A lawsuit filed in the wake of SpaceX’s test launch of the Starship/Super Heavy stack alleges that the FAA hastily approved it without properly considering potential environmental impact. The plaintiffs allege that debris landed in a nearby state park, causing damage.
The lawsuit does not name SpaceX as a defendant. It sites the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires regulators to consider the environmental impact of the activities that they are authorized to regulate. However, the lawsuit’s focus on the FAA does not rule out the possibility that SpaceX employees and perhaps Elon Musk himself will testify during court hearings for the case.
The plaintiffs include local environmentalists and a Texan Native American tribe called the Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation. Local Native Americans had previously complained of being unable to access the local beach due to closures caused by activity at SpaceX’s test facility. The Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation says the Boca Chica area is one of their sacred sites.
The FAA had held hearings on the environmental impact of the launch. Opponents of SpaceX activity in the area said the regional ecology had been impacted. Some local birds’ nesting sites had especially been disrupted by activity and expansions of the facility.
Supporters cited SpaceX’s ability to bring skilled jobs to the area and the Starship’s potential importance to the future of space travel. While they acknowledged the environmental groups’ concerns, they mentioned that it may be a matter of weighing one cause against another.
“I will always be on their side. I think that their endeavors are absolutely necessary and vital to humanity as a species,” said SpaceX supporter Brandon McHugh during the hearings.
The FAA had also repeatedly delayed its decision on SpaceX’s proposed orbital test. SpaceX originally planned to conduct the orbital test during the summer of 2021. However, the FAA seemed to be in no hurry to approve it. The fact that it received more than 19,000 comments during the open comment period on a proposed environmental review draft showed that people do care, but slowed it down as FAA staffers likely read all the comments. The environmental review itself was apparently complex enough to cause delays — possibly reasonable given the National Environmental Policy Act requirements, considering it’s a big rocket that can scatter debris far and wide if it explodes.
The FAA permits SpaceX to launch up to twenty rockets a year at the Boca Chica test facility, which it calls Starbase. Several rockets have been destroyed during testing at the site, including four Starship prototypes in a row during high-altitude testing. The Rapid Unscheduled Disassemblies (RUD) often scatter debris, sometimes sending it miles offsite.
SpaceX has asked locals to return debris from the Starship/Super Heavy stack that it planned to use for an orbital test. The stack suffered a failure just two minutes into the launch, reportedly scattering debris far and wide and causing damage to some nearby reporters’ equipment.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says the company learned a lot from the two-minute-long test and could pursue a turnaround for the next test in as little as a month.
However, the FAA seems to disagree. It decided to temporarily block future Starship-related launch tests while it conducts a mishap investigation.