U.S. federal agencies to scrutinize Starship operations
By Paul Brinkmann|April 25, 2023
Reports of debris reportedly strewn over large area prompt Musk to give update about flame diverter construction
This story has been updated with details of debris found by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
FAA has grounded SpaceX’s Starship design, describing the decision as “standard practice,” while staff from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plan to inspect the wildlife areas around Boca Chica, Texas, after SpaceX’s cement launch pad was all but obliterated into chips and dust that coated surfaces as far as 10 kilometers away, according to images and video posted on social media.
FAA announced it will oversee “the mishap investigation of the Starship/Super Heavy test mission” and added that a return to flight will depend on a determination that resuming operations will “not affect public safety.” Regarding the natural environment, in a 2022 environmental assessment, FAA predicted there would be “no significant impact” from SpaceX’s operations at Boca Chica.
SpaceX’s livestream of the April 20 launch showed plumes of dust and vapor expanding at liftoff, as Starship and its Super Heavy booster climbed toward the planned separation of Starship and its intended journey through the edge of space to a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. The flight ended prematurely when Starship and Super Heavy cartwheeled and exploded 39 kilometers over the Gulf of Mexico in what SpaceX initially described as a “rapid unscheduled disassembly.” The company later clarified that the “flight termination system was commanded on both the booster and ship.”
At least as concerning to regulators as the explosion over the gulf might be what happened when Super Heavy’s 33 Raptor engines ignited atop the cement pad. Video taken by the independent LabPadre channel showed debris being strewn far from SpaceX’s Starbase facility which is surrounded by the South Padre Island tourist area, the small city of Port Isabel and Laguna Madre, a vast shallow bay known for its bird and fish life.
Another group that monitors Starship activity, RGV Aerial Photography, posted photos on social media showing damage to the pad. Port Isabel, the city of 5,000 located 10 kilometers from the launch site, reported on Facebook that “sand and dust” covered homes and cars.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to “evaluate what kind of damage maybe have occurred to the area, if any,” said Aubry Buzek, a spokeswoman in the agency’s Austin, Texas, office.
April 26 update from Fish and Wildlife Service: “Impacts from the launch include numerous large concrete chunks, stainless steel sheets, metal and other objects hurled thousands of feet away along with a plume cloud of pulverized concrete that deposited material up to 6.5 miles northwest of the pad site. Although no debris was documented on refuge fee-owned lands, staff documented approximately 385 acres of debris on SpaceX’s facility and at Boca Chica State Park, which is leased by the Service and managed as a component of the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge. Additionally, a 3.5-acre fire started south of the pad site on Boca Chica State Park land. At this time, no dead birds or wildlife have been found on refuge-owned or managed lands.”
SpaceX posted a prepared statement on its website that did not refer to the reports of debris coating surfaces far from Starbase: “With a test like this, success comes from what we learn, and we learned a tremendous amount about the vehicle and ground systems today that will help us improve on future flights of Starship.” The company thanked “Cameron County, and the wider community for the continued support and encouragement.”
Back in 2020, Musk tweeted that SpaceX was “aspiring to have no flame diverter in Boca but this could turn out to be a mistake.” The day after launch, in response to a question tweeted at him by journalist Eric Berger, Musk said “3 months ago, we started building a massive water-cooled, steel plate to go under the launch mount.” Musk added, “We wrongly thought, based on static fire data, that Fondag would make it through 1 launch,” referring to the alumina and plastic-binded cement.
Such a flame diverter could have shunted Starship’s superheated exhaust away from the cement pad at liftoff.