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SpaceX is grounded after rocket explosion caused extensive environmental damage

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Federal Aviation Administration has grounded the SpaceX Starship program. SpaceX launched the largest rocket in the world last week. And then it exploded, and debris particles rained on the city of Port Isabel, Texas. There's also extensive damage to the area around the launch site. Gaige Davila with Texas Public Radio was one of the first to check out the impact to nearby Boca Chica Beach.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIRE ROARING)

GAIGE DAVILA, BYLINE: Last Thursday, SpaceX's launchpad was awash in noise and fire. A few minutes later, Starship exploded. Almost a week later, its debris is still washing up along the Texas shores of the Gulf of Mexico. But today, Boca Chica Beach is mostly quiet, except for the consistent drone of nearby SpaceX.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS IN TALL GRASS)

DAVILA: I walk through the dunes, towards the windy mudflat just south of the launch pad. There's debris spread nearly a mile around - some the size of golf balls, others as big as engine blocks.

The entire bed of this mudflat is covered with pieces of concrete and rebar. Some have impacted the ground so hard that they've left holes that are about 2 1/2 to 3 feet deep and 6 feet across.

I make my way to the other side of the launchpad. This is a sensitive wildlife habitat, where the mudflats are covered in algae.

There's the same amount of concrete, more big divots in the earth, pieces of metal - looks like they bounced or carved into the earth.

Any vegetation within a few hundred yards of the launch pad was singed. There were several fires. One burned nearly three acres of land.

JUSTIN LECLAIRE: You get in there, and it looks like a literal bomb went off.

DAVILA: Justin LeClaire is a conservation biologist with the Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program. During his survey of Boca Chica, he documented around 300 acres affected by debris. LeClaire found federally protected shorebird nests within a few feet of the launched concrete. He's worried, if SpaceX launches routinely from here, no wildlife will stick around to Boca Chica.

LECLAIRE: If these major disturbances in addition to actual damage to the habitat just happen consistently every month, every week, birds and other wildlife are not likely to use that habitat.

DAVILA: SpaceX could have prevented the damage, but it disregarded building better launch infrastructure, says Eric Roesch. He is an environmental compliance specialist who blogs about SpaceX. For one, he says, the company did not invest in proven launch infrastructure, like a flame trench, which diverts most of the thrust of the rocket.

ERIC ROESCH: It sure seemed like the decision to not do these very basic channels or flame protection or systems that you see everywhere else was a matter of convenience.

DAVILA: Roesch says SpaceX was too eager to launch its largest rocket. CEO Elon Musk said a steel plate was supposed to go under the launch pad, but it wasn't ready in time. SpaceX thought the concrete would hold based on the static fire test held in February, but that test was only at 50% thrust. Roesch says that the environmental review SpaceX gave to the FAA underestimated Starship's power. What the company called a successful launch actually caused as much damage it had predicted for a full-on explosion on the launchpad.

ROESCH: I think that probably illustrates better than anything else how woefully and just, like, fundamentally inadequate the entire environmental review process is.

DAVILA: Besides grounding the Starship program, the FAA has activated its mishap response plan. It requires SpaceX to work with state and federal agencies to remove the debris and survey the damage. In a statement, the agency says it will make sure SpaceX complies with environmental regulations. For NPR News, I'm Gaige Davila in Port Isabel, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF STARSHIP SONG, "NOTHING'S GONNA STOP US NOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.