- SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s drive for humanity to become a “multi-planetary species” comes with great irony if this very activity accelerates degradation of the Earth.
- Last month’s “rapid unscheduled disassembly” of a SpaceX rocket rained debris and possibly other toxics on a rich estuary adjacent to the launch pad on the Gulf of Mexico.
- “We cannot destroy our most special places on Earth in our heady rush to Mars,” a new op-ed argues.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.
Experimental rocketry may be causing irreparable harm to one of the most biodiverse and special places in the United States.
On April 20, the first fully integrated test of SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket destroyed its launch pad at an experimental launch facility in South Texas before exploding in a “rapid unscheduled disassembly” over the Gulf of Mexico. Further launches are grounded as the Federal Aviation Administration investigates an “anomaly” in the ascent that resulted in the Starship failing to decouple from the rocket.
This time, SpaceX’s launch base barely averted disaster. However, it is likely that accidents like this will continue to be the norm, as SpaceX’s record clearly indicates. This is particularly concerning, as the Boca Chica, TX, site is surrounded by fragile lands and rare animals found nowhere else in the United States.
The site is no stranger to explosive outcomes. In April 2021, a Starship prototype rocket crashed on its launch pad, raining large debris onto nearby protected flats and wetlands. Removal of that debris caused significantly more damage to the fragile refuge lands when crews attempted to retrieve the scattered rocket parts. Worse yet, in September 2022 a static test of the Raptor engine resulted in a fire that incinerated 68 acres of the federally protected Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area.
Boca Chica teems with avian life, serving as a stopover for migratory birds from across the hemisphere. Rare red knots and piping plovers rely on these fragile wetlands directly next to the launch site. Just over the sand dunes next to the launch pad, five different types of sea turtle, notably the endangered Kemp’s ridley turtle, utilize Boca Chica Beach and nearby waters. The facility also sits within the coastal corridor of the highly endangered ocelot, a rare wild cat resembling a leopard.
See related: In South Texas, watch out for ocelots crossing roads
Starbase, situated in a tangle of protected wildlife areas, is also at the apex of three large-scale, multi-million dollar habitat restoration efforts, including the Ocelot Conservation Corridor, the Lower Rio Grande corridor and the Bahia Grande wetlands restoration, the largest coastal restoration project in Texas.
However, it is unclear who is responsible for the clean-up and restoration following the impact of experimental launches, and not just in Texas, but throughout the nation.
Elon Musk’s drive to be a “multi-planetary species” comes with great irony if this very activity is only accelerating species extinctions. In the immediate future, experimental launches continue to threaten unique and native wildlife, whose habitats and surrounding communities benefit from ecotourism.
Like so many, I anticipate what will come of this new era of exploration. However, we cannot destroy our most special places on Earth in our heady rush to Mars.
Sharon Wilcox is Senior Representative for the Texas program of Defenders of Wildlife, focusing on wildlife conservation and habitat restoration in South Texas.