It was cloudy in Port Isabel, Texas, on April 20, but the faculty at Garriga Elementary School let some 450 students linger outside among the palm trees before classes that morning to see Elon Musk’s newest, biggest rocket launch. About six miles to the south, in Boca Chica, was the SpaceX Starship, a nearly 400-foot superheavy rocket capable of 18 million pounds of thrust, a vessel so big that it could — one day, maybe — carry 100 people aboard on a trip to Mars. Garriga Elementary is the closest school to the launchpad, but when the engines ignited just before 9 a.m., the kids couldn’t really see anything. Instead, they felt the rumbling. “The minute they launch, you feel it in your chest and it starts to shake everything in the area,” Principal Eddie Alaniz told me.
In the sky was a faint white streak, then, from above, the sand came blowing in. “At first, it was hard to see anything,” Alaniz said. “But at a certain point we did start to see that there was debris coming down.” Soon, he and the teachers brought the kids inside to shield them from the blast. The rocket had shaken the school so hard that a light fixture in the computer lab had crashed onto the ground, and two others were dangling above chairs where children would have been sitting.
The Starship exploded about a minute after takeoff, but Musk described its liftoff as a massive success, a test from which he and his engineers “learned a lot for [the] next test launch in a few months.” That may be true, but his apparent rush to launch the rocket on 4/20 — do we need to explain the joke again? — without some relatively minor safety features has ended up giving more power to federal aviation regulators who could slow the pace of his subsequent test runs.
For about seven miles around there was dust, debris, shaking windows, some light property damage. Nothing big and apparently no injuries, but the disturbances that have made at least some locals feel the world’s second-richest man didn’t do enough to shield them. Nobody has accused Musk or SpaceX of doing anything explicitly wrong, and in fact, the Federal Aviation Administration cleared the way for the rocket to launch as it did, even after issues about debris were raised. Still there is a perception that the launch was more disruptive than it needed to be for the surrounding area. Optics aside, that’s a big deal for Musk because his program is functionally grounded while the FAA probes what exactly happened — a process that could take months.
What’s unusual about the Starship situation is that, even though it exploded, the current problems for Musk don’t really have anything to do with the rocket itself. They have to do with the launchpad. Reports from the FAA show that actions he could have taken to prevent collateral damage weren’t required, and engineers and experts say that he could have built in relatively simple features into the launchpad that would have prevented the dust clouds and debris. But then again, the FAA cleared him for launch four days before, and Musk loves his 4/20 jokes. (SpaceX didn’t return a request for comment.) Remember, Musk admitted he “overpaid” for Twitter at $54.20 a share, in part because he loves to make the same weed joke over and over again. He had also planned to purge legacy blue checks on Twitter that day. “Hard to believe Starship actually did launch on 4/20 lol,” Musk tweeted a few days later.
This was all preventable, says Olivier de Weck, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets and a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology teaching aeronautics, astronautics, and engineering systems. Rockets are, by their nature, huge explosive machines that will destroy anything that is too close, and the Starship, with its 33 engines, had twice the launching power of the Saturn V, which went to the moon. “The blast wave is almost like an explosion, but it’s not as instantaneous,” de Weck tells me. Still, there are ways to manage it. All that fire and heat has to go somewhere, and SpaceX’s launch lacked flame trenches — concrete bunker-like structures that divert the engine blast underground. Musk had apparently nixed the idea back in 2020, saying that it could be a “mistake” to have one, though he didn’t elaborate why.
Another way to contain rocket blasts is with lots of water. Large dust clouds and sandstorms don’t happen in the areas near Cape Canaveral, where NASA launches its rockets, in part because of the swampy environment, he says. “It’s not that far from the Gulf of Mexico,” de Weck said. “What I would probably do is build a small pipeline and bring seawater to the launch site, basically flood the launchpad with seawater. But of course, that’s a massive civil-engineering project, and so much of the focus has been on the rocket itself.” Musk himself even acknowledged that a water-cooled launch site was being built, but wasn’t ready in time.
The FAA knew that the debris was a risk. “A Starship/Super Heavy anomaly could result in an explosion on the launchpad, which would spread debris,” according to the agency’s executive summary of the launch plan. The agency also appeared to treat the use of water at the launchpad as a secondary concern. “SpaceX is still considering whether to use deluge water for the launchpad, but, in the event it will, it has decided that it will use truck water,” it said. An FAA spokesman confirmed that flame diverters aren’t required: “The company went through a yearlong process with the agency and the local government to address all kinds of issues, from environmental impact to how it would impact the local community.”
It’s not clear how long SpaceX’s Starship program will be grounded for. De Weck thinks it will be less than a year before the next Starship launches — but probably longer than the “few months” that Musk had predicted on Twitter. He still considers the launch to be mostly a success, and hesitated to put too much blame on the FAA for the collateral damage, since the agency both has to consider environmental impact and promote commercial spaceflight. “If they set the bar too high, there’ll never be a launch from that site again,” he said.
SpaceX is now required to clean up the mess it left behind, plus produce reports squaring its data from the launch with its safety assumptions beforehand. “As required by regulations, the company must demonstrate that any ground safety and flight hazards do not pose unacceptable risk to the public during licensed activities,” the FAA spokesman said.
In Texas, the extent of the damage is yet to be tallied. Photos posted on social media show large chunks of concrete that had been blasted along the beach, a sandstorm that destroyed a car, and pieces of a heat shield that washed up in the Gulf of Mexico. A local gym owner said a window shattered. Fine-grained debris, dubbed “concrete rain,” covered cars, laptops, and lawn chairs as far out as Port Isabel about five miles away. Again, all very minor — but it did enough to disturb the way of life for the people in these border towns that one complained to the New York Times that “the locals here are just being sacrificed.” On Wednesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that, while no wildlife were killed, it did cause a 3.5 acre fire. “Impacts from the launch include numerous large concrete chunks, stainless steel sheets, metal and other objects hurled thousands of feet away along with a plume cloud of pulverized concrete that deposited material up to 6.5 miles northwest of the pad site,” according to the agency.
SpaceX has set up a hotline for people to call in if any part of the spaceship that fell in their yards. “If you believe you have identified a piece of debris, please do not attempt to handle or retrieve the debris directly,” the message pleads.
This post was updated to include an additional report on April 26 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on nearby damage from the Starship launch.