SpaceX Starship launch could harm South Texas birds, advocacy group says

a sign that says 'the great texas coastal birding trail' stands in front of spacex hardware and pieces of spacex starship, all far in the background
Pieces of the SpaceX Starship rocket (back left) sit near the launch pad at Boca Chica Village in South Texas on Feb. 10, 2022, near a bird conservation sign. (Image credit: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

Update for 7:20 p.m. ET on April 17: On Monday evening (April 17), SpaceX announced it is now targeting Thursday (April 20) for the next Starship space launch attempt. The launch window opens at 9:28 a.m. EDT (1328 GMT) and closes at 10:30 a.m. EDT (1430 GMT).

SpaceX should move its Starship launch activities from southern Texas to coastal Florida to minimize hurt on bird populations, the American Bird Conservancy says.

SpaceX scrubbed the debut orbital launch of its giant Starship spacecraft on Monday (April 17) following a fueling issue; no new launch date is set yet. It does have a license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to reach space at some point from Starbase, which is what SpaceX calls its Boca Chica test and launching area.

The American Bird Conservancy, citing declining population levels of the piping plover (a small migratory bird that lives near shorelines) in addition to impacts on other local species, is asking SpaceX to move its Starship work from Boca Chica, Texas to its existing Space Launch Complex 40 pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida. (SpaceX has not commented publicly on this.)

"SpaceX operations continue to damage important coastal bird habitats," Mike Parr, president of the conservancy, said in an April 14 statement. "We believe that Cape Canaveral offers a much lower environmental impact option, and is underutilized with less than one launch per month currently despite having six active launch pads — and more pads that could be made available."

Related: SpaceX's 1st Starship and Super Heavy launch: How it will work

SpaceX broke ground at Boca Chica in 2014. Infrastructure at Starbase ramped up considerably after 2018, according to Texas Monthly, which lists facilities including a solar farm, an RV park, storage facilities and of course, launch pads. Test flights for a SpaceX test vehicle called Starhopper were conducted in 2019, followed by Starship testing on the ground and in flight.

The Boca Chica area, however, is also a popular site for shorebirds — including protected species, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife. As such, the FAA conducted a programmatic environmental assessment (PEA) for the Boca Chica area between 2021 and 2022 to examine the ecosystem and Starship's activities upon it. 

The assessment, completed on June 13, 2022, generated 75 action items for SpaceX to address. Then on April 14, 2023, the FAA granted the license, indicating that SpaceX had fulfilled the requirements.

A piping plover stands on the sand on Old Orchard Beach on Friday, May 27, 2022. Piping plovers are also residents of Boca Chica, surrounding SpaceX's Starbase facilities. (Image credit: Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

The PEA identified 312 terrestrial species in need of conservation in the study area, including 54 bird species, according to FAA documentation from June 2022. The documentation shows that lighting, construction and other human activities will be disruptive to species in the immediate region, although some can move away.

That said, the sparrow-sized piping plover shorebird and the red knot sandpiper are among the species that will be affected, along with their "critical habitat," the FAA states. Starship was forecast to affect roughly 11 acres of piping plover critical habitat and 23.2 acres of red knot habitat. Yet this territory is only "a small percentage" of the nearby land available to the birds, according to the PEA.

Meanwhile, a 2021 analysis of the piping plover population (following individuals marked with tags) suggests the winter population fell 54 percent between 2018 and 2021, from 308 individuals to 142 individuals. That decline is what worries the American Bird Conservancy, which attributes the problem to SpaceX and human disturbance. There are subtleties to the figure, however. 

The Texan non-profit Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program, which performed the 2021 analysis, suggests the birds may have wintered elsewhere, for example. The analysis does not single out SpaceX as the cause, either.

The overall Northern Great Plains population of piping plovers, estimated at 4,700 individuals in a 2012 peer-reviewed study, also appears to be steady or in just slight decline. That said, the worry among the conservancy groups is overall numbers could be affected by even small population drops at Boca Chica.

While SpaceX rarely comments on regulatory matters, Musk issued a tweet of support in 2021 praising "the hard work by FAA, US Fish & Wildlife and Texas Parks & Wildlife" during the environmental assessment at Starbase.

Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of "Why Am I Taller?" (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon:

  • ultimatewizz
    Admin said:
    SpaceX is set to launch its Starship spacecraft from a coastal town in Texas, but an environmental advocacy group says Florida would be the better choice.

    SpaceX Starship launch could harm South Texas birds, advocacy group says : Read more
    And here we go again a dozen or so advocates want to change the launch site because it MAY cause harm to some bird habitat. Oh, the launch was terrifying! I believe I remember when Musk offered to buy your homes at more than market value and you said no. Well rocket launches make noise and in this case a lot of dust. The dust will mostly go away after they get the launch pad functioning properly. Guess when Nasa's returning ship blew apart over Texas we should have stopped our space program then and there.