SpaceX’s high-profile rocket explosion on April 20 has angered environmental and civil liberty groups who are furious about the level of damage caused to the local environment in Texas. The explosion created significant pollution that impacted local communities, and could threaten endangered species on Boca Chica Beach near Brownsville, Texas. Some experts say the whole scenario likely could have been avoided if the aerospace company had installed a flame diverter or flame trench, a long channel built into the ground beneath the launchpad that diverts heat and energy away from the rocket.

Prior to this calamity, multiple organizations in the Rio Grande Valley Community released a strongly-worded press release opposing SpaceX launches like this one.

During SpaceX’s first orbital test flight around 8:30 in the morning that day, the American aerospace company launched a rocket dubbed Starship from its private launchpad in south Texas. About four minutes into the flight, it became necessary to press the self-destruct button to avert a bigger disaster. It instantly burst into a ball of fire and smoke. It was the largest and most powerful rocket ever developed (emphasis on “was”).

The original plan was for the rocket to enter suborbital flight for about an hour and 17 minutes, making an almost complete circle of the globe before splashing somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. While it made a successful launch, it caused significant damage to the launchpad and five of its engines failed. It reached about 24 miles (39 kilometers) before its altitude began to drop, it entered a spin and its flight termination system was activated. The flight lasted about four minutes before the Starship was destroyed. No one was injured.

Many people immediately took to social media to jab Elon Musk, the CEO, chairman and chief technology officer of SpaceX. While the launch wasn’t considered a complete defeat by the company (nor are explosions uncommon when testing rockets), the extreme damage caused by this one could have likely been prevented with a flame diverter, a structure that fits below a rocket launchpad that channels a rocket’s extreme heat and exhaust in a controlled way. The lack of a flame diverter scorched the landscape and plant life near the rocket pad, as post-launch pictures reveal.

“A billionaire is closing our beach to use the land to test his experimental technology putting the lives of locals at risk while destroying acres of a wildlife reserve.”

The company appears to have had some self-awareness that the lack of a flame diverter was a bad idea. In a tweet from October 2020, Musk wrote “Aspiring to have no flame diverter in Boca, but this could turn out to be a mistake.” It seems he was right.

SpaceX called the detonation a “rapid unscheduled disassembly” — a joke that has been made in this industry since at least the ’60s, a tongue-in-cheek way of saying, “that looked expensive.” But for the company, there was some reason to celebrate. The rocket got off the launchpad, and provided valuable data for refining the next flight. Post-launch, SpaceX was congratulated by many in the aerospace world, including NASA administrator Bill Nelson and European Space Agency director general Josef Aschbacher. According to the New York Times, one employee even hosed his coworkers with a bottle of champagne.

But the community living near the launch site has been dealing with fallout from the launch, in both senses of the word. The explosion essentially obliterated the launch pad, carving a massive crater and sending chunks of concrete, sheets of stainless steel and other debris flying into the ocean on Boca Chica Beach. A Dodge Caravan was smashed with wreckage, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported was scattered over 385 acres, causing a fire that burned 3.5 acres on Boca Chica State Park land.

Clouds of ash and particulates rained down on residents of Port Isabel, about six miles away, settling onto homes, cars, and streets, breaking several windows. It’s not clear if the particulate matter is dangerous to breathe or touch, or if it will pollute the soil. An FAA environmental assessment of the spacecraft notes that some stages of the rocket used kerosene as fuel, which is toxic to breathe; the assessment also notes over 100 gallons of hydraulic fluid in the rocket, which is often hazardous. 

Salon reached out to SpaceX to inquire why the launchpad did not have a flame diverter, among other questions; SpaceX did not respond to Salon’s request for comment.

One Port Isabel resident, Sharon Almaguer, told the New York Times the situation was “terrifying” and described locals as “being sacrificed.”

“He just wanted to get this thing up in the air,” Almaguer said of Musk. “Everybody else sort of be damned.”

Prior to this calamity, multiple organizations in the Rio Grande Valley Community released a strongly-worded press release opposing SpaceX launches like this one. On April 19, 27 organizations, including the Sierra Club, Voces Unidas and the South Texas Environmental Justice Network, signed onto a letter expressing concerns that the aerospace company’s activities were “destroying wildlife refuges and sacred lands of the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe of Texas and are threatening Rio Grande Valley communities with explosion risks.”

Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon’s weekly newsletter The Vulgar Scientist.

“A billionaire is closing our beach to use the land to test his experimental technology putting the lives of locals at risk while destroying acres of a wildlife reserve,” Emma Guevara, the Sierra Club’s Brownsville Organizer, said in a statement. “Who will be held accountable for the destruction this company consistently causes when the government continues to ignore community members’ very real and very serious concerns?”

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the department that regulates all aspects of civil aviation in the U.S., is currently undergoing a “mishap investigation” of the whole thing, which will determine if future flights pose a risk to public safety. Until the investigation is complete, all future test flights at SpaceX have been grounded, which the agency said is standard practice when something goes wrong on this scale.

While this is a pretty major setback, Nelson, the head of NASA, told Congress on Thursday that he expected SpaceX to be up and running again in about two months. Nonetheless, Nelson said this explosion could set back the Artemis III mission, which is slated to send a human crew to the Moon’s surface in 2025; however, nothing threatens the mission more than budget cuts.

Like it or not, SpaceX is currently one of the biggest contributors to space exploration today because NASA is one of their biggest customers. These Starship rockets may not only bring us back to the Moon, but could someday put humans on Mars. But their local impact is just as important, if not more so. We can get to space with a lot less destruction on our own turf.

Read More