WASHINGTON — Several organizations have filed a new complaint about the environmental impacts of SpaceX Starship launches even as government agencies face criticism for delaying such launches for environmental reviews.

Several environmental groups announced Dec. 15 that they had filed a supplemental legal claim in federal court regarding licensing of Starship launches from SpaceX’s Starbase site near Brownsville, Texas. Those organizations initially filed suit against the Federal Aviation Administration in May, shortly after the first Starship launch April 20.

In the supplemental complaint, the groups — Center for Biological Diversity, American Bird Conservancy, Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation of Texas, Inc., Save RGV and Surfrider Foundation — allege the FAA failed to properly analyze the environmental impacts of the first Starship launch before issuing a revised license for the second launch that took place Nov. 18.

That new licensing process included an environmental review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) regarding a pad deluge system that SpaceX installed on the pad to prevent damage like that the pad suffered during the first launch. The FWS concluded that the deluge system would produce no significant environmental changes.

The environmental groups argue that both FAA and FWS fell short of what was required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to review the environmental impacts of Starship launches. The FAA, it stated in the complaint, “once again failed to take the requisite ‘hard look’ at the impacts of the Starship/Superheavy launch program through a supplemental NEPA analysis.”

FWS, it added, “likewise failed to fully analyze the impacts of the April 20 launch and the potential for further harm to listed species from subsequent launches.” The FWS review, it stated, focused only on the deluge system and not on the environmental effects of the debris from the April launch. The deluge system was intended to prevent the creation of such debris and appeared to be successful, based on the lack of damage to the pad after the second launch.

“Failing to do an in-depth environmental review and letting SpaceX keep launching the world’s largest rockets that repeatedly explode shows a shocking disregard for wildlife and communities,” Jared Margolis, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement about the new complaint. “SpaceX should not be given free rein to use this amazing area as a sacrifice zone.”

NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy said at a Dec. 13 Senate hearing that the agency has talked with environmental regulators about the importance of Starship for its Artemis lunar exploration program. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

While environmental groups condemn the government for not doing enough to protect the environment from Starship launches, others have argued those agencies are doing too much.

The second Starship launch was “after months of delay stemming from bureaucratic red tape from AST, Fish and Wildlife and other agencies injecting themselves into the process,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, at a Dec. 13 hearing by that committee’s space subcommittee. AST is the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

Kelvin Coleman, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, told Cruz the environmental review ahead of the second launch was required “to ensure compliance with NEPA” and related environmental laws. “We conducted that consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service in accordance with U.S. law.”

Cruz argued that the environmental reviews resulted in “asinine delays” even as the United States competes with China and Russia in spaceflight. “I’m not advocating for a wholesale repeal of our environmental laws or NEPA. I’m just arguing for them not to be applied in a dumbass way that slows down commercial space.”

At the same hearing, NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy said the agency has been in discussions with some environmental regulatory agencies to impress upon them the importance of activities like Starship. NASA has awarded SpaceX $4 billion in contracts to develop a lunar lander version of Starship for transporting NASA astronauts to the surface of the moon starting with Artemis 3 later this decade.

“There’s a lot of new stuff that’s happening and there’s some new players who are trying to work within their statutory deadlines but are very unfamiliar with this kind of activity,” she said, emphasizing she was not referring to the FAA “but some of their environmental partners who are learning along the way.”

“I can assure you that NASA works very closely with those regulatory partners and that they have signaled that they are aware of the critical nature of the Artemis program and how important its success is to the nation,” she told Cruz.

The FAA is overseeing a SpaceX-led investigation into the second Starship launch Nov. 18. Both the Super Heavy booster and Starship upper stage were destroyed during the flight, with Super Heavy exploding shortly after stage separation and the flight termination system on Starship triggered near the end of the powered phase of flight. Neither SpaceX nor the FAA have provided technical updates on the status of that investigation, including what caused the destruction of both vehicles.

“We’re moving ahead pretty well” on that investigation, Coleman said in an interview after the Dec. 13 hearing. That investigation is occurring in parallel with the application for a license modification needed for the third Starship test flight.

“I don’t suspect there will be any major surprises” with the investigation, he said. “The investigation is going well as progressing as expected.”

The FAA has not set a timetable for completing that investigation. SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk has publicly stated that the next Starship/Super Heavy vehicle could be ready for launch before the end of the year, but that launch cannot take place until the investigation is completed and a modified launch license issued.

In a Dec. 12 presentation to a local group in Brownsville, Kathy Lueders, former NASA associate administrator for space operations and current general manager of Starbase for SpaceX, said she expected the next Starship launch to occur in early 2024. “It would be great if we were in the first quarter, definitely,” she said, according to a report by myRGV.com. “Elon obviously would probably say the end of December, but I don’t think we’ll get there.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...