SpaceX Starship explosion ignited 3.5-acre fire and sent debris thousands of feet, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says

Key Points
  • A federal agency has disclosed new details about the aftermath of the SpaceX Starship test flight and mid-air explosion last week.
  • A 3.5-acre fire started south of the pad site on Boca Chica State Park land following the flight, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
  • No dead birds or wildlife have yet been found on National Wildlife Refuge lands, which are very near the launch site and are home to endangered species, including the piping plover.
Debris litters the ground on April 22, 2023, after the SpaceX Starship liftedoff on April 20 for a flight test from Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas.
Patrick T. Fallon | Afp | Getty Images

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service disclosed new details on Wednesday about the aftermath of last week's SpaceX Starship Super Heavy launch and mid-air explosion, including that a "3.5-acre fire started south of the pad site on Boca Chica State Park land," following the test flight.

As of Wednesday, the FWS had found no dead birds or other wildlife had been found on National Wildlife Refuge lands, which are very near the launch pad and are designated critical habitat for an endangered species of bird, the piping plover.

The FWS said, "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 FWS had documented no debris on refuge-owned lands as of Wednesday, but staff "documented approximately 385 acres of debris on SpaceX's facility and at Boca Chica State Park, which is leased by the Service and managed as a component of the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge."

In the agency's e-mailed statement, a spokesperson for the Fish and Wildlife Service said that following the launch and mid-air explosion, "Cameron County closed Boca Chica Beach and State Highway 4 for 48 hours due to launch pad safety concerns."

The road closures prevented FWS staff from "accessing refuge-owned and managed land" until mid-morning on April 22, the agency confirmed.

Biologists with the Texas regional office of the FWS said, through a spokesperson, that a 24- to 48-hour delay is typical in the event of a launch "anomaly" like the explosion.

Researchers from the FWS, along with fire fighters and other first responders, had been standing by on April 20, the day of the launch, ready to begin impact assessments.

A senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, Jared Margolis, said that such delay can impede biologists' ability to conduct a thorough investigation. He explained, "If there were any mortalities from the launch- particularly from concrete chunks and metal being hurled thousands of feet into National Wildlife Refuge lands that are habitat for protected species, such as the piping plover, any carcasses would likely have been dragged off by scavengers, making it difficult to assess the full extent of impacts."

Other endangered species that make their home in the area include the red knot, jaguarundi, ocelot populations and sea turtles, including the Kemp's Ridley, which nests on the beaches of Boca Chica and is one of the most critically endangered sea turtles in the world. February through June is the nesting season for the sea turtles.

SpaceX did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Elon Musk's defense contractor designed its Starship Super Heavy with the ambition of taking people and supplies on a Mars mission one day. The Starship is the largest rocket ever built or launched.