Disastrous SpaceX launch under federal investigation after raining potentially hazardous debris on homes and beaches

SpaceX's Starship moments before exploding.
SpaceX's Starship moments before exploding. (Image credit: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

SpaceX's Starship has been grounded by the U.S. government following claims that the rocket's explosive first launch spread plumes of potentially hazardous debris over homes and the habitats of endangered animals.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) — the U.S. civil aviation regulator — has stopped SpaceX from conducting any further launches until it has concluded a "mishap investigation" into Starship's April 20 test launch. The massive rocket’s dramatic flight began by punching a crater into the concrete beneath the launchpad and ended when the giant rocket exploded in mid-air around 4 minutes later.

Dust and debris from the test reportedly rained down on residents in Port Isabel, Texas — a town roughly 6 miles (10 kilometers) from the launchpad — and across Boca Chica's beaches, which are nesting grounds for endangered animals, including birds and sea turtles. 

Related: Geomagnetic storm sends 40 SpaceX satellites plummeting to Earth

Dave Cortez (opens in new tab), a chapter director for the Sierra Club environmental advocacy group, said that Port Isabel residents reported broken windows in their businesses and ash-like particles covering their homes and schools. 

SpaceX's launchpad was also left with extensive damage that includes charred, twisted metal and shattered concrete. The force from the rocket's engines blew a hole in the launchpad and created a crater beneath it. "Concrete shot out into the ocean," Cortez told CNBC (opens in new tab), creating shrapnel that "risked hitting the fuel storage tanks which are these silos adjacent to the launch pad." 

Debris surrounding Starship's launch pad at Boca Chica, Texas.

Debris surrounding Starship's launch pad at Boca Chica, Texas. (Image credit: Patrick Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

Unlike other launch sites for large rockets, SpaceX’s Boca Chica site lacks both a deluge system, which floods pads with shockwave-suppressing water or foam, and a flame trench to safely channel burning exhaust away.

"Aspiring to have no flame diverter in Boca, but this could turn out to be a mistake," SpaceX founder Elon Musk wrote in an October 2020 tweet.

The FAA's mishap investigation is standard practice when rockets go astray. The FAA’s investigation will need to conclude that Starship does not affect public safety before it can launch again. As debris spread far further than anticipated, the FAA's "anomaly response plan" has also come into force, meaning SpaceX must complete extra "environmental mitigations" before reapplying for its launch license.

Musk wrote on Twitter that SpaceX began work on "a massive water-cooled, steel plate to go under the launch mount" three months prior to the launch, but it wasn't ready in time.

"Looks like we can be ready to launch again in 1 to 2 months," he added.

Standing at 394 feet (120 meters) tall and propelled by a record-breaking 16.5 million pounds (7.5 million kilograms) of thrust, SpaceX's Starship is the largest and most powerful rocket ever built. Able to carry 10 times the payload of SpaceX's current Falcon 9 rockets, Starship was designed to transport crew members, spacecraft, satellites and cargo to locations in the solar system.

After blasting off from its launchpad at Boca Chica, Starship climbed to a maximum altitude of 24 miles (39 km) before problems with as many as eight of the rocket's 33 Raptor 2 engines caused Starship to flip and roll, leading SpaceX to order the rocket to self-destruct.

Despite the rocket's unexpectedly messy takeoff and fiery demise, SpaceX and Musk have hailed the test as a success that enabled engineers to gather essential data for the next launch. On April 16, four days before the test, Musk lowered expectations, warning in a Twitter discussion (opens in new tab) that if any of the rocket's engines went wrong "it's like having a box of grenades, really big grenades."

"This is really kind of the sort of first step in a very long journey that will require many, many flights," Musk said. "For those that have followed the history of Falcon 9, and Falcon 1 actually, and our attempts at reusability, I think it might have been close to 20 attempts before we actually recovered a stage. And then it took many more flights before we had reusability that was meaningful, where we didn't have to rebuild the whole rocket."

Ben Turner
Staff Writer

Ben Turner is a U.K. based staff writer at Live Science. He covers physics and astronomy, among other topics like tech and climate change. He graduated from University College London with a degree in particle physics before training as a journalist. When he's not writing, Ben enjoys reading literature, playing the guitar and embarrassing himself with chess.

  • 7%solution
    According Elon Musk's statement on launch day, SpaceX learned a lot from its disaster. Seems like the learning curve is significantly longer than Musk anticipated.
  • Cooknn
    And they clapped :rolleyes:
  • Philly
    Here we go. Disastrous SpaceX launch!
    Look people even if you hate Musk, and lots of people do, he is smart enough to build a flame trench to divert the rocket engine exhaust. So let's think about this, just a little more. If you're going to send a big rocket to land and launch on the Moon and Mars you going to have to land and launch on a rocky surface that hasn't been built up like an Earth based launch complex.

    There have been 10's of thousands of launches on a launch pad. So there was really nothing to learn from a launching on a traditional launch pad. No real time data ever for a launch off of the type of pad that just launched the Super Heavy/Starship. While not exact, it does simulate, in a way, launching off of the Moon/Mars.

    Also launching the 1st Super heavy with some engines out at the launch and most likely due to damage to the bottom of the rocket is also the perfect way to test the robustness of the system. Especially during the 1st launch test when changes will be much easier to make moving forward.

    It isn't like SX doesn't know how to launch and land rockets. If you don't believe me, do a quick search for the Falcon 9 rocket. The great unknown is how to land & launch big rockets (The LEM was small) on places like the Moon & Mars. Addressing this in the 1st test, is smart. Because it will be the fastest and cheapest way to a working solution. Addressing the challenge, of debris kicking up 2 years from now, at the end when everything else has been finalized, is the path to billions of costs over runs and delays of decades.

    Also, similar to the testing of the Apollo F-1 rocket engines, some windows were broken. It doesn't seem like history looks back at the Apollo program as a Disaster due to a few broken windows. I also don't think the Sea Turtles were nesting at this time. Was the launch complex damage worse then expected, it sure seems like it was but, this why test flights are done, right? To find the unknowns.
  • 3fazeac
    The trouble is, Philly, that Elon has upset journalists because of his antics on twitter - the platform that the journalists thought belonged to them. So almost to a man or woman, they don't like him. Notwithstanding his degree in Particle Physics (see what Sabine Hossenfelder has to say about Particle Physicists) I think Ben is more of a journalist now and engineering is not his purview. I agree with all that you say and would add that the engines technology and the fuel used were also novel for such a large rocket. I do admit that the destruction of the stage 0 flooring did seem somewhat inevitable but there's nothing there that going to poison any flora or fauna. The birds returned pretty soon after launch. Far more environmental damage is done by beach-goers driving their gas guzzlers over the beach or driving their mal-maintained boats on the sea. As for a bit of dust wafting over a settlement 6 miles away - surely a Texan windstorm does far more damage. So yes, SpaceX employees were quite right in their applause - it was a staggering success. Had the separation occurred at 37km the mission could well have succeeded completely.
  • Opcn
    They don't even fire single engines at the ground without a diverter, let alone 33 of them. this is the most powerful rocket ever flown, it's not a 15d chess move to test and see if it doesn't suffer from a problem that's been around since the V2, it's wishful thinking.

    And it was over a concrete pad and held off the surface on a rather substantial launch platform that won't be available on mars either.

    That's nothing but a rationalization for rushing a launch and causing tremendous environmental damage in an environmentally sensitive area because he wanted to make a pot joke.
  • Phil M
    These are all petty complaints by malcontents. Alleged broken windows, but no pictures. Ash on their cars, but was any saved? And as always, damage to the environment but also no pictures. Are these the same people who are jealous that he was born in an emerald mine (sarcasm)? Or are they the alleged environmentalists who hated him for offering to pay for a climate change solution that threatened their income from complaining, writing useless petitions, and begging for donations? Like F.O.E. Friends (foes) Of the Earth. The faux environmentalists.
    Uh oh. I see a bird has pooped on my car. It must be Elon's fault because of his rocket. Gotta go complain to the government to shut him down.......(more sarcasm)!!
    Note. I am a life long environmentalist and thoroughly disgusted at what it has become!