Residents in Boca Chica Village, Texas, near a SpaceX facility in Brownsville received a warning from the Cameron County Office of Emergency Management that tests of the company’s Starhopper prototype on Aug. 26 could break windows in their homes, according to the Brownsville Herald.
The alert stated that flight testing activities carry “a risk that a malfunction of the SpaceX vehicle during flight will create an overpressure event that can break windows.” Officials wrote in the warning that residents must evacuate their residences at that time to avoid being sprayed with shattered glass: “At a minimum, you must exit your home or structure and be outside of any building on your property... to avoid or minimise the risk of injury.” A police siren will alert locals that the test is about to commence, the Herald wrote.
— Mary (@BocaChicaGal) August 24, 2019
It’s reasonable to assume that the overpressure referred to would be the result of the prototype exploding, generating enough force to damage nearby buildings.
The test on Monday is expected to be the last test of the Starhopper, which is a launch system prototype for SpaceX’s ambitious Starship project. Starhopper successfully cleared a prior test in which it rose 65 feet (20 metres) and then landed safely without having to be tethered to the ground in July. On Monday, SpaceX hopes to have Starhopper launch to a full 650 feet (198 metres) before returning to the launchpad; if it’s successful, CEO Elon Musk says he will follow up with a public presentation “hopefully mid-September” giving more details on the project.
As Business Insider noted, establishing safety zones around commercial launch sites is not an unusual practice, but that the safety zone contains residents (“nearly all of them not by choice”) is much odder. Locals told Business Insider they were less than thrilled with the possibility of SpaceX—which has already had roads in the region closed during test dates—shattering every window in their homes:
During previous Starhopper launches, the road has been closed with a “hard” checkpoint located about 1.5 miles west of the launchpad and a “soft” checkpoint a couple of miles farther down the road.
Saturday’s notice is an unusual departure, and to some residents — most of whom are retirees who’ve lived in the area years or decades before SpaceX’s arrival — represents a worrisome new phase of their relationship with the company, local and state officials, and federal agencies.
“I’m very angry,” local part-time resident Celia Johnson told Business Insider. “I feel like we are in a war zone running out of our houses so they won’t collapse on us... Our rights have been terminated by money, greed, and politics.”
“I am shocked, angry, and concerned about what kind of damage I might sustain,” Cheryl Stevens, who owns a house in Boca Chica, told the site. “Also bewildered as far as what to do that day. I don’t know how to prepare for this. I plan to call the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] on Monday to discuss the civil rights violations among other things.”
Bryan Winton, manager of the Lower Rio Grande Valley national wildlife refuge at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told Business Insider that SpaceX instituted better fire-prevention policies following the incident in July, including coordinating with local agencies, installing more water cannons on the launchpad, and conducting controlled burns.
However, SpaceX plans to launch even larger rockets from the site in the future, such as a Starship Mk1 prototype that uses three Raptor engines (Starhopper relies on one). Some reports have indicated that SpaceX may “cannibalise” the Starhopper for parts in its rush to build the MK1 prototype. [Brownsville Herald]