May 24, 2024




© Go Nakamura / Reuters


A few things happened when SpaceX’s uncrewed experimental rocket blasted off and then exploded mid-flight last week. The engineers who’d designed it let out a deep sigh, maybe a couple of groans. The Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates rocket launches, began a standard investigation into what happened. Elon Musk congratulated his staff on a good start. And in a small nearby city, ashlike debris rained down from the sky, covering everything in a layer of grime.

The giant Starship rocket lifted off with so much force that it not only blew a massive hole in the launchpad’s foundation but also kicked up a cloud of sand and soil that reached Port Isabel, located about six miles northwest of the company’s launch facility in Texas. The launch also shook houses and shattered at least one window, The New York Times reported, though there were no reports of injuries or damage to public property in the aftermath.

Residents knew this launch was happening. They are well aware that they share a neighborhood with a powerful company intent on creating a spaceship that can fly to both the moon and Mars. And they knew it would be loud; SpaceX had warned Cameron County residents of that. Still, no one had warned residents about the dusty drizzle. (SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment.)

[Read: Elon Musk is maybe, actually, strangely going to do this Mars thing]

SpaceX’s presence in southern Texas has received mixed reviews over the years, particularly from people who live even closer to it—just down the road from the ever-growing launch facility—than Port Isabel. SpaceX’s takeover of Boca Chica Beach, a quiet coastal paradise along the Gulf of Mexico, is a nearly decade-long saga of Musk and his enterprise getting their way, sometimes to locals’ detriment. And that was before SpaceX attempted its biggest launch yet, trying to hurl Starship into orbit. Starship was the most powerful rocket ever built, and more prototypes will follow—SpaceX will attempt as many launches as necessary to prove that its design actually works. As Musk expands his beachfront space city and its potentially fiery attractions, his company risks becoming an even more unwelcome neighbor.

SpaceX began construction of its launch site on Boca Chica Beach nearly a decade ago, bringing in so many truckloads of materials that the only highway leading to the area started cracking. As the spaceport took shape, SpaceX bought out some of the residents of nearby Boca Chica Village. The company rebranded the area as Starbase, and SpaceXers, including Musk himself, moved in, replacing the retirees who felt forced to leave. SpaceX instructs Boca Chica residents to evacuate and closes off the beach during launch activities, including last week’s test—the first of its kind and the most destructive yet.

The earliest Starship prototypes were small, pudgy things, topping out at 65 feet. The latest prototype—a sleek spaceship stacked on top of a 33-engine rocket booster—was a nearly 400-foot behemoth, taller than the Statue of Liberty and more powerful than the rocket that propelled the Apollo astronauts to the moon. All of that power had to go somewhere, and much of it went into breaking up the launchpad and scattering debris for miles. A reporter with The Brownsville Herald came across a huge chunk of concrete on the sands of Boca Chica Beach a few days after the launch. Fish and wildlife authorities said yesterday that debris was scattered across 385 acres of SpaceX-owned and state-owned parkland, Bloomberg reported, and even sparked a small fire in a nearby state park. There were no reports of dead birds or other wildlife, they said.

[Read: Why SpaceX wants a tiny Texas neighborhood so badly]

SpaceX had predicted that the debris from an explosion would be contained within a 700-acre area (about one square mile), but the Texas division of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that a “plume cloud of pulverized concrete” dropped particles miles beyond that zone, all the way to Port Isabel. City officials said the dust was not harmful to human health; local environmental groups, which have criticized SpaceX’s operations for years, say they’re evaluating the dust’s potential effects on people and wildlife.

SpaceX seems to have also miscalculated how the launchpad would fare beneath a vehicle such as this one. Starship lifted off without the special trench system found at major launch sites, which helps dampen the impact of launch. Workers had begun building one but hadn’t finished in time. Musk later tweeted that the company “wrongly thought” the launchpad would be unscathed. Yes, the Starship program is an experimental one, and SpaceX doesn’t shy away from potential explosions during testing. But the decision to launch with little more than a slab of concrete in the ground doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the company’s approach to safety.

A week out from Starship’s dramatic, short-lived flight, Starbase is as busy as ever, with technicians preparing for repairs. Musk says they’ll be ready to try again in a month or two, but any Muskian timelines must be taken with a big grain of launchpad dust. Engineers will spend the coming weeks poring over data from the test, learning for the next go. Some locals would probably prefer that they also learn how the surrounding areas might be affected if another Starship starts tumbling in the sky and breaks apart. After all, a rocket with 33 engines, as Musk himself said earlier this month, is like “a box of grenades.” Someday, if SpaceX succeeds in launching rockets on Mars, it may really be able to operate without concern for its nonexistent neighbors. It’ll have entire craters to itself. But the starting point of that future is here, on Earth, and SpaceX can’t avoid sharing it.