Gulf of Mexico
A piece of metal debris is seen more than half a mile away north of SpaceX’s launch pad on Boca Chica Beach. Credit: Courtesy Photo, U.S. Fish And Wildlife Service

TX - SpaceX Explosion Damages Environment Around Launch Site

Last Thursday, SpaceX’s South Texas facility was awash in noise and fire, as crowds gathered in South Padre Island and Port Isabel to watch Starship’s first orbital launch.

This article is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. This story, by Gaige Davila, was originally published by TPR.

It was the largest and most powerful rocket ever made, standing at around 400 feet tall. Four minutes into the launch, SpaceX detonated the rocket after the SuperHeavy booster failed to separate from the Starship as planned.

A cloud of explosive dust in the air.
SpaceX’s next-generation Starship spacecraft, atop its powerful Super Heavy rocket, explodes after its launch from the company’s Boca Chica launchpad on a brief uncrewed test flight near Brownsville, Texas, U.S., April 20, 2023. Credit: REUTERS, Joe Skipper

The launch destroyed the company’s launch pad, spreading concrete up to three quarters of a mile away. Cameras left by YouTubers were either knocked down or destroyed in the rumble, along with some of the fence surrounding the launch pad’s road-facing property.

For more pictures of the SpaceX launch debris, visit TPR’s website.

Particulate matter from a debris cloud of sand and soil created by the launch fell in Port Isabel, according to the Cameron County Emergency Management Division.

A cloud of brown debris with tiny particles blown around within it.
Rocks and other debris fly around remote cameras as SpaceX’s next-generation Starship spacecraft atop the Super Heavy rocket lifts off from the company’s Boca Chica launchpad on an uncrewed test flight before exploding near Brownsville, Texas, U.S. April 20, 2023. Credit: REUTERS, Joe Skipper

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) documented that the debris cloud deposited material as far as six-and-a-half miles north of the launch pad. The agency said in a statement that the debris cloud was made of pulverized concrete.

The launch pad’s destruction could be seen in the mudflats and dunes south of it and in the algal flats to the north. Broken concrete — some pieces the size of golf balls, others the size of car engine blocks or larger — was spread out over nearly three-quarters of a mile in some directions.

Craters from large pieces of concrete were as large as six feet across and a few feet deep. Some pieces hit the ground so hard they were submerged in the sand, leaving only an empty crater with rebar jutting from it.

SpaceX’s video of the launch confirmed the extent of the debris spread, showing some concrete launching into the Gulf of Mexico.

Vegetation within a few hundred yards of the launch pad was singed. A little more than a quarter mile south of the launch pad, a fire burned about three acres, charring a quail’s nest.

Salt-like particulate matter could be seen all over the mudflat south of the launch pad.

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