FAA Monitoring SpaceX’s Clean-Up After Starship Launch

FAA Monitoring SpaceX’s Clean-Up After Starship Launch

Videos of the explosion of SpaceX’s Starship rocket over the Gulf of Mexico captured everyone’s attention yesterday, but today the focus is more on what happened to those billowing clouds of dust and debris that erupted from the launch pad four minutes earlier. Local residents are dealing with a layer of dust-like material. The FAA said there have been no reports of public damage or injuries, but it will ensure SpaceX complies with regulations developed through environmental reviews prior to launch.

SpaceX’s long-awaited Starship/Super Heavy rocket lifted off from Starbase at Boca Chica, TX at 9:33 am ET yesterday morning. All appeared to be going well until almost exactly four minutes later when it began tumbling and was destroyed by the onboard Automatic Flight Termination System.

Starship explodes almost four minutes after launch over the Gulf of Mexico on its first integrated test flight. The first and second stages did not separate. April 20, 2023. Screengrab.

The beginning of the flight was almost as dramatic as the end, however, as 33 methane-liquid oxygen Raptor engines generating 16 million pounds of thrust ignited on the launch pad. No rocket has ever had as many engines or as much thrust.

The public’s view from across the water elicted screams of delight as it slowly rose above the accompanying cloud of dust and debris.

But residents of nearby Port Isabel are the ones left with the aftereffects of that cloud — a layer of soil and sand “that just landed on everything” according to the New York Times. The Wall Street Journal said the particles are larger than a grain of sand. Broken windows were also reported.

The FAA regulates commercial space launches and led an extensive Programmatic Environmental Assessment of SpaceX’s planned activities at Boca Chica before issuing a launch license. The final PEA was issued in June 2022 and last week the FAA published a “Written Re-Evaluation” incorporating additional information from SpaceX.

The FAA told SpacePolicyOnline.com today that SpaceX is required to have ongoing monitoring of vegetation and wildlife by a qualified biologist including a pre- and post-launch survey, as well as removing launch debris from sensitive habitats. The company was required to perform analyses to ensure the public was not exposed to unacceptable risks and, post-launch, must review the analyses to determine consistency with what actually happened. SpaceX is responsible for complying with federal, state and local requirements and “the FAA will ensure compliance with its regulations.”

“The Anomaly Response Plan referenced in the 2022 Programmatic Environmental Assessment has been activated. In addition, other environmental mitigations require that SpaceX must have ongoing monitoring of vegetation and wildlife by a qualified biologist. This includes conducting a pre- and post-launch survey and submitting a report to the FAA and to the other involved state or federal agencies. There are also required mitigations specific to SpaceX coordinating with state or federal agencies to remove launch debris from sensitive habitats. The FAA will ensure SpaceX complies with all required mitigations. Furthermore, the FAA made compliance with the environmental mitigations a condition of the license.”

“SpaceX was required to perform analyses to ensure that the public was not exposed to unacceptable risks. SpaceX is required to perform a post-flight data review to ensure consistency between the assumptions used for their safety analyses and the data observed from the flight. SpaceX is also required to resolve any inconsistencies identified. As required by regulations, SpaceX must demonstrate that any ground safety and flight hazards do not pose unacceptable risk to the public during licensed activities.”

“SpaceX is responsible for local, state and federal compliance requirements. The FAA will ensure compliance with its regulations.” — FAA response to questions from SpacePolicyOnline.com, April 21, 2023

Some of the debris came from the area under the Orbital Launch Mount, which was severely damaged. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted today in reply to before-and-after photos posted by @RGVaerialphotos that “all that’s left of the concrete lateral support beam is the rebar! Hopefully this didn’t gronk the launch mount.”

He replied to Ars Technica reporter Eric Berger @SciGuy Space that they’d been planning to build a “massive water-cooled steel plate” to go under the launch mount, but it wasn’t ready in time and “we wrongly thought, based on static fire data, that Fondag would make it through 1 launch.”

Musk is renowned for over-optimism on timelines so launching again in one to two months may not be realistic.

SpaceX did not reply to a request for comment.

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