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The Texas Space Race: A Brief Reflection on Environmental Challenges and Opportunities

by Audubon Texas

Since space operations began in South Texas, conservation organizations, including Audubon Texas, have grown increasingly concerned about the environmental impacts of these activities, especially on local bird populations. In light of recent reporting from our partners, we would like to highlight findings from a monitoring effort related to a June 6, 2024 SpaceX launch. 

The Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program (CBBEP) released a new report detailing the devastating impacts of the launch on numerous nesting bird sites. Biologists observed 17 nests of Snowy Plovers, Wilson’s Plovers, and Least Terns near SpaceX’s south Texas launch facility, Starbase, before and after the launch. After the launch, CBBEP inspected nine nests and found all nine were “either missing eggs, had damaged eggs, or both.” These findings underscore conservation organizations’ worst fears. 

These groups, especially locally, have raised concerns about the potential impacts to wildlife from SpaceX’s operations for years, including direct impacts to birds and their habitats, loss of access to public lands, and limited compliance with existing environmental laws. This recent impact to nesting birds, for example, is potentially a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which protects certain migratory birds, their eggs, and nests.    

Before Starbase, this section of the Texas coast near Boca Chica was largely undeveloped. And while the installation’s footprint is relatively small, it is surrounded by areas protected for their unique ecological value — Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area directly south, Boca Chica State Park to the north, and the nearby Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. Unfortunately, little has been done to mitigate the damaging environmental effects of launching these large, powerful rockets.  

SpaceX says their long-term goal for this site is to launch multiple rockets daily. If that vision becomes reality, decades of work and investments to protect this unique ecosystem for future generations is at serious risk.  

Aside from the glaring environmental impacts, these launches are also placing a great economic engine in peril. These natural sanctuaries attract thousands of visitors from across our state and around the globe to engage in birding recreation and spend money locally. And according to a 2022 report from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, nature tourism alone adds more than $47.6 billion to Texas’ gross state product annually, accounting for nearly 2 percent of the entire state economy. Failing to protect these places undermines a thriving source of economic vitality for our state. 

With SpaceX rapidly developing on the South Texas coast and Blue Origin continuing their operations near Van Horn, Governor Greg Abbott recently created the Texas Space Commission — marking a new chapter of space innovation, research and exploration. Like many environmental groups, Audubon Texas hopes the establishment of this new agency will also result in increased monitoring and improved transparency, leading to reduced impacts on our state’s ecosystem.  

Audubon Texas is encouraged to see state leaders welcome opportunities for collaboration at this critical time. We believe more can be done to help SpaceX coexist with wildlife and other neighbors, and that progress must be paired with stewardship of the places we depend on today. 

The animals, communities, and lands surrounding these launch sites should not be sacrificed for commercial space travel. With some of the smartest engineers in the world working at SpaceX, we’re confident solutions can be developed to combat the repeated impacts to nearby nesting birds and other wildlife. We look forward to staying engaged and working in partnership with stakeholders across the spectrum in service of protecting our natural resources.

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