SpaceX Wants Environmental Lawsuit Against Its Starship Rocket Dismissed

Ship 24 performing a static fire test in December 2022 prior to its inaugural launch. Image: SpaceX

By Passant Rabie,
Published by Gizmodo, 5 July 2023

Musk’s private space venture is claiming that its megarocket does not pose a threat to surrounding wildlife in Texas.

SpaceX is denying allegations that its Starship rocket poses a threat to surrounding wildlife habitat in Boca Chica, Texas, hoping to dismiss a lawsuit that could potentially delay the anticipated launch of its megarocket.

Elon Musk’s rocket company responded to a lawsuit filed against the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) following the inaugural launch of the Starship rocket, asking that a federal court dismiss the complaint put forth by Texas-based environmental groups, SpaceX wrote in a filing submitted on Friday.

In the court filing, SpaceX denied every allegation made by the lawsuit and argued that the environmental groups lacked legal grounds for their claims. At the same time, “SpaceX admits that Super Heavy is a powerful rocket that uses liquid methane for propulsion, and that launching rockets causes heat, noise, and light,” the company wrote in the filing. “SpaceX admits that the concrete launch pad deck was damaged during the liftoff, spreading some debris and dust. The FAA is currently evaluating data related to this launch.”

The two-stage Starship rocket launched for the first time on April 20 for a test flight. After clearing the launch tower, the rocket stayed on its upward trajectory for approximately four minutes before spiraling out of control and exploding across the skies. It also took the rocket 40 seconds to respond to the self-destruct command.

At the pad, the less-than-ideal launch sent a massive cloud of dust and debris towards its surrounding area. SpaceX’s launch site in Boca Chica is surrounded by a wildlife habitat that’s considered refuge to several endangered and threatened species like ocelots, piping plovers, and Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles. Even before Starship took to the skies, the company’s previous activities on its launch site had already led to a dramatic decrease in shorebird populations and caused other harms to the local ecosystem.

“As the Nation carries out the modern era of spaceflight, we must decide whether we will protect the wildlife and frontline communities that can be adversely affected by our desire to reach the stars, or whether we will leave a legacy of needless destruction in the scorching wake of rocket plumes,” the plaintiffs wrote in the complaint that was filed against the FAA on May 1.

In the lawsuit, the Center for Biological Diversity, American Bird Conservancy, and other conservation groups alleged that the FAA rushed SpaceX’s Starship permitting process without adequate environmental review or mitigation requirements. SpaceX quickly rushed to the FAA’s side, filing a motion to become a co-defendant in the lawsuit.

The company is eager to see Starship fly as the megarocket is under a $2.89 billion contract to land humans on the Moon by late 2025 as part of NASA’s Artemis 3 mission, and then again for Artemis 4 in 2028 under a separate $1.15 billion contract.

SpaceX’s CEO promised another Starship test flight within this month but Musk’s ambitious timelines don’t often materialize. The company is prepping the next Starship prototype for launch, repairing the launch tower and adding a few upgrades to prevent future damage. Still, SpaceX needs the green light from the FAA to launch Starship for a second time, as the administration grounded the megarocket pending an ongoing investigation that resulted from its debut flight.

In its filing, SpaceX said the environmental assessment has not been withdrawn or modified, adding that the company is “working toward another launch” of Starship.

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