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Starship's recent launch and Environmental Impacts



The first kind of “science” I can remember being interested in had to do with space. As a kid I loved reading up on planets (back then there were nine) as well as the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. That interest is still with me today, and even prompted me pretty much on a whim to head down to Cape Kennedy last November to witness the first launch of NASA’s Artemis rocket, which at the time was the most powerful rocket ever launched. Incidentally, that was the second rocket launch I had witnessed—the first was the launch of Apollo 11, when I was four months old (I was born at Cape Kennedy).


It's an exciting time in the history of space science as NASA as well as several private companies are building ships and making plans to return to the moon and even Mars. On April 20 from Boca Chica, Texas, SpaceX launched Starship for the first time, which became (by far) the new record-holder for the most powerful rocket ever launched, nearly twice the thrust of the Artemis or the Saturn V rockets that took men to the moon. While the launch was successful, a few minutes into the flight SpaceX intentionally destroyed the rocket because of engines not firing and the eventual tumbling of the spacecraft.


Despite this “rapid unscheduled disassembly” the launch was viewed as a success. However, environmental groups quickly began questioning the environmental impacts from the launch and subsequent rocket explosion. The launch pad itself was destroyed, with a 40-foot deep crater being dug out by the rocket. Debris was hurled thousands of feet, destroying cars hosting livestream equipment and possibly damaging nearby biological resources. People in nearby Port Isabel reported particulate matter coating their homes following the launch. It remains to be seen whether debris from the launch pad struck the bottom of the rocket, causing some of the engines to fail from the outset.


SpaceX had prepared a Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that addressed environmental impacts associated with its launches and landings from both its southeastern Texas site (where this recent Starship launch took place) and off the coast of Hawaii (where the re-usable rocket is planned to return to Earth). A total of 17 environmental consequences were examined, including air quality and noise. Air pollution emissions from the construction and launch activities were “…not expected to result in significant air quality impacts.” The full PEA is available online: https://www.faa.gov/space/stakeholder_engagement/spacex_starship.


While I haven’t gone through the PEA in great detail (it’s a sizable document!) it seems pretty clear that the environmental impacts from the launch itself were greater than what was expected. Hopefully both the failure of Starship to make it to space and the unanticipated environmental impacts are just a result of the destruction of the launch pad, and once the launch pad is shored up Starship can continue its journey to the moon and ultimately Mars.

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