Tuesday, July 23, 2024

SpaceX’s Assault on a Fragile Habitat: Four Takeaways From Our Investigation

When Elon Musk first eyed South Texas for a new base of space operations, he promised that SpaceX would have a small, eco-friendly footprint and that the surrounding area would be “left untouched.”

A decade later, the reality is far different. An investigation by The New York Times shows how SpaceX’s ferocious growth in the area has dramatically changed the fragile landscape and has threatened the habitat that the U.S. government is charged with protecting there.

More repercussions are likely coming, in South Texas and in other places where SpaceX is expanding. Mr. Musk has said he hopes to one day launch his Starships — the largest rocket ever manufactured — a thousand times a year.

Executives from SpaceX declined repeated requests to comment. But Gary Henry, who until this year served as a SpaceX adviser on Pentagon launch programs, said the company was aware of concerns about SpaceX’s environmental impact and was committed to addressing them.

Here are four takeaways from our investigation:

Rocket launch sites in the U.S., such as Vandenberg Space Force Base in California and Kennedy Space Center in Florida, typically are enormous, secure facilities with tens of thousands of acres within their confines.

Mr. Musk didn’t intend to buy up anything like that amount of land when he was looking at the area near Brownsville, Texas. Instead, he wanted to buy a tiny piece of property in the middle of public lands — what the team involved referred to as a “doughnut hole.” He figured the surrounding state parks and federal wildlife preserves would serve as natural buffers.

But there was a wrinkle in that plan. There were several inhabited homes in Boca Chica Village, adjacent to the planned launch site, and there were frequent visitors to the state park. These people would have to be evacuated every time a launch was planned.

More concerning, the planned launch site was next door to one of the most important migratory bird habitats in North America. And the nearby Boca Chica beach serves as a breeding ground for Kemp’s ridleys, the world’s most endangered species of sea turtle.

Mr. Musk and SpaceX initially told local officials that the company’s imprint on the region would be modest. The development would bring the area a few hundred jobs through an investment of about $50 million.

Company officials also told the Federal Aviation Administration, SpaceX’s chief regulator, that they planned to launch their Falcon rockets from the area. The Falcons are the company’s workhorses, used primarily to launch satellites into space.

Mr. Musk executed an entirely different plan. The investment into SpaceX operations, including a rocket manufacturing facility, now totals $3 billion. A second launchpad is under construction. The industrial growth has caused so much congestion along the tiny two-lane road into Boca Chica that some of the now 3,400 SpaceX employees and contract employees get to work by hovercraft.

SpaceX also began testing Starship, a rocket that dwarfs the largest version of the Falcon and weighs nearly four times as much. As test flights began for the Starship, Mr. Musk hailed the advance as a step toward someday sending manned spaceflight to Mars. The F.A.A. initially wasn’t expecting operations of this scale or a rocket of this power.

Officials with the U.S. National Park Service also grew frustrated with SpaceX’s failed promises. The company agreed to certain conditions to limit the impact on the nearby Palmito Ranch Battlefield, site of the last Civil War fight. But one park service official, who has since retired, told The Times that SpaceX violated several of those agreements. “We were being misled,” the official, Mark Spier, said.

In April 2023, SpaceX executed its first full-scale test launch of a Starship. But the rocket malfunctioned, and a self-destruct mechanism eventually caused it to explode. Steel sheets, concrete chunks and shrapnel were hurled thousands of feet into the air, then slammed into the bird habitat as well as onto the nearby state park and beach. One concrete piece was found 2,680 feet from the launch site — far outside the zone where the F.A.A. had thought damage could occur.

That was neither the first time nor the last that the protected areas were pelted with debris. On at least 19 occasions since 2019, SpaceX tests of Starship rockets or prototypes caused fires, leaks, explosions or other problems associated with the rapid growth of Mr. Musk’s complex in Boca Chica, which he calls Starbase.

Even the hovercraft that employees use to commute created what officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife described in a letter to SpaceX as new hazards to a “globally important shorebird area.”

Mr. Musk exploited the limitations and competing missions of the various agencies most poised to be a check on Starbase’s expansion.

Those charged with protecting the area’s cultural and natural resources — particularly officials from the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service — repeatedly lost out to more powerful agencies, including the F.A.A., whose goals are intertwined with Mr. Musk’s.

The United States already depends heavily on SpaceX to launch its defense and commercial satellites into space. The Defense Department and NASA both intend to fly cargo aboard the new Starship. NASA has a $2.9 billion contract to use the rocket to land astronauts on the moon for the first time in more than 50 years.

The F.A.A. is charged with fostering space travel safely. And even though it is required to do an environmental study of SpaceX’s operations, the agency acknowledges that protecting the environment is not its first priority.

“Blowing debris into state parks or national land is not what we prescribed, but the bottom line is no one got hurt, no one got injured,” said Kevin Coleman, the top F.A.A. official overseeing space launch licenses. “We certainly don’t want people to feel like they’re bulldozed. But it’s a really important operation that SpaceX is conducting down there. It is really important to our civilian space program.”

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