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Protecting Earth While Looking to the Stars: Environmental Groups Versus the FAA

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration is being taken to federal court by environmental groups suing over SpaceX’s April 20, 2023 launch and explosion of its Starship heavy-lift launch vehicle, the "most powerful rocket ever built. This lawsuit, filed in Washington D.C, alleges that authorisation was given by the FAA ``without complying with bedrock federal environmental law, without fully analysing the significant environmental and community impacts of the SpaceX launch program.” The different environmental groups instigating the legal change include the American Bird Conservancy and the Center for Biological Diversity. SpaceX is not a listed defendant in this lawsuit. Before delving into the allegations and legal matters, the events of the launch are of primary concern to environmental groups and thus essential in understanding this current environmental case.

On April 20th 2023, SpaceX launched the nearly 400 foot rocket from its Starbase launch facility located in Boca Chica, Texas. The launch has been met with immense excitement in the space community but has left environmentalists critical. Upon take-off, the force of the rocket blew apart the concrete base of its launchpad. The thirty-rocket engine force firing at full power carved a deep crater into the ground while launching. This generated a plume of concrete dust drifting “as far as 6.5 miles (10.5km) to the north-west, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.” Agency spokesperson Aubry Buzel commented that “pulverised material fell over tidal flats in the area and on Port Isabel, a town near the state’s far south-eastern tip.” The force’s impact on the concrete base is the ground-level environmental concern.

A few minutes into the flight, the rocket exploded after the first stage booster did not successfully separate from the upper stage of the spacecraft. This led to the rocket tumbling and then eventually exploding. The rocket plummeted into the Gulf of Mexico, falling short of SpaceX’s plan to have the rocket orbit the globe before crashing into the Pacific near Hawaii. The explosion nonetheless presents a valuable source of data for further development of the spacecraft and has rallied excitement amongst the space community and fans of the company. Simultaneously, damages to the surrounding environment have unraveled from a launch the FAA declared would pose little threat to the natural world.

The FAA issued a finding, prior to the launch, declaring the launch would have “no significant impact on its surrounding environment.” The agency did not continue with in-depth environmental assessments. Center for Biological Diversity senior attorney Jared Margolis told CNN that “the SpaceX explosion proves the groups’ legal argument that the FAA erred in its decision-making.” The legal argument, as stated by Margolis, exemplifies that SpaceX needed to use more water to cool down the launch pad. This is a recommendation the FAA could have issued if it had conducted a more in-depth analysis, eliminating odds of the forceful explosion that impacted the surrounding area. Environmental groups, including attorney Jared Margolis, are suing the FAA with a goal to make the agency go back and conduct a more in-depth and thorough environmental analysis of the impacts of the launch.

The lawsuit argues that the surrounding area of Starbase “is essential habitat to federally protected species, including the endangered ocelot.” The Center for Biological Diversity emphasises that the area is "one of the most biologically diverse regions in North America '' and includes a number of birds and the most critically endangered sea turtle in the world.

Margolis states that “concrete chunks and metal shrapnel flung thousands of feet from the launchpad would likely have landed in critical habitat for the piping plover, a shorebird on the endangered species list.” The legal argument alleges this to be an important finding, rendering the FAA’s analysis inadequate.

Furthermore, the lawsuit says ​​“The FAA failed to take a hard look at the environmental impacts of the SpaceX launch program, including increased light, heat, and environmental pollution, as well as risk of wildfires, damage to critical habitat, and the launch program's contribution to climate change.”

Since the explosion, as detailed in a statement by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the service has been working with SpaceX, the FAA and others involved to “provide on-the-ground guidance to minimise further impacts and reduce long-term damages to natural resources.” The FAA conducted a review and the agency found impacts to be a 3.5 acre fire south of the pad site on Boca Chica State Park land, 385 acres of debris on SpaceX’s facility and at Boca Chica State Park, and a “strange dust” settled over Port Isabel which was reported by the community following the launch and explosion. “At this time, no dead birds or wildlife have been found on refuge-owned or managed lands,” the agency said.

Space X has responded to the incident. Elon Musk commented that to his knowledge there has not been “meaningful” damage to the environment. He also stated, he is “glad to report that the pad damage is actually quite small.”

Musk further adds, “Look at an aerial picture of the area and — apart from the area around the launch stand — tell me where things are damaged. … I think you can’t even see it at this point.”

SpaceX is hoping to plan another test flight in six to eight weeks. Musk’s SpaceX has commented they will install a water-cooling system and steel foundation for the next test flight. The suit against the FAA may slow the process of Starship's future test flights.

This lawsuit reflects the larger contemporary issue of the role of corporations in climate damages. “It’s vital that we protect life on Earth even as we look to the stars in this modern era of spaceflight,” Jared Margolis said in a statement. The lawsuit also raises objectives to the potential that the FAA allowed SpaceX to bypass essential environmental reviews due to political and financial influence. If successful, this suit could prove critical in delivering climate justice by holding the government accountable for not upholding its standards concerning the obligations of corporations to not damage the environment.


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