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SpaceX joins the FAA to fight environmental lawsuit over Starship

An aerial view of a Starship prototype stacked on a Super Heavy booster at the company’s Starbase facility outside Brownsville, Texas.


Elon Musk’s SpaceX is set to join the Federal Aviation Administration as a defendant to face a lawsuit brought by environmental groups in the wake of the company’s first test flight on Starship, the world’s largest rocket, which ended in a mid-flight explosion last month.

In a motion filed Friday in court, SpaceX asked federal judge Carl Nichols to allow the company to join the Federal Aviation Administration as a defendant against nonprofit environmental and cultural heritage groups that sued the aviation regulator earlier this month.

The plaintiffs are “not opposed” to the company’s involvement, according to the filings. “It is a standard applicant to be expected to intervene in a case where his or her statement is contested,” said Jared Margolis, CBD senior attorney and chief counsel for the plaintiffs.

The groups suing the FAA have alleged that the agency should have conducted a more in-depth environmental study on the potential impacts of SpaceX activity before allowing the company to launch the world’s largest rocket, the Starship, from its Starbase facility, a spaceport on the Gulf Coast. near Brownsville, Texas.

The groups also claimed that the “mitigation measures” the agency is requesting of SpaceX have not been sufficient to avoid “significant negative impacts” for endangered species, their habitats and tribes in the area that count sacred land and wildlife.

SpaceX’s filing on Friday outlines potential consequences for the company if environmentalists win the lawsuit, noting the implications for their business and finances — as well as saying there would be harm to the “core national interest” and potential scientific benefits of the Starship.

“If the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs, the FAA’s decision could be overturned, and the issuance of further licenses for the Starship/Super Heavy program could be significantly delayed, causing injury to SpaceX’s business,” the company wrote.

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The lawsuit seeks the FAA to make an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) — a lengthy and sweeping action that will likely sideline SpaceX’s Starship operation in Texas for years.

SpaceX too He wrote in the motion that “the FAA does not adequately represent SpaceX’s interests” in the lawsuit, given that it is a government agency. He noted that the FAA “has a direct and material economic interest in the outcome of this case that the government does not share.”

The FAA said in a statement to CNBC that it “does not comment on ongoing litigation cases.”

At stake for SpaceX

SpaceX’s chief financial officer, Brett Johnson, filed a declaration along with the motion detailing the company’s potential damages if it lost the lawsuit. In his statement, Johnson wrote that “SpaceX has invested more than $3 billion in development” of the Starbase facility and the Starship system since July 2014.

This year alone, the company expects to spend about $2 billion developing Starship, according to comments Musk made after the first fully-stacked launch attempt last month.

Johnson also highlighted the batch of contracts that SpaceX is building for future spacecraft missions. Already, SpaceX has a major NASA contract worth up to $4.2 billion, to use the rocket to land astronauts on the moon. In addition, SpaceX has signed commercial contracts with clients—including three separate missions for wealthy individuals Jared Isaacman, Yusaku Maezawa, and Dennis Tito—for the Starship that Johnson writes is “worth hundreds of millions of dollars at this time.”

Starship is also crucial to the future of Starlink’s satellite Internet business, which has more than 1.5 million customers. Johnson noted that “SpaceX has invested billions of dollars in Starlink” so far. Musk has previously highlighted the interdependence between these two companies, with Johnson also stressing that SpaceX needs a Starship in order to launch the second generation, or “V2,” of Starlink satellites.

“Without Starship… not only would SpaceX be hurt financially by not being able to launch v2 satellites, but hundreds of thousands of people… would be waiting until the Starlink constellation was upgraded and could serve them,” Johnson wrote.

Finally, Johnson noted that losing the lawsuit would result in the company “significantly underinvesting” in its Starbase facility, which could harm its interests, as well as local employees and communities.

Fallout from the first launch

Debris fills the launch pad and mitigating tank (rear back) on April 22, 2023, after the SpaceX Starship lifted off on April 20 for a flight test from Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas.

Patrick T Fallon | AFP | Getty Images

Starship’s dramatic and explosive first launch saw the company achieve several milestones for a nearly 400-foot rocket, which flew for more than three minutes. But it also lost multiple engines during launch, caused massive damage to terrestrial infrastructure and ultimately failed to reach space after the rocket began to fall apart and was deliberately destroyed in the air.

SpaceX is working to clear up damage to the launch site, which dug a hole in the ground and smashed debris into the tower, nearby tanks, and other ground equipment. Additionally, the launch created a plume of dust and sand, with particles reported up to six miles from the launch pad.

The test flight also caused a 3.5-acre forest fire.

Phil Metzger, a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida School of Research, studies particle samples. He believes SpaceX “dodged a bullet” with the launch, telling CNBC that the amount of “concrete blowing around” could have destroyed the rocket on the launch pad.

“It could have been a lot worse than it was. I think they made a mistake by taking a risk and firing [concrete] On the surface, try doing it this way once. But it was a 70% success rate. They cleared the tower, tested its first stage, got a lot of good data, found a staging issue, and hopefully they’ll be able to fix that and get a better result on the next test,” Metzger said.

Metzger did not assess the environmental impacts of the launch pad debris, and rocket blasts, on the endangered species that live in and migrate through the area. Texas Regional Fish and Wildlife Service Office, and other independent researchers, are among those studying the environmental effects of the spacecraft’s test flight and explosion.

The SpaceX move has also provided the reason why Starship is ultimately useful to scientific endeavors. The rocket’s unprecedented capabilities, the company writes, “will allow scientists to focus on previously impossible science tasks and pursue the fastest, easiest way to move their missions from concept to execution.”

“For example, with its large capacity, Starship can economically place large telescopes and heavy science experiments in orbit, and cargo, people and even colonies on other moons and planets,” SpaceX wrote.

Read the company’s filing to establish itself as a defendant along with the FAA:



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