Starship launch video captures flying debris and destruction

Videos show a war-like barrage of shrapnel blasting away from the launch site into nearby beaches, wetlands and at least one car

SpaceX’s Starship launch scattered debris onto the beach and shoreline in Boca Chica, Texas on April 20. (Video: SpaceX)

Big rockets emit tremendous amounts of energy—and none more than SpaceX’s Starship, the most powerful rocket in the world, which generates thrust twice as powerful as the Saturn V rocket that flew the Apollo astronauts toward the moon.

So when it lifted off Thursday, the nearly 400-foot-tall Starship scattered debris for hundreds of yards like mortar fire, leaving a crater under its launch mount, dents in nearby storage tanks and questions about the extent of the repairs and when SpaceX might be able to attempt to launch again.

The public road that passes the site remained closed all day Friday, making it difficult to assess how widespread the damage was. Photographers needing to retrieve their remote equipment were told they would not be allowed to do so until Saturday afternoon, at the earliest. The delay suggested damage had been greater than expected.

Videos shared on social media showed a piece of debris slamming into a van several hundred feet away from the launch site as cameras toppled nearby. They also showed shrapnel striking the nearby beach and pummeling the shoreline, making it seem like a war zone. Splashes from debris plummeting into wetlands can be seen on multiple sides of the launchpad for 10 or more seconds after the launch.

The cloud of dust thrown up by the rocket wafted into communities miles away.

Knowing the rocket and its 33 powerful first-stage engines would wreak havoc on the area, especially if it exploded on the pad, the Federal Aviation Administration and local officials enforced a wide safety zone, forcing people to stay miles away. Boats were banned from certain parts of the Gulf of Mexico, and the skies were cleared of air traffic, as is standard for rocket launches.

As a result, the FAA said that no one was hurt and no public property was damaged. The FAA has licensed more than 530 launches, “none of which have resulted in a fatality, injury or significant damage to public property,” an FAA official who was not authorized to speak publicly said before the launch. “I think we’ve done a pretty good job in overseeing safety and maintaining our top priority.”

Debris hit a nearby car after the SpaceX Starship launched in Boca Chica, Texas on April 20. (Video: LabPadre via Storyful)

Launch sites are set on the coast for a reason: to ensure the rockets don’t endanger populated areas as they head to space. Damage to launch sites and the surrounding areas is not uncommon. During the dawn of the space age, NASA routinely blew up rockets as it rushed to beat the Soviet Union to the moon during the Cold War space race. Rockets flying from Cape Canaveral set off alarms of cars parked four or five miles away and rattle windows in communities across the Florida Space Coast.

And late last year when NASA launched its massive Space Launch System, which at the time was the most powerful rocket to fly, it scorched its launch pad and blew the doors off the elevator in its mobile launch tower.

“It just goes to show that the environment … is not the friendliest when you have the world’s most powerful rocket lifting off,” Mike Sarafin, a senior NASA official, said at the time.

NASA officials said the repairs to SLS’ ground facilities were not so extensive that they would further delay the rocket’s next launch. But that’s not scheduled until late next year.

Leading up to Thursday’s launch, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said success would be measured by a simple metric: “Just don’t blow up the launchpad.”

It would “probably take us several months to rebuild the launchpad of we melt it,” he added.

So when the Starship rocket, fueled with 10 million pounds of highly combustible propellant, lifted off and cleared the tower, leaving behind a massive plume and flame but the tower intact, there was a sense of relief, even though the vehicle exploded some four minutes into flight.

SpaceX had been hoping to launch another Starship within “a few months,” Musk had said. But that will depend on how widespread the damage is and how quickly SpaceX can repair it. The company may also decide to make the launch mount on which the rocket sits more resilient as well as installing a more robust water deluge system to dampen the acoustic vibrations.

The pad does not have a flame diverter, which is used to direct the rocket’s fire and exhaust in a controlled manner. In 2020, Musk tweeted that the company was “aspiring to have no flame diverter in Boca, but this could turn out to be a mistake.”

SpaceX has not commented publicly about the extent of the damage or when it might try to launch again.

NASA hopes the company will attempt to launch soon. The space agency is depending on Starship to land astronauts on the surface of the moon as part of its Artemis program. That first landing is tentatively scheduled for 2025, though 2026 or later is perhaps more likely. But before it attempts a lunar landing, Starship must first get to orbit, prove it can fly reliably and safely and achieve a host of other milestones.

In an earlier testing campaign, the company blew up several Starship spacecraft prototypes, which flew to an altitude of about six miles and then crash landed before the company was able to finally land one successfully. After each explosion, the company quickly cleaned up the site and launched again. It even set up a hotline promoted by the county for local residents to report debris.

Some think the company will move quickly to launch Starship again.

“SpaceX moves fast when they see what needs to be fixed,” Abhi Tripathi, a former SpaceX mission director, wrote on Twitter. “I assume they will address the launch site findings with the same importance they show to the Starship design issues. Got to think of it in terms of a whole system.”

SpaceX is also building a launch tower for Starship at one of its pads at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, potentially giving it an alternative launch site.

In granting SpaceX preliminary approval last year, the FAA required the company to meet 75 requirements intended to protect the environment. But some environmental groups have said they don’t go far enough and that the rockets endanger native wildlife and the fragile ecosystem.

“From our point of view, it’s good news it didn’t blow up at the pad site, but future launches could,” American Bird Conservancy President Michael Parr told The Post after the launch. Had an explosion taken place over the sensitive wetlands, a cleanup would further disturb the environment, he said.

Hamza Shaban contributed to this report.

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