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 environmental and cultural heritage nonprofit groups that sued the aviation regulator earlier this month.
The plaintiffs “do not oppose” the company’s involvement in the filings. “It’s a standard applicant to be expected to intervene in a case where his or her statement is contested,” said Jared Margolis, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity 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 asking SpaceX have not been enough to avoid “significant negative impacts” for endangered species, their habitats and tribes in the region whose land and wildlife are sacred.
SpaceX’s filing on Friday lays out the 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 “great national interest” and potential scientific benefits of the Starship.
“If the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs, the FAA’s decision could be set aside, and the issuance of further licenses for the Starship/Super Heavy program could be significantly delayed, causing severe harm 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.
The company 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. She 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 the 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 CEO 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.
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 contracts for 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 critical 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 flying 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 cause the company to “significantly reduce” investment 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 damaged tanks (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. The launch also created a plume of dust and sand, with particles reported as far as six miles from the launch pad.
The test flight also ignited a 3.5-acre fire on state park land.
Phil Metzger, a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida School of Research, studies particle samples. He believes SpaceX dodged a bullet at launch, telling CNBC that the amount of “concrete flying” could destroy 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 removed the tower, tested the 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. The Texas regional office of the US Fish and Wildlife Service and 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 company wrote that the missile’s unprecedented capabilities “will allow scientists to focus on previously impossible science tasks and pursue the fastest, easiest way to move their missions from idea to execution.”
“For example, with its large capacity, the Starship can put large telescopes and heavy science experiments into orbit, and carry 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:
Correction: The spacecraft’s test flight caused a 3.5-acre fire on state park land. An earlier version misclassified Earth.
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