SpaceX desires to hitch the FAA to battle environmental lawsuits over Starship

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


Elon Musk’s SpaceX will join the Federal Aviation Administration as a co-defendant to fight a lawsuit brought by environmental groups after the company’s first test flight on Starship, the world’s largest rocket, which ended in mid-flight in an explosion last month .

In a motion filed in court on Friday, SpaceX requested that federal judge Carl Nichols allow the company to join the FAA as a defendant against nonprofit environmental and heritage groups that sued the Aerospace Administration earlier this month.

According to the documents, the plaintiffs do not oppose the company’s intervention. Jared Margolis, lead counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity and lead counsel for plaintiffs, said it is “standard and expected for the applicant to intervene in a case where their permit is at stake.”

The groups suing the FAA claimed the agency should have conducted a more thorough environmental study of the likely impact of SpaceX’s activities before allowing the company to launch the world’s largest rocket, Starship, from its Starbase facility, a spaceport the Gulf Coast, to start near Brownsville, Texas.

The groups also claimed that the “remedial actions” the agency requested from SpaceX were insufficient to avoid “significant negative impacts” on endangered species, their habitat and the tribes in the area, which the land and wildlife consider sacred deems

SpaceX’s filing on Friday details the potential consequences for the company if the environmentalists win the lawsuit. It cites implications for its business and finances – arguing that doing so would harm Starship’s “substantial national interest” and potential scientific benefits.

“If the court were to rule in favor of the plaintiffs, the FAA’s decision could be overturned and further licensing of the Starship/Super Heavy program could be significantly delayed, seriously damaging SpaceX’s business,” the company wrote.

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The lawsuit seeks to have the FAA prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) — a lengthy and thorough process that would likely sideline SpaceX’s Starship work in Texas for years.

The company too wrote in the filing that “the FAA does not adequately represent SpaceX’s interests in the lawsuit” because it is a government agency. It found that the FAA has “a direct and significant 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.”

At stake for SpaceX

Bret Johnsen, Chief Financial Officer of SpaceX, filed a statement with the filing, detailing the potential harm to the company if the lawsuit were lost. In the statement, Johnsen wrote that since July 2014, “SpaceX has invested more than $3 billion in the development” of the Starbase facility and Starship system.

This year alone, the company expects to spend around $2 billion developing Starship, CEO Musk said after his first full launch attempt last month.

Johnsen also highlighted the pipeline of contracts SpaceX is building for future spacecraft missions.

SpaceX currently has a major NASA contract worth up to $4.2 billion to use the rocket to land astronauts on the moon. In addition, the company has signed commercial customer contracts — including three separate missions for wealthy individuals Jared Isaacman, Yusaku Maezawa, and Dennis Tito — for Starship that Johnsen says are “currently worth hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Starship is also critical to the future of the company’s Starlink satellite internet business, which has over 1.5 million customers. Johnsen noted that “SpaceX has invested billions of dollars in Starlink so far.”

Musk has previously highlighted the interdependence of these two companies, with Johnsen further reiterating that SpaceX requires Starship flights to launch its second-generation, or “V2,” Starlink satellites.

“Without Starship…Not only will SpaceX be financially harmed by its inability to launch v.2 satellites, but hundreds of thousands of people…are waiting for the Starlink constellation to be upgraded and able to operate it,” Johnsen wrote .

Finally, Johnsen pointed out that losing the lawsuit would mean the company would “substantially reduce” investments in its starbase facility, harming its interests as well as local employees and communities.

Fallout from the first launch

Debris litters the launch pad and damaged tanks (rear right) April 22, 2023 after the SpaceX spacecraft lifted off April 20 for a flight test from the starbase in Boca Chica, Texas.

Patrick T Fallon | AFP | Getty Images

With the dramatic and explosive first Starship launch, the company achieved several milestones for the nearly 400-foot rocket that flew for more than three minutes. However, it also lost several engines during launch, caused severe damage to ground infrastructure, and ultimately failed to reach space after the rocket began to tumble and was intentionally destroyed in mid-air.

SpaceX is in the process of cleaning up damage to the launch site that has dug a crater in the ground and hurled debris into the tower, nearby tanks and other ground equipment. The launch also produced a cloud of dust and sand, with particulate matter reported up to six miles from the launch pad.

The test flight also sparked a 3.5-acre fire on the state park grounds.

Phil Metzger, a planetary scientist in the research faculty at the University of Central Florida, studies the substance of particle samples. He believes “SpaceX dodged the launch of a bullet” and told CNBC the amount of “concrete flying 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 shooting.” [concrete] surface and once tried to do it like this. But it was sort of a 70 percent hit. “They cleared the tower, tested their first stage, gathered a lot of good data, found an issue with the stage and hope they can fix that and get a better result on the next test,” Metzger said.

Metzger did not assess the ecological impact of the launch pad debris and rocket blast on endangered species living in and migrating through the area. The Texas Regional Office of the US Fish and Wildlife Service and independent researchers are investigating the environmental impact of the Starship test flight and explosion, among other things.

SpaceX’s application also made clear why Starship is ultimately beneficial for scientific endeavors. The company wrote that the rocket’s unprecedented capabilities will “allow scientists to focus on previously impossible scientific missions and pursue the fastest and easiest path to take their missions from concept to execution.”

“For example, Starship, with its large capacity, could economically launch large telescopes and heavy scientific experiments, and transport cargo, people, and even colonies to moons and other planets,” SpaceX wrote.

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

Correction: The Starship test flight caused a 3.5-acre fire on the state park grounds. In a previous version, the country was incorrectly categorized.

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