SpaceX launch torched part of state park, sent debris flying, feds say
The launch of SpaceX’s Starship — deemed the world’s most powerful rocket — exploded above Texas last week and sparked many conversations among space buffs, but it also sparked a 3.5-acre fire in a state park.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday gave details about the fallout of the launch.
In addition to the fire, wildlife officials said in a statement, large concrete chunks and sheets of stainless steel were among the objects found thousands of feet away. Officials also found that a plume of pulverized concrete deposited material 6.5 miles northwest of the launchpad.
SpaceX launched its Starship from Boca Chica, Tex., on Thursday morning from a pad adjacent to the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. About four minutes later, the unmanned rocket exploded over the Gulf of Mexico.
Because of the sheer scale of the rocket, the liftoff alone was considered a success by many experts, The Washington Post previously reported. Explosions, they cautioned, are often part of the trial and error process of ambitious rocketry. However, it was the launch before the explosion that federal officials scrutinized.
Officials found no debris on refuge-owned lands, but staff documented about 385 acres of debris at SpaceX’s facility and at Boca Chica State Park, which is leased by the Fish and Wildlife Service and managed as part of refuge land. The 3.5-acre fire burned on Boca Chica state parkland, as well.
“At this time, no dead birds or wildlife have been found on refuge-owned or managed lands,” the federal wildlife service said.
The Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1979 and stretches 40,000 acres. The refuge is home to 1,200 types of plants along with 700 species of vertebrates, including nearly 500 bird species, and 300 kinds of butterflies, according to a federal parks description of the refuge.
“You’ll find 11 different biological communities, from the Chihuahuan thorn forest to tidal wetlands,” a primer for refuge visitors reads. “A rare ocelot merges with the shadowy brush. A pair of crested caracaras glides above the river. A Mexican bluewing butterfly flutters into view, while great kiskadees cry an insistent ‘kis-ka-dee, kis-ka-dee.’”
Before the Starship launch, Cameron County officials announced the closure of Texas Highway 4 and Boca Chica Beach. It was supposed to reopen on Friday, but the closure lasted until Saturday, which federal wildlife authorities said prevented their staff from accessing refuge-owned and managed land.
The agency announced that it has been in touch with SpaceX “to provide on-the-ground guidance to minimize further impacts and reduce long-term damages to natural resources.” They are also coordinating with the Federal Aviation Administration on their assessment of the site and seeing if they have any recommendations for how to comply with the Endangered Species Act.
Anumita Kaur contributed to this report.