WASHINGTON — SpaceX’s Starship launch scattered debris over hundreds of acres and created a small brush fire, but did not kill any wildlife, according to a federal agency.
In an April 26 statement to SpaceNews, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it documented impacts from the April 20 Starship integrated test flight that lifted off from Boca Chica, Texas, to the neighboring Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. That documentation started after the highway leading to both the launch site and refuge, closed due to what the agency called “launch pad safety concerns,” opened two days after the flight.
The biggest impact was debris from the launch pad that was damaged by the thrust from the Super Heavy booster. “Impacts from the launch include numerous large concrete chunks, stainless steel sheets, metal and other objects hurled thousands of feet away” from the pad, the Fish and Wildlife Service states.
It also cited “a plume cloud of pulverized concrete that deposited material up to 6.5 miles northwest of the pad site.” Residents of Port Isabel, Texas, a town northwest of the launch site, reported finding a fine layer of sand-like material after the launch.
No debris was found on lands belonging to the refuge itself, but the agency said debris was spread out over 385 acres belonging to SpaceX and Boca Chica State Park. A fire covering 3.5 acres also started south of the pad on state park land, but the Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t state what caused the fire or how long it burned.
There was no evidence, though, that the launch and debris it created harmed wildlife. “At this time, no dead birds or wildlife have been found on refuge-owned or managed lands,” the agency said.
The damage to the pad was evident in images taken by photographers after the launch. They showed significant damage to the launch mount, the stool-like structure on which the vehicle stands, and the concrete pad underneath. SpaceX has not released any details about the damage to the pad.
SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk tweeted April 21 that the thrust from the engines “may have shattered the concrete, rather than simply eroding it.” That damage was not seen during a Feb. 9 static-fire test, he said, because the engines were fired at only half their thrust.
He added that the company had been working on a “massive water-cooled steel plate” that would go under the launch mount and serve as a kind of flame diverter. The pad lacks a frame trench or other diverter system commonly used on launch pads to channel exhaust away from the pad. Musk said the plate wasn’t ready in time but that the company thought, based on static-fire data, that the pad could survive the launch intact.
“Looks like we can be ready to launch again in 1 to 2 months,” Musk said, although he is known for aspirational schedules.
It’s not clear that repairs to the pad will be the pacing item for the next Starship launch attempt. SpaceX must still investigate the cause of the launch failure and make modifications to the next vehicles in development. That investigation will require a review and approval by the Federal Aviation Administration before it either issues a new launch license to SpaceX or modifies the existing one that was originally valid for a single launch.
Also uncertain is what additional environmental reviews or assessments may be required because of the damage from the Starship launch. The FAA completed an environmental review for Starship launches in June 2022 that set more than 75 conditions on SpaceX, which include a range of activities to be carried out before or after a launch or mishap.