Investigation Finds Elon Musk's SpaceX Used Trickery to Open Rocket Facility

Death Note

There's a wildlife death toll associated with SpaceX's success — and the Elon Musk-owned company seems to have played the government to make that success happen.

In a new investigation, the New York Times found 19 instances of environmental damage since 2019 at SpaceX's Boca Chica, Texas launch facility, with the rockets tested there unleashing powerful explosions that litter the surrounding wildlife refuge with debris and decimate the habitats of the animals nesting there.

Initially, SpaceX's plans for the Lower Rio Grande Valley were based on the launch of its less-powerful Falcon 9 rockets, the NYT found, and the Federal Aviation Administration's ensuing environmental impact study only took those spacecraft into account.

Once the company's plans for the much-larger Starship were made public, the FAA said it was going to do another study — but then reversed course, deciding without having done an investigation that the uber-powerful rockets would be unlike to do damage to the "continued existence" of wildlife there.

As the most recent Starship launch test shows, that assessment seems to be incorrect. That latest launch, the newspaper notes, resulted in charred grasslands, strewn sheet metal and insulation, and the destruction of all nine of the recorded bird nests nearby. Apparently that sort of devastation occurs during many of the rocket's launches.

Agency vs. Agency

According to George Nield, a former top FAA space official who now runs his own private commercial space enterprise, SpaceX is merely "leveraging" federally-protected land. However, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has sometimes considered the company's launches overly destructive to nearby habitats and has used its powers to slow the company's progress.

"What can we do to maximize SpaceX’s bold, grand vision?" Nield recalled to the NYT. "Fish and Wildlife has a mission. But it was different from ours and it did not include a lot of rockets."

All the same, the FAA did famously order SpaceX not to undertake a Starship launch in December 2020 — though when Musk flagrantly violated that order, the agency allowed SpaceX to conduct its own investigation into what happened and did not, as the paper notes, make the results of that self-probe public.

Though Fish and Wildlife has, too, ended up signing off on SpaceX's exploits, it has seemingly ended up acting as the enforcer even as the FAA has repeatedly granted the company pardons, the NYT's investigation demonstrates.

With the two agencies seemingly at odds, SpaceX has, clearly, gotten the upper hand — and with Musk bragging that he wants to build 1,000 Starships within the next decade, the local environment in Boca Chica is slated to be the biggest loser.

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