FAA Sued Over SpaceX Launch


A collection of environmental groups is suing the FAA, claiming the agency failed to protect the environment from SpaceX’s Super Heavy test launch in Boca Chica, Texas, on April 20. The suit, led by the Center for Biological Diversity, alleges the agency didn’t fully assess the effects on the environment in issuing a launch license, which was the first attempt to launch the full system that is eventually intended to take astronauts to Mars. The FAA and Acting Administrator Billy Nolen are named in the suit but SpaceX is not. It demands an immediate halt to launches until environmental impacts can be effectively mitigated.

In the suit’s introduction, the plaintiffs pose the philosophical question of what price the environment should pay for humankind’s pursuit of space exploration. “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 introduction says. It also alleges the FAA ignored “bedrock environmental law” in allowing the launch, which it claims, among other impacts, destroyed “some of the most vital migratory bird habitat in North America.”

The launch of the 390-foot rocket system, which uses 33 engines, blew the launch pad to pieces and created a huge plume of dust and debris before it was intentionally blown up over the Gulf of Mexico when the second stage failed to separate. The airborne particles spread at least 6 miles to nearby Port Isabel and South Padre Island. Between the launch site and the town are home to a variety of protected species. Besides the actual launches, the suit claims damages are caused by the increased traffic and continuous construction at the site.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. I think it’s pretty clear the destruction of the launch pad was *not* part of the test plan and that the media coverage of it has all been a bit hysterical. I’m sure it’ll be rebuilt to a far better design and standard such that the ‘dust and debris’ problem will not be repeated. The dust problem would not have been an issue anyway if the wind had simply been blowing in a different direction and I’m sure the local flora and fauna are very used to desert-originating sand storms dumping vast quantities of muck over everything for miles around – which will all disappear after the first fall of half-decent rain.
    So, whilst I applaud the suit on the basis that it’ll help keep people ‘on their toes’ I can’t imagine it will actually get anywhere in the courts.
    I would also point out that no-one wth any environmental credentials has – to my knowledge – made anything positive of the use of methane rocket fuel in the this test of Starship rather than kerosene. Kerosene is very much a fossil fuel made from crude oil whereas methane *could* be made ‘cleanly’ from, eg, a bio-digestor…

    • Fair points. Tension between regulators and citizens is a good thing; heaven knows the FAA, for one, can use pushback in some areas. Regarding the choice of rocket propellant, this is probably an area where environmental guardians need to get up to speed on the details.

    • Amazing how you are dismissing the exact point they are trying to make. SpaceX had absolutely no idea what they were doing when they set that thing alight, as has been proven by the fact that they have pretty much blown up every one of those things they have ever built. I am no fan of tree hugging vegan idiots, but I am no fan of Musk fan boys who need to get out from under his desk and wipe their mouths either.

      Maybe the ecological impact is the wrong way to approach the issue, but someone should be addressing the massive incompetence with which Elon’s latest pipe dream is being approached before someone gets killed.

      • You underestimate genius, and perhaps overestimate a plodding corporate behemoth.
        You also don’t know the meaning of “pipe dream”.

  2. Russ, you may want to check your sources. The stories I am reading sourced back to individuals with knowledge of the plan is that the rocket did not “fail to separate” as you say. The rocket did not reach the altitude for the planned separation before it lost control.

    • Red is correct – the rocket got nowhere near stage sep conditions, thus it was never attempted.
      The loss of engines and subsequently hydraulics and control meant it fell well short.

      It is interesting to see how quickly launch site repairs are taking place.

  3. “the Center for Biological Diversity.. pose the philosophical question”

    So basically they are suing because of their personally held metaphysical ideas, and no evidence?

    • It sounds better than a straight-forward statement of their complaint: That SpaceX deposited a bit of sand on a beach.

  4. Diversity definitions:

    The state of being diverse; variety

    The range of different things

    The practice or quality of including or involving people from a range of different social and ethnic backgrounds and of different genders, sexual orientations. etc

    I’d say that the “Center for Biological Diversity” seems to fail it’s own charter and purpose. They don’t seem to have “a range of different things”–they are anti-anything but their own agenda–no other uses need apply. By the same definition, they don’t seem to have “a range of different things”–anything outside their own perspective is the basis for legal action. I’ve seen no evidence that they are against anything not on their agenda–anything outside their own interests is the basis for a lawsuit.

    And these “Karens” wonder why companies are going “offshore” to other countries—–

  5. IMHO colonization of other parts of our solar system is crucial to the longevity of our species. SpaceX is the only entity working to get us there. Time to stop throwing up roadblocks. Maybe Musk will get smart and rebuild his launch facilities in Mexico where the environmental groups and the FAA can’t interfere.

    • The “Earth mankind” is unable to colonize other parts of these solar systems. With that “much personal” point of view, I’m not at all worried. Let’s persons like Elon Musk spend his own money in the way that conducts to nothing worth.

  6. Unfortunately it is common for people in the regulatory agencies that are sympathetic to the cause of the environmental groups to NOT defend against the suit. This leads to the government acquiescing, and then the REAL target (SpaceX) gets screwed. That’s probably the reason SpaceX is not named as a defendant. The lunatics are running the asylum.

    • Ah yes, the “friendly lawsuit”. This little loophole is amazing. For some reason, few lawyers seem to respond to this subject with any form of intellectual curiosity. They simply cannot grasp what their brethren are doing, how dangerous it is, and how it needs to be addressed.
      It’s like you have three kids and the youngest sues the oldest for enforcing the family chore schedule so they agree to stop having chores. The middle child acts as judge and approves the settlement. You are not party to the suit, so you have no say, lol.

  7. This suit is against the FAA and not Elon specifically which I find interesting. Now that Elon has fallen out of grace of the Left I expect the attacks to increase against him.

  8. Here’s my question: Has anyone actually tested the “debris” that was scattered far and wide to see what it actually contains? If, as I expect, it is mostly sand and dirt, then there is likely little impact to the environment – nothing compared with the hurricanes that frequent the area. Texas sees occasional weather patterns known as “Blue Northers”, which will often scatter red west Texas dust across most of the state. The day after such events, we here in Houston are greeted with a coating of red dust on cars, sidewalks and driveways. The next time this happens, should I sue Lubbock? After all, if the west Texas farmers weren’t tilling the soil, this wouldn’t happen. Seriously though, there are critical winter nesting grounds for the endangered Sand Hill and Whooping Cranes along the Texas Gulf Coast, but not so close as to be affected by Starship launches. I agree that SpaceX was foolish to rush the launch before they had adequately protected the launch pad. But suing the FAA is little more than a publicity stunt to attract attention to their cause(s).

  9. I always wait for the dust (pun intended) before I pay close intention to the latest “incident”. Instance analysis is rarely accurate.

    In this case I understand that SpaceX had done a full static test on the pad which was constructed of a special concrete mixture. Based on this data and assessment thry took the risk. They use a development process like software DevOps or Agile, which expects failure.

    Glad no people were harmed. Lessons about risk and engineering assesment to be learned, debris to collected and pad to be fixed. Luddites come out from hiding.

    • Well, not exactly. Yes, they did do a static fire test, but did not throttle the engines up to full power, lest the ship might actually try tp take off. Plus the test only lasted a few seconds. On the day of the launch, the engines were powered up to full output and it took almost eight seconds before the rocket actually left the pad. The test fire was intended to check the engines, not how well the pad would hold up.

      • Understood that a full power test was not in scope. Still take the static test data, scale, add safety margins and model the performance at full power. Then compare to the design of the pad. I would be very surprised if something of this order wasn’t done.

  10. The original environmental impact statement, EIS, was based on launches of the Falcon 9 rockets which have been launching successfully for some time now. Only an environmental assessment was conducted to evaluate the impact of this massive rocket. The FAA is responsible for conducting these studies and that is why the lawsuit is against them. No one has ever launched a rocket of this size before. I’m not sure if the FAA should be responsible, or is capable, of conducting a study of the impact of repeated launches of a rocket like this but as we have learned with Boeing, you can’t always count an industry to regulate itself.

  11. Why don’t you guys go watch the Netflix documentary and see how space x started and operates. Go watch how Elon put everything he had and almost lost it all just to start that company. They have achieved the impossible by landing used rockets to make things cheaper. The also sent the first 4 non astronaut s regular people into a 3 day orbit to raise money for cancer and that’s just the beginning. They want to make it so normal people can goto space and also make us a multiplaneltary species.The way space x does things is different then everyone else the launch and fail until the get it right. That’s the way they do things and it’s worked so far.

    • Most of us aren’t bashing Musk or SpaceX and their development methods. But by Musk’s own admission they went for the launch before they had the “stage zero” platform protection systems fully installed. There is such a thing as being too aggressive or in too much of a hurry. He did indicate that one reason for the accelerated launch was that SpaceX had made major changes to the following booster and just wanted to get to this launch off as soon as possible. There is also speculation the Raptor engine has some design issues that may be causing flame instability that need to be resolved. After all, 33 engines poses a lot of conditions never before addressed in real flight. What works for the nine engines in the Falcon may not work for the Super Heavy.

  12. Colonize other planets? Is that a serious endgame? There are a lot of uninhabited spots on THIS planet that look better than Mars or the moon. And “When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters” to quote the ALA, I believe it is.

    Do the believers in this (and how many are there really? are there just a few being propped up to look like many?) not see how depressing the landscape is? It’s so crazy it doesn’t even bear commenting on. Here I am however, on another divisive clickbait issue doing just that.

    • Look better to whom? Who chooses seems to be a common human problem. It’s such a pervasive problem most people don’t even see the examples for being just such problems.

      The sooner we colonize other planets, the sooner we reap the rewards of doing so. The first reward will be the ability of humanity to survive an actual disaster of global proportions (by which I mean something much worse than voters once again choosing a bad President).