From the Magazine Magazine

Field Notes

From Ground to Orbit, Space Industry’s Lift-Off Sparks Environmental Concerns

As more rockets take flight, how will we protect life at home?

A collage of illustrated birds appearing to fade as a spaceship launches in a cloud of smoke.
Illustration: Joan Wong. Photo: Official SpaceX Photos/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0). Illustrations clockwise from top left: Piping Plover, James E. De Kay/The New York Public Library Digital Collections; Aplomado Falcon, Smithsonian Libraries/Biodiversity Heritage Library; Red Knot, John Hunt/Field Museum of Natural History Library/Biodiversity Heritage Library; Black Rail, Louis Agassiz Fuertes/Smithsonian Libraries/Biodiversity Heritage Library; Willet, James E. De Kay/The New York Public Library Digital Collections

To outsiders, SpaceX’s site in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, where the company is ramping up to launch the world’s tallest rocket, inspires awe for the future. Local officials are starry-eyed about the jobs it brings. But for Brownsville resident Emma Guevara, who grew up visiting Boca Chica Beach, life in the facility’s shadow has a more dystopian feel.

Since launches and testing began in 2019, there are beach closures, fires, and explosions to contend with. Guevara sees rocket detritus and noise spoiling one of Texas’s least developed coastlines, a stunning matrix of public lands and wildlife refuges where migrating birds visit and imperiled birds, sea turtles, and mammals live. She notices white-collar arrivals gentrifying her U.S.-Mexico border city, where poverty rates are high. 

“We’re forcing this idea we need to colonize Mars, when in reality all we’re doing is colonizing Brownsville,” says Guevara, a South Texas Environmental Justice Network member. “People who have enough money to make money off of this think it’s a great idea. The rest of us, we’re just seeing this facility create more and more negative impacts.”

Concerns mounted in the last year as locals and environmentalists urged the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to prepare an environmental impact statement for launches of SpaceX’s experimental Starship Super Heavy rockets at Boca Chica. In June, the FAA laid out 75 mitigation actions the company must take to get a go-ahead, but found a deeper review wasn’t needed. The decision flabbergasted Jared Margolis, a Center for Biological Diversity senior attorney, who says many actions don’t go far enough or are already required by law. David Newstead, who monitors birds for the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program, has already correlated declines of the area’s Piping Plovers to launch activity at the site. “Nothing mitigates the damage done already,” he says of the FAA’s finding, “and most of the rest are gestures aimed at messing up the habitat a little less going forward.” 

The high-stakes conflict is one of several created by the private space industry’s global growth, which encompasses varied missions such as delivering satellites to orbit and taking tourists on brief rides. By their nature, launch sites tend to be in remote areas—at times near valued habitat and public lands. Last year, for example, the FAA approved a contentious plan to fly rockets over Georgia’s Cumberland Island National Seashore (voters later nixed the idea). Audubon Florida and nine other groups have also been alarmed by early talk of developing LC-49, a site at the edge of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, for SpaceX’s use. They fear impacts to threatened Florida Scrub-Jays and curtailed public access to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Canaveral National Seashore.

In addition to effects on land, the space industry will alter the sky above. Hydrocarbon-fueled rockets inject soot directly into the upper atmosphere where the pollution is far more powerful, says University College London atmospheric chemist Robert Ryan. In a decade or two—especially if companies like Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and SpaceX offer more regular tourist flights—these emissions may warm the upper atmosphere enough to alter its circulation and undo progress patching the ozone hole, according to two recent studies.

By 2030 orbital traffic from new "mega-constellations" of satellites will also raise the risk from dangerous space debris and collisions in orbit, and may “significantly alter our perception of the night sky itself,” says University of Edinburgh’s Andy Lawrence, who is among many astronomers deeply concerned about the prospect. Fake stars will create unsettling movement and brightness, he says. Some scientists even worry about the potential to disrupt migrating birds that navigate by the constellations.

A stronger focus on environmental sustainability could ameliorate some concerns. Regulations on the number of lift-offs and greater use of cleaner liquid hydrogen fuel could help reduce pollution—though hydrogen fuel’s production still has a high carbon footprint, Ryan notes. With what’s at stake, he thinks not all missions are equal: “The question has to be asked of whether space tourism is needed.” Furthermore, many experts are calling for stronger international rules to govern space itself. Various companies, including SpaceX, are also exploring options such as offshore launch and landing sites, far from communities, or reducing the brightness of their satellites. 

__________

A stronger focus on environmental sustainability could ameliorate some concerns.

__________

To date, conservationists face a learning curve and a lack of data in dealing with an emerging industry. Each case is different, says Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Senior Conservation Planner Esmé Clelland. In Scotland, her group has reviewed three spaceport plans: It raised early concerns about all, but dropped objections to two—in one case, after the applicant agreed to avoid launches when seabirds breed nearby. Audubon Texas, meanwhile, is now working with partners to minimize SpaceX’s impacts, aiming to help balance risk and reward as space companies grow in the state. “We need to be thoughtful and find the balance between economic benefits these new industries bring and conserving our remaining pristine and special places,” says executive director Lisa Gonzalez.

Few people deny the allure of Mars, or value of space science, exploration, and better internet. But that doesnt mean plans that bring collateral damage wont face resistance. “As we look to the stars, we can’t ignore our home,” says Margolis. “It’s not a sacrifice zone.”

This story originally ran in the Fall 2022 issue as “To Leave the Earth Behind.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.

Stay abreast of Audubon

Our email newsletter shares the latest programs and initiatives.