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NASA's Risky Venture into Private Space Flight

The federal space agency is contracting out rocket-making. The results can be alarming.

A member of the public walks through a debris field at the launch pad on April 22, 2023, after the SpaceX Starship lifted off on April 20 for a flight test from Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas.
(Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
Mechazilla versus the plover. That’s not the newest addition to the Godzilla franchise. Instead, it’s part of the controversy over NASA’s desire to get back to the moon and beyond.

Mechazilla is the nickname that Elon Musk gave to the launchpad in Boca Chica, Texas, that he’s using to launch his privately operated SpaceX Starship, the most powerful rocket ever built. An April test flight, however, exploded soon after the rocket left the pad, sending huge concrete boulders more than half a mile, with a “debris cloud” that spread more than six miles. The launch torched a 3.5-acre fire in a nearby state park.

As for the rocket itself, Musk tweeted that “as if the flight test was not exciting enough, Starship experienced a rapid unscheduled disassembly before stage separation.” To translate: several of its 32 Raptor engines failed to work properly, the rocket started to tumble and launch directors issued a self-destruct order.

The feds were involved because of a fundamental but little-noticed strategic change in the nation’s space policy. For two generations, NASA designed its rocket systems and hired private companies to build and operate them. But as the space shuttle got older, less reliable, more expensive and less safe, NASA decided to become a buyer of privately designed and operated systems that met its needs. Private companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, among others, began developing their own rockets, in their own way and in their own facilities. They sold launch services to space tourists, private companies, as well as to NASA.

But that created a far more complex system, with many of the key players having far less leverage than in the past. SpaceX’s lack of transparency, an example of Musk’s penchant for holding decisions extra-close to the vest, made it that much harder to build trust.

NASA certainly had its own problems in the space program's early days when it seemed, as Tom Wolfe put it in The Right Stuff, that “our rockets always blow up.” But in this case, as Musk acknowledged, there was a “rock tornado” that tore through the launch complex and destroyed most of it, with wider implications than government officials had anticipated.

The plover, a large-breasted member of the shorebird family, is involved because when the explosion occurred, one of them was sitting on her nest a few miles away as the Starship was launched. It didn’t go well for her. The noise frightened her away for more than four hours. Later that day, a coyote arrived to gobble two of her three eggs. Meanwhile, blue land crabs were cremated. Experts at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were in disbelief about the environmental damage that the rocket’s blast had caused, including damage to the habitat of ocelots, falcons and sea turtles.

The launch site was a patchwork of jurisdictions. Part of the land was in a federal wildlife preserve which, in turn, had been borrowed from a Texas state park. The park features one of the best beaches in Texas, according to an online travel guide. In more than 1,100 pages of emails, Fish and Wildlife experts laid out the damage they found in the area and pressed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to require more environmental protection for any future launch. Environmental groups sued the FAA to stop future launches.

Some locals had seen the SpaceX facility as a big economic boon, bringing jobs for thousands of engineers and space experts. But Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. said, “We’ve made it known we want them to be successful, but not to the detriment of the area.” Barton Bickerton, who owns the nearby Hopper Haus Bar & Grill, admitted that some locals were a little “scared about it” after watching the April launch.

Just about everyone was frustrated by SpaceX’s lack of transparency. SpaceX had restricted access to the site for U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials for 48 hours after the accident, which made it difficult for them to assess the impact of the explosion. When the FAA announced in early September that it would require 63 changes in the launchpad and on the launch vehicle before it would consider issuing a new permit, it didn’t release its report or the full list of the changes on which it insisted. And complicating the policy puzzle was the wary eye that the Mexican government kept on the Boca Chica launch site, which was just five miles away from the border.

The intergovernmental side of the space program is far more complicated than it’s ever been, with far less visibility into what’s happening and what the implications are. Instead, the network of stakeholders is dealing with what Musk said was “obviously not a complete success, but still nonetheless successful.”

But it might be hard to convince the plover of that.
Donald F. Kettl is professor emeritus and former dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. He is the co-author with William D. Eggers of Bridgebuilders: How Government Can Transcend Boundaries to Solve Big Problems.
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