A coalition of environmental groups is suing the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), claiming the agency didn't fully analyze the environmental damage that SpaceX's huge Starship vehicle could cause to sensitive lands.
The FAA cleared SpaceX to conduct 20 launches of Starship each year for the next five years, notes the lawsuit, which was filed today (May 1) in federal district court in Washington, D.C.
The first of those permitted launches occurred on April 20 from Starbase, SpaceX's site on South Texas' Gulf Coast near Boca Chica Beach. The 394-foot-tall (120 meters) Starship — the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built — performed well on the test flight initially and managed to reach a maximum altitude of 24 miles (39 kilometers). But the giant spacecraft suffered several issues that forced SpaceX to command the vehicle's destruction high over the Gulf of Mexico.
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The explosive test mission sent particulate matter raining down on the surrounding area, notes the lawsuit, which was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, the American Bird Conservancy, the Surfrider Foundation, Save RGV and the Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation of Texas.
That's less than ideal, given the environmental importance of the area, the organizations stress.
"SpaceX's Boca Chica launch site is surrounded by state parks, National Wildlife Refuge lands and important habitat for imperiled wildlife, including piping plovers, northern aplomado falcons, Gulf Coast jaguarundi, ocelots and critically endangered sea turtles," the Center for Biological Diversity wrote in a statement today.
"Rocket launches and explosions cause significant harm through increased vehicle traffic and the intense heat, noise, and light pollution from construction and launch activities," the Arizona-based nonprofit added. "Rocket explosions spread debris across surrounding habitat and have caused brush fires."
The FAA is investigating the launch mishap with SpaceX.
Video: Every SpaceX Starship explosion and what we learned from them
SpaceX's work at Starbase also affects people in the area, according to the lawsuit. For example, Boca Chica Beach is public, but the FAA permit allows SpaceX to close access to it for up to 800 hours per year.
Such closures are a hardship for the native Carrizo/Comecrudo people, affecting their ability to hold ceremonies in the area, the lawsuit states.
"The Carrizo/Comecrudo people's sacred lands are once again being threatened by imperialist policies that treat our cultural heritage as less valuable than corporate interests," Juan Mancias, tribal chair of the Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation of Texas, Inc., said in the same statement.
"Boca Chica is central to our creation story," Mancias added. "But we have been cut off from the land our ancestors lived on for thousands of years due to SpaceX, which is using our ancestral lands as a sacrifice zone for its rockets."
The lawsuit, which you can read here, calls on the FAA to conduct a full environmental review of SpaceX's Starship activities in South Texas. (The agency previously required SpaceX to perform more than 75 "mitigating" actions but did not mandate a more stringent environmental impact statement.)
"It's vital that we protect life on Earth even as we look to the stars in this modern era of spaceflight," Jared Margolis, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in the same statement. "Federal officials should defend vulnerable wildlife and frontline communities, not give a pass to corporate interests that want to use treasured coastal landscapes as a dumping ground for space waste."
The stainless-steel Starship consists of a first-stage booster called Super Heavy and a 165-foot-tall (50 meters) upper-stage spacecraft known as Starship. Both elements are designed to be fully and rapidly reusable, a breakthrough that SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk thinks will make Mars colonization — his long-held dream — economically feasible.
Both Starship and Super Heavy are powered by SpaceX's next-gen Raptor engine, 33 for the booster and six for the upper-stage spacecraft. Super Heavy can produce 16.7 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, according to the company — nearly twice as much as NASA's Space Launch System megarocket, the most powerful rocket ever to fly a successful space mission.
The April 20 test flight caused considerable damage to Starbase's orbital launch mount. But the site should be repaired and ready to support another Starship launch in one to two months, Musk has said.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.
I don't understand why they waited so long. Maybe they can tell us?
Secondly, I am personally tired of hearing about people's creation stories and how everything sacred. Sorry, but according to natives, literally everything is scared.
Again, personally, yes, I do consider the advancement of humanity more important than where your ancient ancestors danced around claiming they were speaking with spirits or something.
My ancient ancestors danced around early England, but I could care less about it because it's ancient history and has no bearing on anything now.
What people did in the remote past should not be affecting any progress we are making today.
If these parks and ancestral lands were so important, why did they wait for a $billion to be spent before they spoke up? Personally, I think it has more to do with colour than it does the environment, and I think that colour is green and has pictures of some American ancestors on it.
First they were promised that the environment will be taken into consideration beforehand and that harm to the environment would be minimalized.
Second it cannot be expected by environmentalists to know what ecactly would have happened they dont have in depth knowledge of how the risks would be actively mitigated.
Finally it is beyond absurd to try and pass the blame to the very people trying to conserve the environment !
That said, I also see a lot more of "not in my backyard" than real environmental concerns being raised against many projects. If we really want to conserve an area, we need to keep the public out of it, too. Mostly, the public resistance seems to be against the loss of what local people see as a quiet natural recreational space that they want to use. They enlist the "groups" that champion the "causes" that will help them fight the projects. But, they don't necessarily live by the academic desires of those groups.
Finally, I want to say that I think SpaceX would have been better-off waiting for a more robust launch pad, not just publicity-wise, but technologically, as well. In particular, if the pad debris was responsible for the vehicle equipment failures, it blocked SpaceX from getting data on a lot more phases of the test flight - particularly the stage separation, Starship heat shield re-entry behavior, Super Heavy post-separation maneuvers, and Starship re-entry manuevers.
So, I am wondering if SpaceX is feeling pressure to make Starship available for the Artemis luner lander mission, and taking unwise risks to gain some basic data as early as possible. And I am concerned that political/bureaucratic interference is having a negative effect on the logical progression of the technological efforts.
The media seems to be hyping the negative effects in a somewhat disengenous manner. Was there any indication that the "potentiallly hazardous particulates" that blew to the town was anything more than dust kicked up by the rocket exhaust? Why was it reported that the fire started was in a nature preserve, without indicating that was part of the safety zone? Why was it not mentioned in most articles that a search for carcasses of killed animals found none? Why was the car left near the pad (with remotely controlled camera equipment) usually depicted as "damage to a photographer's car" without mention that it was set up in an area where damage was not unexpected (although not expected to include impact by a chunk of concrete from the launch pad)?
Mind you, the same goes for North America opening mines to fuel the green agenda; not going to happen!
Tell me you have signed up for Musk's one way Mars mission then I will have a better understanding of were your heads at....About 7 months to Mars ...The reality of space travel is not Star Trek
Rubbish ..your view is we should be allowed to crap all over what we have for a fantasy face it we are not going to the stars any time soon ..you will die on this planet