Update: Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino issued a public notice April 8, stating that debris from SN11 had fallen on the surrounding area, including the Laguna Madre Bay. He adds the public should not attempt to handle the debris and should call or email SpaceX. The hotline and email are included in this article.
BROWNSVILLE, Texas (KVEO) — Several days after SpaceX launched their prototype Starship Serial Number 11 (SN11) into the foggy atmosphere, debris from its explosion can still be seen in the mudflats next to Highway 4. Public concern about the aerospace company’s presence in the Valley has grown following this event.
Fog concealed the explosion that took place over Boca Chica Beach area and the SpaceX launch site early Tuesday morning of last week.
The sound of the rocket taking off and later exploding were all the hopeful spectators on Isla Blanca were able to witness.
However, aside from the sounds, one more thing made it to Isla Blanca following the event: debris from the rocket.
Just minutes after liftoff, a loud pop signaled that SN11 did not make it to the ground in one piece. Spectator Jessa Koppenhofer witnessed something fall from the sky shortly after.
After recovering the object from the surrounding Isla Blanca jetties, she described it as smelling like fuel and still being warm when she touched it.
“I went out there and we looked, and it’s soft, it’s fabric of some… I don’t even know, and it smelled like fume [to] some extent and it was still warm as well,” described Koppenhofer moments after recovering the piece of debris.
It is believed that the debris that made it to Isla Blanca was carbon fiberglass insulation.
A few hours after the launch, SpaceX put out a hotline and email address for the public to report such findings and further advised that they should not handle them. The email and hotline are as follows: 1-866-623-0234 and firstname.lastname@example.org
While debris falling roughly five and a half miles away from the launch site signaled this explosion was different from the previous SN8, SN9 and SN10 explosions, concern from the public rose once the fog dissipated and images of rocket pieces littered across protected habitats began to circulate on social media.
Though cleanup efforts began almost immediately after the Starship explosion, large pieces of debris still remain scattered across the mudflats across the street from the launch site as of Monday.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which leases and manages the land, let KVEO know that because of current conditions, they are unable to retrieve the debris.
“At this time we are stalled as conditions are not ideal for recovery of the large pieces of debris. We are continuing to evaluate our options and are working closely with SpaceX to make the best decisions for the habitat,” said USFWS.
A statement from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department noted, “SpaceX worked closely with USFWS in retrieval of explosion debris to minimize impacts to wildlife and sensitive habitats.”
Furthermore, the retrieval has also impacted the area as they work towards dislodging large pieces of the rocket.
“The falling debris lodged into different types of habitats and soils. Access in the way of constant ingress/egress to retrieve debris materials has created disturbance and unintentional paths across the landscape,” according to USFWS.
For many, it is not just the visible debris that is causing concern. Contamination from fluids used by the Starship may also be harmful.
Environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club, the Friends of Wildlife Corridor, and concerned citizens in the environmental research field have expressed their dissent about the SpaceX activities at Boca Chica.
Chris Sandoval, a science teacher in Brownsville with degrees in Wildlife and Fisheries and Ecotoxicology, has put forth a research paper explaining the possible effects of SpaceX activity in the surrounding natural habitats and economic consequences as a result of their expansion in the region.
Sandoval says research would show that contamination from rocket fluids would harm wildlife in the surrounding area.
“Contaminants such as those of hydrocarbons are able to kill aquatic life, both vertebrate and invertebrate, at very low concentrations, especially when it’s in a semi-enclosed area as the Lagunas are,” explained Sandoval.
Sandoval feels the presence of SpaceX at Boca Chica is in direct contrast with the mission of its surrounding protected land and explained that USFWS has actively worked to increase the population of the aplomado falcons that nest in the areas surrounding SpaceX. Further expansion of the facility would limit the availability of nesting areas for the species.
“There’s really been a large increase in death to wildlife that the refuge around it has specifically been trying to increase,” said Sandoval. “The aplomado falcon, the ocelot, and a couple of other species including the Boca Chica flea beetle, which is only found as far as we know in Boca Chica Beach sand dunes, are all at risk from these explosions and from the existence of the spaceport.”
Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino has not responded to inquiries for comment about last week’s SpaceX activity but issued the following statement after Elon Musk’s tweet about donating $30 million to the county.
“If SpaceX and Elon Musk would like to pursue down this path, they must abide by all state incorporation statutes. Cameron County will process any appropriate petitions in conformity with applicable law.”
Public comments regarding SpaceX’s intent to expand their facilities at Boca Chica sent to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers here. The deadline is April 5.
Editors note: Article was updated with a working link to Chris Sandoval’s research paper and to include the debris recovery phone number and email.