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Environmentalists and Native American tribe rebuke SpaceX ahead of historic rocket launch

Opponents of the project say owner Elon Musk’s space travel aspirations are not worth the risk of a catastrophic explosion.

(CN) — SpaceX launched a rocket with 33 engines, the most powerful ever built, Thursday morning from its South Texas port and hailed the test flight as a success, though the rocket and an attached space capsule exploded just four minutes after liftoff.

The company said in a best-case scenario it would be a 90-minute maiden voyage into space and its first-stage Super Heavy rocket would separate from its second-stage Starship spacecraft about three minutes into the flight, and do a controlled descent into the Gulf of Mexico. And Starship would travel around the globe and land off the coast of Hawaii.

But with SpaceX livestreaming the event the components failed to separate and the vehicle flipped over before exploding.

Musk, who also owns Twitter, praised his employees' work on the project in a Twitter post: "Congrats @SpaceX team on an exciting test launch of Starship! Learned a lot for next test launch in a few months."

Environmental and civil rights groups condemned SpaceX's endeavor in statements Wednesday afternoon, saying they feared an explosion would destroy endangered species’ habitat in a nearby wildlife refuge and that rocket shrapnel could injure area residents.

But there were no immediate reports of environmental damage or injuries Thursday morning after the explosion.

Since Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002, it has become the world’s premier commercial space business, launching its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets more than 220 times, making history as the first private firm to send astronauts to the International Space Station and delivering cargo to the International Space Station more than 20 times with its Dragon spacecraft.

Aborted launches and explosions are commonplace for the company as it refines its technology, including a 2019 test flight from its “Spaceport” in Boca Chica — an unincorporated and sparsely populated village in Cameron County outside Brownsville, Texas — that started a 100-acre brush fire in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

With SpaceX set to launch its Super Heavy Rocket and Starship spacecraft together for the first time Thursday morning after the Federal Aviation Administration issued it a vehicle operator license Friday, environmental and civil rights groups, the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe of Texas, and Brownsville residents are voicing their opposition.

Spaceport sits on flat tidal plains a few miles north of where the Rio Grande empties into the Gulf of Mexico and near the refuge, which is a nesting place and hunting ground for endangered sea turtles and ocelots.

The refuge is also a stopover for hundreds of species of migratory birds and butterflies.

The tribe’s chairman Juan Mancias said when SpaceX blocks the road to Boca Chica Beach, an 8-mile public beach, as allowed by its FAA permit as a safety precaution for its rocket tests, it prevents the tribe from accessing sacred lands for ceremonies.

“Whenever Elon Musk and his accomplices, the Cameron County Commissioners and Texas General Land Office, close Boca Chica beach for his pet project SpaceX, they destroy our native life ways. We, the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe of Texas, oppose SpaceX operations destroying our sacred lands,” Mancias said in a statement.

SpaceX has divided residents of Brownsville, a city of 187,000 on the Mexico border.

Some laud Musk and his company for bringing international attention to the area and an economic boost from SpaceX employees moving in and buying houses. In 2021, Musk donated $10 million to the city to revitalize its downtown and $20 million to Cameron County schools.

Thousands will be watching SpaceX’s livestream of the Thursday morning flight, as will visitors who flock to surrounding campgrounds and RV parks to witness the company’s operations.

SpaceX has designed the Super Heavy rocket and Starship — which stacked together stand 390 feet tall and use 10.1 million pounds of liquid methane and liquid oxygen fuel — so they can land and be reused.

But the first four Starship prototypes it launched for high-altitude flight tests exploded in the air. It successfully landed one for the first time in May 2021— its most recent takeoff from Boca Chica.

The firm had planned to do the historic flight on Monday but called it off due to a stuck valve in the first-stage Super Heavy booster.   

SpaceX’s spacecraft is key to NASA’s plans to get astronauts back to the moon. NASA intends to send astronauts to the moon’s orbit in a capsule, then transfer them to Starship to lower them to the moon’s surface because the capsule is not up to the task. Musk also hopes to use it to transport the first humans to Mars.

If the mission is executed as planned, the Super Heavy rocket will detach from the Starship when they reach space around 3 minutes into the flight, then flip over as it falls back to Earth with four landing flaps controlling its descent.

Once the Super Heavy detaches, the engines of the launch vehicle’s second stage, the Starship capsule, will ignite and burn for six-and-a-half minutes, then cut off and Starship will coast around the planet and land in the ocean near Hawaii.

The Super Heavy is supposed to land in the Gulf of Mexico.

Despite the launch’s significance, SpaceX indicated it is still in the early stages of developing Starship into a vehicle capable of reaching the moon. “With a test such as this, success is measured by how much we can learn, which will inform and improve the probability of success in the future as SpaceX rapidly advances development of Starship,” it said in a press release.

Opponents of the project say SpaceX’s and Musk’s aspirations are not worth the risk of a catastrophic explosion and collateral environmental damage.

“A billionaire is closing our beach to use the land to test his experimental technology putting the lives of locals at risk while destroying acres of a wildlife reserve,” Sierra Club Brownsville organizer Emma Guevara said in a statement.

“Who will be held accountable for the destruction this company consistently causes when the government continues to ignore community members’ very real and very serious concerns?” she added.

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Categories / Environment, Technology

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