Wade into the gently lapping waves late at night
Wade into the gently lapping surf at Boca Chica Beach, a pristine stretch of beach about 20 miles east of Brownsville, Texas, and you’ll see nothing but Gulf seas meeting sky—endless, dark but for the stars and lazy whitecaps.
A contemplative, antique vista that makes you feel little in comparison to the rest of the universe. Everything inverts when you turn around.
Beyond a handful of working-class Latino families gathered on the beach around bonfires and pickup trucks looms something new, bright, and ambitious: SpaceX’s South Texas launch facility, where a 400-foot rocket may one day depart Earth en route to Mars.
A launchpad of towering cranes and scaffolding lit up like a sports stadium rises just 1,500 feet from the water’s edge, amid rolling dunes and acres of tidal mudflats.
A bustling command and production complex may be found two miles down State Highway 4, the only road that leads to this desolate stretch of Texas beach.
Construction workers crowd together on a platform around a massive white tank around 10 p.m. on a June evening,
conversing in Spanish about the job at hand, their acetylene torches sprinkling sparks into the night air.
Tourists flock to take selfies in front of the company’s lit sign that reads “Starbase.”
One man claims to have traveled from Kentucky in the hopes of landing a job with SpaceX. He’s overjoyed.
“The last time humanity settled a new world was 530 years ago,” he explains.
Some in Brownsville consider SpaceX, the California-based company established by Elon Musk, the world’s second-richest man, to be a sort of colonization.
Michelle Serrano, a local activist with the progressive network Voces Unidas, says,
“Brownsville is an area that has been colonized and recolonized and has done so much to help individuals from somewhere else but not the people from here.”
Musk’s company, which is currently worth $74 billion after 19 years in business, is a pioneer in the field of privatized space travel.
Last year, SpaceX became the first private corporation to transport NASA astronauts to the International Space Station from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the traditional launch site for the United States.
Musk is currently warring with fellow space entrepreneur and world’s wealthiest man, Jeff Bezos, over potential NASA contracts.
Musk’s ultimate goal is to establish a human society on Mars, an endeavor that will cost Texas beachgoers and endangered wildlife.
Musk began looking for a new launch site about a decade ago, seeking cheap property near a body of water to collect falling rockets and somewhat close to the equator for aeronautical reasons.
The southernmost tip of Texas seems to suit the bill.
SpaceX began buying land at Boca Chica Beach, which stretches 7 miles from the Rio Grande’s mouth to the ship channel separating it from South Padre Island.
Musk visited with county and state leaders, who tried to entice him to a community with a poverty rate of roughly 30%.
The state provided $15 million in tax breaks, and Cameron County agreed to waive the company’s property taxes for ten years.
In 2013, then-state Representative Rene Oliveira introduced legislation that would allow the county to close the beach during SpaceX launch activities,
something that would otherwise be prohibited under Texas’ 62-year-old Open Beaches Act, one of the nation’s strongest laws protecting public beach access.
Musk appears to have brought the Silicon Valley credo of “move fast and break things” to south Texas, where federal and local officials have largely avoided interfering with his plans.
Musk had rarely touched the site in years. Then, in 2018, the first signs of a space complex appeared.
Test rocket launches began in mid-2019. The explosions soon followed.
Experimental space rockets have exploded at least eight times during testing or landing, releasing flames and metal debris into critical shorebird habitats adjacent to the beach.
The corporation bought out the majority of the residents of a small subdivision near the new industrial plant, some under coercion.
Musk’s outspoken support aided gentrification in Brownsville, where housing costs increased by 20% last year, outperforming most large Texas towns.
Meanwhile, local families who had come to Boca Chica Beach whenever they wanted for years were finding their way increasingly obstructed.
Charlie Guillen, 39, has spent his entire life fishing at Boca Chica, as did his father, grandpa, and great-grandfather.
Anglers can catch redfish, black drum, speckled trout, and whiting while standing in the surf.
Boca Chica has long been the beach for residents, according to Guillen,
because it is free and opens 24 hours a day, but tourists must pay to enter the condo-filled South Padre beach.
Guillen used to visit the beach three or four times a week because he organizes a yearly fishing contest in Boca Chica.
But he’s been going less and less since SpaceX began closing the area every few days for everything from launches to equipment shifting.
“Boca Chica is the beach for the poor,” he explains. “It’s like the fajita: People used to throw it away,
then when they discovered the poor guy was eating something tasty, they took it away and began charging a lot of money for it.”
SpaceX must offer 14 days’ notice and only close the route to Boca Chica for 300 hours per year, according to agreements with federal and state regulators.
However, county advisories and surveillance by the state parks department show that the corporation merely gives a day or two’s notice.
SpaceX shut down the highway for more than 1,000 hours—roughly 42 days—in both 2019 and 2020,
according to the federal Fish and Wildlife Service and an independent environmental group, and is on track to do so again this year.
The corporation also frequently alters plans at the last minute and surpasses deadlines.
Musk appears to have brought the Silicon Valley credo of “Move fast and smash things” to South Texas,
where federal and municipal officials have largely avoided interfering with his plans.
The shoulder of State Highway 4 has been used as a parking lot by SpaceX personnel, resulting in an increase in traffic, potholes, and roadkill on the two-lane road.
A family has filed a lawsuit against the corporation after a fatal vehicle accident.
Musk’s firm also informed federal officials that it would prevent light from reaching the beach, where it could affect sea turtle hatching.
A trip to the beach dispels such an impression. Federal filings also claim that SpaceX avoids launching rockets during turtle and bird breeding season, which is refuted by a look at the officials’ public statistics or Musk’s Twitter feed.
Musk’s entire Texas project has changed since it was cleared by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2014.
At the time, SpaceX stated that the site will be used to launch proven Falcon rockets, such as those used to transport astronauts.
Instead, the business is experimenting with much larger experimental “Starships” meant for Martian travel.
As a result, there have been fires and explosions. Boca Chica appears to Musk to be terra nullius or no man’s land.
In 2018, he remarked of the region, “We’ve got a lot of acreage with nobody around, so if [a rocket] explodes up, it’s cool.”
Mary Helen Flores, a 56-year-old Brownsville resident who helps organize volunteer beach cleanups, drives up to Boca Chica in her white SUV on a Saturday morning in June.
In both directions, parked automobiles stretch to the horizon; moms sit with children in the shallow tide; seagulls and brown pelicans swarm.
“On the entire Gulf Coast, there was no other beach like Boca Chica where you could drive for free, stay as long as you wanted, and it was undeveloped,” Flores explains.
“There’s no way to replace that, so I’m not sure how it was pissed away.” Mars.
Elon Musk wishes to travel to Mars
Elon Musk intends to travel to Mars, which is at least 34 million miles distant and with temperatures around 80 degrees below zero.
He intends to colonize it and establish an autonomous human society once he arrives. Why? If you take his word for it, to save humanity.
Musk has stated, “Either we become a multi-planet species and a spacefaring civilization, or we will be locked on one planet until some eventual extinction catastrophe.”
His only motivation for collecting a $160 billion net wealth, he’s indicated elsewhere, is for this type of astral charity: “I am amassing riches to aid in the multi-planetary of life and the expansion of consciousness to the stars.”
Musk’s claims have some logic to them. We, humans, have made our world more disaster-prone by consuming fossil fuels and spreading nuclear weapons.
In addition, the sun may become too hot for life on Earth in hundreds of millions of years.
Musk believes that we require a fail-safe, a viewpoint that has garnered him both supporters and detractors.
“The proponents of Mars colonization say, ‘Earth has all these challenges in terms of its potential habitability for people,’ which is true,” says Daniel Deudney, a political science professor at John Hopkins University who recently published a book against space colonization.
“However, rather than conserving the rainforests or preventing ocean acidification, their solution is to go to a completely dead, extremely unfriendly space millions of kilometers away and start from scratch.”
Life on Mars is described by Deudney as “hellish”: Humans would seek refuge in fully insulated domes or bunkers to breathe and prevent radiation death.
We’d have to build enclosed, artificial ecosystems, something we haven’t been able to do on Earth.
Musk believes we should “terraform” Mars, or make it more Earth-like, despite NASA’s assertion that this is unachievable shortly.
And, if we ever did manage to create a self-sustaining population—a big if—Deudney says we’d be sorry.
Deudney claims that as space colonies gain independence, the conflict will erupt on the ultimate frontier, just as it occurs on earthly frontiers, only deadlier.
Consider asteroids that have been armed. According to him, “the space environment is innately violent in ways that are entirely alien to a terrestrial existence.”
“We will be cursed by our future generations for starting this.” Better, according to Deudney,
to devote our limited time and resources toward directly addressing challenges at home, the only area in the cosmos where we know complex life can thrive.
Even if Musk’s gigantic reusable rockets are never used for Mars colonization, they have other applications.
Take, for example, luxury tourism. For $55 million apiece, SpaceX wants to fly three passengers to the International Space Station on a rocket launched from Florida.
Richard Branson, another billionaire, was the first to self-fund a trip to suborbital space in July,
and his business has sold seats on such flights for around $250,000.
Brownsville’s median household income is $39,000 per year, as a point of reference.
Then there’s the issue of satellite deployment. SpaceX has deployed over 1,000 satellites into orbit for its nascent internet service, with plans to launch another 40,000.
This swarm of reflective objects, which can be seen with the naked eye, has already corrupted astronomers’ space photos with light trails, similar to what a youngster would draw with a highlighter.
Musk is “wrecking astronomy” with his satellites, according to Nicholas Suntzeff, a Texas A&M professor of observational astronomy.
Suntzeff is particularly concerned about the possibility of using satellites for corporate advertising.
SpaceX wants to launch a satellite into orbit next year for a startup that will display images of a customer’s choosing on the satellite in exchange for cryptocurrency payments.
The images will only be seen via streaming on electronic devices, but Suntzeff believes that advertisements will eventually be visible from the ground.
“When you look up at the sky and see Chick-Fil-A instead of the moon, it’s going to irritate people,” he says.
“All humanity’s legacy is the sky… and a few profit-seeking businesses will take it away from us.”
Last but not least, there’s a long-standing overlap between military and space technologies.
In the previous century, the Nazi Wernher Von Braun developed the V-2 rocket, a long-range ballistic missile that later delivered the first man-made object into space.
The US military currently pays SpaceX to launch spy satellites in the twenty-first century,
and the Air Force is keen on employing the company’s Starship to transfer massive cargoes throughout the world.
Musk isn’t the first person to have a fantasy
Musk isn’t the only one who has fantasized about building Boca Chica Beach.
In the 1800s, a hamlet called Clarksville stood where the sand met the Rio Grande’s mouth,
and in the 1930s, a Missouri Army colonel built a tiny beach resort.
Hurricanes wreaked havoc on both projects. Musk isn’t the only rocket scientist who has visited Boca Chica.
A skydiving exhibitionist named the Human Rocket performed a display in 1933 in which he jumped from a speeding plane and planned to light pyrotechnics with a cigar as he plummeted.
Hundreds of people gathered on the beach to watch the man vanish mid-stunt into the Gulf mist.
According to newspaper sources, he drowned or escaped to Mexico.
A new bridge opened in 1954, making travel to South Padre Island easier, and Padre quickly became a center for waterfront tourism and entertainment.
Boca Chica was left to its own devices to establish its reputation as the poor man’s beach, free and a little wild.
Musk, on the other hand, might be the one to land in Boca Chica. Perhaps SpaceX will miss a direct strike from a major hurricane,
a scenario that Texas’ parks department has warned might result in “catastrophic devastation.”
Rather than dissipate into the ether, Musk may inscribe Boca Chica into the annals of history.
He’s already given the location the name Starbase, and even though most of the surrounding land is controlled by the state or federal government, he claims to have plans to establish a business town.
SpaceX has also hinted at plans for a high-end hotel.
“We want them out of here,” says the narrator. It’s all about the ambition.”
Henry Garcia, a Brownsville, Texas resident
Perhaps one day, Brownsvillians in Boca Chica will be able to stand in the shadow of a massive Mars-bound rocket, bathed in the lights of a high-end hotel,
watching numerous satellites careen overhead like for-profit shooting stars, knowing they were a part of history.
Some residents will work for SpaceX, and a few will be well-paid enough to buy a ticket into dangerous space. Maybe it’ll all be worth it in the end.
On a Friday evening, Henry Garcia, a small 55-year-old, stands in the Boca Chica surf holding his young grandchild.
A saline breeze blows in as the sun sets, removing the final vestiges of the day’s heat.
“This is where you let off steam, guy, forget about it all,” he says. Garcia is joined by six additional members of his family,
spanning three generations, who are cooking chicken and preparing a bonfire nearby.
He’s tired of SpaceX causing havoc in the area. He responds, “We want them out of here.”
“They make it impossible for us to enjoy the beach. It’s all about the ambition.”
When asked about the jobs that the corporation provides, Garcia shrugs and points across the vast Gulf. “This is what I prefer.”