SpaceX: Expert discusses Starship test flights
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For the last seven years, SpaceX has been rapidly expanding its base of operations in South Texas along the picturesque Boca Chica coastline. Home to the Starship manufacturing site, Boca Chica has been the principal testing site for the interplanetary rocket which is being prepped for its first-orbital test flight. But the 10,680-acre Boca Chica tract also happens to be an important “wildlife corridor” connecting habitats along the Gulf Coast to the Lower Rio Grande Valley – and that has led to some controversy involving SpaceX’s frequent test flights.
Testing rockets is an expensive and often explosive affair and SpaceX is no exception to the rule.
Between December 2020 and May 2021, SpaceX launched a total of five Starship prototypes from Boca Chica, of which the first four erupted into spectacular balls of flames.
Starships SN8 through SN11 were launched to suborbital heights after which they were brought down for an attempted soft-landing.
The flights failed at the last second – with the exception of Starship SN10 – casting flames, smoke and debris all across the site, including the protected federal lands.
Environmental activists who have been tracking these explosive test flights for months have now expressed their concerns about their impact on the local area.
SpaceX, which was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, boasts a very rapid turnaround time for its prototype rockets.
The company’s MO with Starship is to build, launch, fix and launch again.
Mr Musk even said of the site in 2018: “We’ve got a lot of land with nobody around, so if it blows up, it’s cool.”
But David Newstead, director of the nonprofit group Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries, fears this approach threatens to disrupt the surrounding protected lands.
Following the Starship SN10 and SN11’s launch in March this year, he told The Guardian: “I knew from the other explosions that the rocket would be scattered all over the refuge.”
SpaceX Starship explodes on landing during a test
According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Boca Chica is home to one of the most endangered turtle species in the world, Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle.
The wildlife refuge is also home to American oystercatchers, mangrove warblers, peregrine falcons, brown pelicans and many other species of migratory bird.
Jim Chapman, an environmentalist with the group Save Rio Grande Valley, said: “It’s one of the most unique places on Earth.”
Environmental groups have previously threatened SpaceX with an investigation by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
In 2014, the FAA approved the site for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches, after carrying out a critical environmental assessment.
At the time, the FAA found SpaceX’s operations “would have no significant impact on the environment”.
However, a letter penned to the FAA on July 3, 2020, argued SpaceX’s scope of operations has greatly expanded with the company’s development of Starship.
Chapman, president of the Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, said at the time: “The reason for the letter is really to urge the FAA to do a new EIS because SpaceX has completely changed its mission at Boca Chica and the impacts not only are going to be different but they are going to be greater so the old EIS is really at this point obsolete because it’s really a very different project right now.”
The FAA responded to some of the concerns, stating SpaceX’s Starship operations do not fall within the remit of the original environmental assessment and would be investigated.
SpaceX is presently drafting plans to launch the Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy booster into orbit.
The combined Starship system will be the world’s most powerful rocket at launch, serving SpaceX’s ambition of reaching the Moon, Mars and possibly beyond.
However, Mr Chapman said: “People love space, they love the hype and glamour of rockets around here, but everything has a price.
“There’s always someone coming along who wants to develop the land out here.
“It used to be that we could rely on the government to step in, but now I’m not so sure about that.”
Express.co.uk has asked SpaceX to comment.
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