Elon Musk's SpaceX vs. the environmentalists

Elon Musk's SpaceX vs. the environmentalists
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SpaceX and its founder, Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskElon Musk promises upgraded toilets, Wi-Fi on next SpaceX flight Elon Musk mocks Biden for ignoring his company's historic space flight Inspiration4 and the quest to cure childhood cancer MORE, face another potential legal challenge to their dream of conquering space. In addition to the lawsuit filed by Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin, a group of environmentalists would like to shut Musk’s business down entirely.

The Blue Origin lawsuit imposes delays in developing SpaceX’s Human Landing System (HLS) because of document storing and sharing problems at the Department of Justice (DOJ). However, the big threat to SpaceX’s operation in Boca Chica, Texas, and the SpaceX Starship’s development comes from the environmental lobby.

SpaceX’s Starbase launch facility is located next to a wildlife preserve, according to the U.K. Guardian. The problem, from the environmentalists’ point of view, is that Musk’s development plan for the Starship involves test vehicles blowing up and raining debris on the preserve. This, according to The Guardian, adversely affects several “vulnerable” species. Frequent road closures and other activities at the site have only added to the environmental cause célèbre.

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While the Starship’s atmospheric hops have been approved by government regulators, SpaceX currently awaits approval for the first orbital launch of the Superheavy/Starship stack. The Superheavy stage will lift a Starship into space, with the first stage splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico and the second landing in the Pacific off Hawaii. The test is crucial for regular operations supporting the Artemis return to the moon program and Musk’s dream of eventually settling Mars. Many environmentalists would like to stop SpaceX from conducting any more launches at Boca Chica to protect the wildlife preserve.

Even if the regulators approve orbital operations at the Boca Chica Starbase, various environmental groups are likely to take the matter to court if past behavior is any indication. The controversy could be tied up in litigation for years, further delaying America’s return to the moon.

The clash between space exploration and the environment is fraught with irony. Strictly speaking, Musk is an environmentalist. His electric car company, Tesla, is an attempt to wean drivers away from vehicles powered by internal combustion.

Environmentalists’ desires to preserve endangered species have stalled infrastructure projects and other human needs for decades.

Soon after the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, the discovery of a fish called the snail darter stopped the construction of a dam in Tennessee. While the Supreme Court at the time ruled in favor of the fish, Congress later exempted the snail darter from protection. The Tennessee Valley Authority completed the dam and then transplanted the snail darter to other waterways and improved conditions for the fish species. AP reports that the snail darter has rebounded and is about to be removed from the endangered species list.

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The snail darter controversy and its resolution provide a model for how SpaceX and the environmentalists can resolve their differences. Congress should step in and exempt the wildlife preserve from environmental protection. In return, SpaceX and NASA can pledge to implement measures that would protect the vulnerable wildlife and repair the preserve when rocket launches damage it. 

SpaceX is already making efforts to move launches of the Superheavy/Starship stack by purchasing offshore oil platforms and converting them to floating launch pads. The offshore launch pads would move operations away from the wildlife preserve, protecting it from any effects of launch operations.

The environmentalists should take this deal if it is offered. For one thing, the Artemis program is a national priority, endorsed by both major political parties. For another thing, the expansion of human activity into space, a long-term goal of Artemis, will involve moving polluting industries such as manufacturing and mining into space. Such a development would seem to satisfy the expressed desires of the environmental lobby to preserve the Earth from the damage that human activity can inflict.

Controversies involving the environment and endangered species need not necessarily create winners and losers. If one exercises a little creative thinking and a willingness to compromise, everyone can win. Humanity’s expansion into space is not at odds with saving the Earth. Each imperative supports the other.

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and, most recently, “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.  He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times and the Washington Post, among other venues.