Near the southern tip of South Padre Island, a little more than five miles from the launchpad, the cheers from the SpaceX employees started as soon as the tip of the rocket cleared the plume of dust. The Starship spacecraft and its Super Heavy booster were making their first flight together last month.
The launchpad’s concrete, on Boca Chica Beach, shattered during the lift-off, damaging the engines and causing the rocket to take off with a drunken, lateral slide. Its hellish exhaust scorched tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of photographers’ remote cameras before the booster built enough strength to stagger into the sky.
The SpaceX team and the rest of the thousands of spectators who were gathered at Isla Blanca Park reacted gleefully to the spectacle of the world’s largest rocket leaving a thick white contrail as it soared to an altitude of 128,000 feet. That’s when it spun out of control. SpaceX has said it next sent a self-destruct command, but the emergency system didn’t respond for more than forty seconds. When it did, the Starship and rocket detonated in a shroud of burning methane and billowing oxygen.
Even then, until well after the company’s live stream ended and the crowds thinned, I watched from nearby as the excited SpaceX staff embraced, high-fived, and laughed. Not that that reaction should be surprising. This was, after all, far from the first rocket-powered test flight from Boca Chica to end in a fiery cataclysm. It’s what SpaceX does: build, break, and rebuild better. The company destroyed five Falcon rockets as it developed those systems that now fly cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA, as well as scores of commercial launches.
The destruction isn’t merely limited to SpaceX’s property either. The April 20 launch resulted in a spray of concrete chunks peppering the beach, an area home to migrating birds and endangered sea turtles. It also created a plume of pulverized concrete that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service later said reached as far as 6.5 miles away from the launchpad. The lift-off also caused a 3.5-acre fire, which was actually tiny compared to a ground testing accident there that caused a 68-acre fire in September 2022 and another blaze that consumed 150 acres in July 2019. Even setting aside the direct effects of its launches, SpaceX has brought light and sound pollution and greater vehicular traffic to this once quiet beach and the nature preserves that surround it.
SpaceX being free to do as it wished to Boca Chica Beach was essentially what Texas promised the company. Governor Rick Perry, who worked with the legislature to rewrite beach access laws so that public beaches could be shut down during launches and offered more than $15 million in incentives to woo SpaceX, hailed Texas’s willingness to tolerate risky engineering. “It builds upon our pioneer heritage, our tradition of thinking bigger, dreaming bolder, and daring to do the impossible,” he said at Starbase’s 2014 groundbreaking.
This week, a coalition of environmental groups filed a lawsuit in a Washington, D.C., district court seeking to shut down Boca Chica’s Starbase. Among their complaints are elevated fire risk, increased pollution, disruption from continual construction, and the spread of debris from rocket explosions into protected wildlife preserves. SpaceX isn’t named in the lawsuit, which charges state and federal regulators with negligence. “Permitting SpaceX to launch the largest rockets known to humankind is the type of significant federal action that requires full analysis,” the suit argues.
It’s the latest salvo fired by the Center for Biological Diversity, American Bird Conservancy, Surfrider Foundation, Save RGV, and Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation of Texas. Their previous outcry, joined by national groups, helped prompt a new Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval required for heavy launches at Boca Chica Beach. The result was a slew of actions SpaceX had to take to mitigate the impact of a launch and months of delay. The experience convinced the company to devote more attention to their launchpads at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced in February that Boca Chica is “where we will try out new designs and new versions of the rocket . . . I think Kennedy will be our sort of main operational launch site.”
So, for all the early talk of South Texas becoming the gateway to Mars, that no longer looks to be true. Boca Chica Beach is just the place where SpaceX blows stuff up. If the environmental lawsuit gains traction, the company will likely retreat further to its launchpad in Florida, where there are no public beaches nearby to worry about and the environmental issues are long settled.
Violent rocket death is commonplace at Starbase. The suit filed this week tallies eight rocket explosions at Boca Chica in the past five years. SpaceX’s operations were temporarily grounded by the FAA as a result of the April launch, but they will do the required clean-up and jump through the required regulatory hoops and do it all over again. As SpaceX’s hardware scales up, and as it redesigns and retests the systems that exploded previously, these wrecks will become larger and more dramatic. Things will no doubt go wrong.
After the Starship launch in April, some Musk-weary observers wondered aloud how much money SpaceX spent on wrecking hardware. No one else builds and tests space hardware like Musk does, and it’s jarring for those who aren’t familiar with it. (Musk says SpaceX is spending about $2 billion on Starship this year, though he has plenty of incentive for doing that, including a NASA contract to use the craft to ferry astronauts to the lunar surface, and hopes to dominate the “super heavy” commercial launch market.)
When the SpaceX team cheers the sacrifice of a rocket, they are celebrating a step toward another launch—and another potential explosion. The shock and outrage of environmentalists may be too late. For NASA, the FAA, the state of Texas, and even the media, these explosions have become routine. It’s just SpaceX being SpaceX, and—to paraphrase Captain James T. Kirk—risk is their business.
Except, of course, on this once obscure public beach outside Brownsville, their risk has become everyone’s business. At least until Starship finally works as it’s intended. Then the program will move on, and all eyes will be on the moon-bound rockets—built in Texas but departing Earth from Florida.