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SpaceX’s Starship launch sparked a fire in a Texas state park

SpaceX successfully launched the most powerful rocket ever developed on Thursday, April 20, but just a few minutes after clearing the pad in Boca Chica, Texas, the 120-meter-tall Starship vehicle tumbled out of control and exploded in midair.

Despite the fiery end, the commercial spaceflight company led by Elon Musk described the maiden test mission as a success, giving the team plenty of data to work with so that it can improve the rocket’s design before attempting a complete flight that would see the upper stage of the vehicle reach orbit for the first time.

Soon after the mission’s dramatic finish, it became apparent that a good deal of dust and debris from the launch, as well as the explosion, had rained down over a wide area, and on Thursday a Bloomberg report revealed that the damage included a 3.5-acre fire in Boca Chica State Park that was later extinguished.

The Texas division of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the launch wrecked the pad, sending concrete, steel, and other parts high into the sky before falling back to the ground.

“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,” the wildlife service said in a statement seen by the Houston Chronicle. It added that up to now no dead animals or other wildlife have been found in the affected areas.

Residents of Port Isabel, a small community about 6 miles from SpaceX’s launch facility, also reported dust falling on the small community following the launch, an outcome they hadn’t been expecting.

Shortly after the Starship mission ended, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced it had opened a so-called “mishap investigation” into the failed effort.

“An anomaly occurred during the ascent and prior to stage separation resulting in a loss of the vehicle,” the FAA said. “No injuries or public property damage have been reported.”

It added that a return to flight of the Starship, which comprises the first-stage Super Heavy and the upper stage Starship spacecraft, is “based on the FAA determining that any system, process, or procedure related to the mishap does not affect public safety,” adding that “this is standard practice for all mishap investigations.”

With the FAA required to complete its investigation in a way that clears SpaceX for future flights from Boca Chica, and Musk’s company having to rebuild its destroyed launch pad, it’s not clear when the Starship will embark on its second test flight.

NASA, for one, will be watching developments carefully, as it wants to use a modified version of the the upper stage for the first crewed lunar landing since 1972. The mission is currently set for 2025, but that date could well slip.

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Trevor Mogg
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