
John J. Kim | Tribune News Service | Getty Images
Elon Musk he wrote in a tweet On April 21, 2023, after the test flight: “3 months ago, we started constructing a huge water-cooled steel plate for under the launch pad. It wasn’t ready in time and we wrongly thought, based on consistent fire data, that the Fondag would pass one launch.” It looks like we can be ready to launch it again in 1-2 months.”
CNBC has asked the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that SpaceX be allowed to conduct another test flight or launch of the Starship Super Heavy from Boca Chica, Texas.
The return to flight of the Super Heavy spacecraft will require the FAA to determine that “any system, process or procedure related to the accident does not impact public safety,” the agency said in an email.
Because they are still gathering information, the FAA and the Texas regional office of the US Fish and Wildlife Service have been unable to answer questions yet about any environmental impacts of Thursday’s launch. SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.
However, the FAA told CNBC via email that the explosion activated something called the “Anomalous Response Plan,” which is part of 2022. Program environmental assessment The company has completed them along with state and federal agencies, and that SpaceX has additional “environmental mitigations” that need to be completed before it can launch again. The FAA noted that the plan “arose due to debris entering adjacent properties.”
After completing the plan’s to-do list and mitigation processes, SpaceX will need to ask the FAA to amend its launch authorization, to obtain authorization for another test flight.
CBD attorney Jared Margolis believes the FAA’s requirements will be minimal and easy for the company to meet, but ultimately ineffective in protecting the welfare 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 must not easily sacrifice communities, habitats, and species.”
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