SpaceX Launch Damages Nearby Ecosystems

Image: Jared Krahn via Wikimedia Commons

By Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

While going to space has been one big step for mankind, it could also be one big step backward for the environment. Tesla’s SpaceX Starship launched earlier this year, which triggered a fireball to explode on the launchpad. This explosion shot debris across the Boca Chica tract of the Lower Rio Grande Valley national wildlife refuge, a delicate federally protected ecosystem. It took three months to clean up. This outcome is raising concerns about the effects of private space aviation on the environment, particularly among conservationists. 


Why this Matters: The plethora of private companies venturing into space has already raised red flags: environmentalists worry that the fuel needed to propel these rockets emits harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But these ventures have even more immediate effects, especially on ecosystems nearby.


Elon Musk selected Boca Chica for SpaceX’s launch site because, “We’ve got a lot of land with nobody around, so if it blows up, it’s cool,” as he put it at a press conference in 2018. But this land isn’t actually unoccupied — it’s home to a variety of vulnerable species from seabirds to ocelots. This is especially concerning because Boca Chica is federally protected.


“It’s really been shocking to witness the way the federal government has allowed this to happen,” Bryan Bird, of the national environmental nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife, told the Guardian. “Elon Musk is building a space complex in one of the most environmentally diverse and inappropriate places in the world.”


Bringing SpaceX Down to Earth

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has been in charge of Boca Chica state park, a 1,000-acre site, since 2007. Texas officials welcomed SpaceX to the state, passing a bill in 2013, which gave SpaceX the right to close Boca Chica beach during testing and launches. In 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration issued its environmental impact statement, finding that SpaceX’s proposal for the region “would have no significant impact on the environment.”


But that started to change as SpaceX began to take advantage of its surroundings, closing roads and beaches for longer than their 300 permitted hours. Launch site ditches, both on SpaceX land and public property, have dumped runoff water directly into the tidal flats, threatening vulnerable bird species. In April, SpaceX applied to use an additional 17 acres of wetlands, which the EPA wrote could have “substantial and unacceptable adverse impacts on aquatic resources of national importance.”


“People love space, they love the hype and glamour of rockets around here, but everything has a price,” a local environmentalist with Save Rio Grande Valley, said to the Guardian. “There’s always someone coming along who wants to develop the land out here. It used to be that we could rely on the government to step in, but now I’m not so sure about that.”

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