SpaceX, FAA Seek to Dismiss Lawsuit Filed by Boca Chica Area Environmentalist Groups

SpaceX and FAA have filed motions to dismiss a lawsuit filed by environmentalist groups in the wake of the loss of a Starship prototype during an attempted orbital test on April 20, 2023. The test ended in a rapid unscheduled disassembly triggered by a self-destruct command a few minutes into the flight.

The test was aborted because the upper stage of the spacecraft failed to separate from the first stage properly. Debris that included chunks of concrete from the launchpad and shards of metal from the launchpad and rocket scattered and came down in the surrounding area.

The environmentalist groups allege that it caused a fire in a nearby park. They also allege that the FAA was too hasty in approving the test launch despite environmental concerns.

In its filing, the FAA claims that the lawsuit “lack legal standing for their claims.” SpaceX’s filing says the abortive Starship launch should not trigger additional environmental reviews from the FAA, which could set back future testing by years.

SpaceX’s concerns may not be completely unwarranted, considering it could have attempted the first orbital test for Starship as early as Summer 2021. The FAA’s bureaucratic red tape, which included environmental reviews and the need to go through thousands of comments submitted during the required public commenting period, caused repeated delays.

Predictably, Elon Musk has expressed frustration with the FAA in the past — often due to having to deal with required investigations into past Starship prototypes having gone through equally dramatic rapid unscheduled disassemblies during high-altitude testing. (It finally managed to nail the landing during a high-altitude test with a prototype called SN15, though.)

Also, an FAA inspector getting stuck in traffic can apparently force a postponement of a test launch:

Since the loss of the prototype used for Starship’s first orbital test, SpaceX has been working on reinforcements to the launchpad and making changes to the Starship rocket. Elon Musk says one of the changes is a new method for separating the two stages during launch.

Musk also anticipates a quick turnaround for a second orbital test if the FAA doesn’t get in the way. The lawsuit could force the FAA to become even more cautious than it had been before the abortive test.

Environmentalists and Boca Chica area residents had often complained about SpaceX’s activities at its test range. Past complaints include allegations of excessive beach closures, illegal road closures, and test-related activities’ impacts on local wildlife.

The U.S. House of Representatives has also looked into SpaceX’s alleged regulatory violations, though it could be seen as more political grandstanding. Even the FAA administrator once defended SpaceX during a Congressional committee hearing, as seen in the below video.

Elon Musk has also made appearances before Congressional committees. This includes the below appearance during a Defense Subcommittee hearing on National Security Space Launch Programs.

The FAA took nearly two years to approve SpaceX’s application for permission to conduct the first orbital test for Starship. It had time to do a thorough environmental review, which likely explains its request to dismiss the environmentalists claims as lacking legal standing.