Starship lifting off from Starbase. Credits: SpaceX

Environmental Groups Sue FAA Over SpaceX Starship Launches

Environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the FAA on May 1st, 2023 about the environmental review of SpaceX Starship launches from Boca Chica, Texas

Several environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on May 1st, 2023, arguing that the agency failed to carry out a thorough environmental review of SpaceX Starship launches from Boca Chica, Texas.

Starship lifting off from Starbase. Credits: SpaceX
Starship lifting off from Starbase. Credits: SpaceX

The suit, which was filed in federal district court, requests the revocation of the FAA’s launch license for Starship launches from Boca Chica, and a declaration that an Environmental Review done as part of the process violated the National Environmental Policy Act.


Environmental Review Under Scrutiny

The review completed in June 2022 allowed SpaceX to conduct launches provided it carried out prescribed mitigations.

The lawsuit contends that the FAA failed to fully evaluate the environmental impacts from launches and launch failures, citing the April 20 launch of the Starship and Super Heavy vehicle as an example. The thrust from the Booster damaged much of the concrete base of the pad, sending debris flying and creating a plume of sand and dust.

The FAA did not account for the extended closures of the highway leading to both the Starbase site and the neighboring public beach, which the groups claim is in violation of Texas state laws guaranteeing free access to such beaches. Furthermore, the agency did not adequately examine alternatives to launching from Boca Chica, such as launching from the Kennedy Space Center.

The lead plaintiff in the case, Jared Margolis, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said:

“Federal officials should defend vulnerable wildlife and frontline communities, not give a pass to corporate interests that want to use treasured coastal landscapes as a dumping ground for space waste.”

—Jared Margolis, Senior Attorney – Center for Biological Diversity

The American Bird Conservancy, Surfrider Foundation, Save RGV, and the Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation of Texas, Inc., an organization representing local Native American groups, are among the other organizations joining the Center in the lawsuit. While the FAA and its acting administrator, Billy Nolen, are listed as defendants, SpaceX is not named.


First Launch Outcome

The April 20 launch resulted in “a fiery explosion of the rocket just after liftoff”, which the suit noted. The rocket’s flight termination system (AFTS) destroyed the rocket when the vehicle was at an altitude of over 30 kilometers above the Gulf of Mexico, east of the launch site. There were no reports of rocket debris falling back to the pad.

The launch also caused damage to the launch site itself, “spewing chunks of concrete and metal, as well as ash and sand, over a large area”, according to the complaint, including nearby habitats used by protected migratory bird species.

Starship's 33 Raptor Engines plume as seen from the launch and Catch Tower. Credits: SpaceX
Starship’s 33 Raptor Engines plume as seen from the launch and Catch Tower. Credits: SpaceX

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported on April 26 that its assessment of the damage from the launch found debris scattered over 385 acres of SpaceX property as well as the neighboring Boca Chica State Park. The plume from the launch deposited sand-like material more than 10 kilometers to the northwest.

There was also evidence of a 3.5-acre wildfire caused by the launch in the vicinity of the pad. However, the agency did not find any evidence of birds or other wildlife killed by the launch.

A photo included in an American Bird Conservancy statement about the lawsuit showed a nest of eggs that appeared to have been burned, but the organization did not state when the photo was taken or what species of bird the eggs belonged to.


Was It Expected?

In an audio chat on Twitter Spaces on April 29, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said the debris and plume were unanticipated based on the results of previous tests that showed only modest erosion of the concrete pad.

Booster 7 as seen from the Launch and Catch Tower during the 31 Engine Static Fire. Credits: SpaceX
Booster 7 as seen from the Launch and Catch Tower during the 31 Engine Static Fire. Credits: SpaceX

He noted that the debris was “basically sand and rocks”, although particulate material can cause respiratory problems. Musk said that SpaceX was taking measures to prevent similar launch pad damage and debris on future launches, such as installing a water deluge system. For more about that see our previous article.

He also said that the company could be ready to fly again within a couple of moths, although the FAA will need to sign off on those plans.


Edoardo Giammarino

Edoardo Giammarino

Computer Science Student, drummer and long-time Space Enthusiast. Italian Red Cross Volunteer, born in 1997. I also like analog photography and videomaking. Firmly music-addicted.

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