SpaceX’s Flawed Starship Launch Just Got a U.S. Government Agency Sued

SpaceX’s Flawed Starship Launch Just Got a U.S. Government Agency Sued

The Federal Aviation Administration is facing a new lawsuit following SpaceX’s April 20 Starship launch. Conservation groups claim that the FAA rushed its approval of SpaceX’s expanded launch operations in Boca Chica, Texas, without adequate environmental review and without requiring sufficient mitigation efforts from the Elon Musk-owned spaceflight company.

“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,” wrote the plaintiffs in the complaint, filed on Monday in D.C.’s federal district court.

Starship, the largest and most powerful rocket ever to take flight, blasted off 12 days ago. It cleared the launch tower and stayed aloft for about four minutes — meeting SpaceX’s benchmark of success — before spiraling out of control and blowing up in response to a rather dangerously delayed self-destruct command.

The bungled launch seriously damaged SpaceX’s launch pad infrastructure and the FAA responded by temporarily grounding the rocket. Meanwhile, Starship’s maiden voyage left a nearby town covered in dust and debris, reportedly broke at least one shop window, propelled large chunks of concrete and twisted metal thousands of feet away from the launch site, sent pulverised concrete up to 6.5 miles away from the launch pad, and sparked a multi-acre fire in a state park, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s follow-up assessment.

Many of these impacts likely could’ve been prevented had SpaceX bothered to install appropriate suppression systems at its launch pad. At Kennedy Space Centre, for example, NASA has a flame trench and a water deluge system for launching oversized rockets. SpaceX opted to forgo such precautions in favour of speed, according to tweets from Musk. Then, there are the scraps from the explosion of Starship itself over the Gulf of Mexico, which began washing ashore along the region’s many beaches in the hours and days after launch. At least one SpaceX fan picked up what appeared to be a chunk of heat shield tile on South Padre Island Beach.

In an emailed statement, U.S. FWS told Gizmodo it is in communication with SpaceX and coordinating with the FAA. Though the agency noted multiple impacts in its post-launch assessment, “at this time, no dead birds or wildlife have been found on refuge-owned or managed lands.”

SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility is surrounded by sensitive wildlife habitat that’s home to a number of endangered and threatened species like ocelots, piping plovers, and Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles. The site includes and borders fragile wetlands and shore areas which serve as a major stopover for many migratory birds. Previous federal assessment of the site found that SpaceX’s activities pre-Starship launch had already led to a dramatic decrease in shorebird populations and caused other negative impacts on the local ecosystem.

Yet, despite these observed effects, the FAA didn’t require an in-depth Environmental Impact Statement before approving SpaceX’s Starship plans. Instead, the agency granted Musk’s company the go-ahead, as long as SpaceX agreed to meet a list of environmental monitoring requirements — which conservation advocates told Gizmodo at the time “don’t have any teeth.”

Now, the Centre for Biological Diversity, American Bird Conservancy, and three other Texas local non-profit groups have come together to sue the FAA — claiming violations of the National Environmental Policy and Administrative Procedure Acts.

The explosive Starship launch was widely reported on. However, as the legal complain points out, it is far from the only major, fiery event to occur at SpaceX’s Boca Chica site in recent years. In 2022, a SpaceX-caused fire burned 68 acres of an adjacent National Wildlife Refuge. In total, at least eight explosions and fires have happened in the past five years, the suit claims. Then, there’s the everyday potential for environmental disruption from the increased vehicle traffic, sound, light, and pollution.

In order to better understand and prevent future harm, the plaintiffs are aiming to force the FAA to conduct a deeper environmental review, which could hold up further SpaceX launches at Boca Chica for years. Currently, “proposed mitigation by the agency isn’t enough to prevent the launch program from causing significant environmental harm,” the Centre for Biological Diversity said to Gizmodo in an emailed statement. “The suit calls for a full environmental analysis to truly protect threatened and endangered species.”

Gizmodo reached out to SpaceX and the FAA with questions. The federal agency responded only to say, “the FAA does not comment on ongoing litigation matters.” SpaceX did not reply by publication time.

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