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Debris Blast From SpaceX Rocket Launch

The spectacle of a giant SpaceX rocket blowing up over the Gulf of Mexico riveted the public’s attention on Thursday. Still, the explosive nature of the launch at ground level renewed environmental questions. A few minutes after blasting off, SpaceX’s Starship rocket exploded in an explosion of debris that scattered shards of concrete, glass, and metal throughout Boca Chica, Texas, and across the gulf coast.

The launch tested SpaceX’s new Super Heavy booster, a methane-fueled vehicle with 33 engines. The first-stage booster is a big step up from SpaceX’s previous Falcon 9 rocket, which had just nine engines.

This week, regulators and local officials are taking stock of what the launch means for nearby natural areas. In addition, they said they are analyzing what kind of impact it will have on wildlife habitat and public safety.

Some environmental groups fear the blast could degrade Boca Chica’s unique environment. For example, they say the launch will disrupt federally protected shorebird nests near the launch pad. According to the Texas Marine Science Institute, the blast can also scatter ash and dust that could damage soil and affect plants.

Justin LeClaire, a conservation biologist with the Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program, says the launch may have affected some 300 acres of habitat around Boca Chica. He worries that if the company launches more often from this location, the area will become a no-go zone for birds and other wildlife.

While the launch was a success, the booster explosion could prove costly to SpaceX. The booster and its payload, a satellite, must be separated before being put into orbit.

In the days ahead, SpaceX must figure out what caused the Starship’s engines to tangle up. It is unclear whether it was because they disconnected from each other or because the fuel supply suddenly ran out.

However, it is clear that SpaceX has a long way to go before it can safely transport people into orbit and beyond. The company has to learn from its mistakes and make better future decisions if it wants to build a spaceline that can compete with NASA’s moon and Mars missions.

The company has also had to work out a plan to complete the FAA’s environmental review on time. It has been over five years since the agency started reviewing Starship’s Boca Chica launch site and Super Heavy first-stage boosters.

As a result, the company has to put several projects on hold to give the government time to finish the environmental review. And the delays are causing frustration for advocates who have worked hard to get the project off the ground.

On Twitter, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson tweeted that the explosion was “not a calculated risk.” The administration has taken the same stance on other high-profile launches of the past, including those of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) moon rocket and the Air Force’s Falcon 9 XL mobile launcher. These launches left behind a large swath of damage that is still being repaired, and that’s why the federal government is putting so much emphasis on the environmental review process.

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