Towering and stainless-steel shiny, it looks like a surreal sculpture amid the cactuses, yucca and relentless South Texas sun. And, because it’s being built not in a factory but out in the open, it’s become a roadside attraction, drawing gawkers to an area so remote that the county trucks in drinking water once a month to the few who live nearby.
They’re coming to see Elon Musk’s latest creation, a prototype called Starship that he hopes will one day carry people by the dozens to the moon and Mars. Musk, in a presentation here Saturday, said his goal of building a “rapidly reusable spacecraft” here would lead to the fulfillment of his ultimate goal of creating “a city on Mars.”
But first, he’ll need to pull off another improbable feat, building a private, commercial spaceport here, in what the top local elected official called a “mind-boggling” juxtaposition: SpaceX, one of the hottest companies in the world, led by a Silicon Valley celebrity with nearly 29 million Twitter followers, building a rocket in a border town where nearly a third of the residents live below the poverty line.
“I never in a million years would have imagined it,” said Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr.
Five years ago, SpaceX started building a launchpad here, hauling in dirt by the ton, that would allow the company a measure of freedom without the restraints that come with shooting rockets off from government sites, such as Cape Canaveral or Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, where several other companies operate.
“This is really going to be a new kind of spaceport that is optimized for commercial operations,” Musk said during a groundbreaking ceremony in 2014. “Cape Canaveral and Cape Vandenberg are great launch sites, but they are military launch sites.”
The company has been welcomed by local officials as a Walt Disney-like messiah that would help spark an economic revival in an area that desperately needs it. The state set aside $15.3 million to help the company build its facilities here and has bought into SpaceX’s vision to transform the area into a commercial spaceport that would be sending people throughout the solar system.
“You know the term ‘visionary’; they’re the ones who make the world go 'round,” Treviño said.
Outside the county courthouse, the downtown here is replete with boarded-up businesses. Real estate prices are depressed. Schools are surrounded by security fences. For years, the area has been caught in an unending “vicious cycle,” Treviño said, so bad that people who “are fortunate to get a college education or a postgraduate degree don’t come back.”
While he knows SpaceX’s presence has led to “growing pains,” he said those are merely the turbulent spasms of progress in an area that has seen very little.
But now, across the water on South Padre Island, the county has spent about $31 million building new pavilions and an amphitheater that would host concerts and weddings and make a prime viewing area for rocket launches. Local officials hope for a future where residents and tourists line the beach, the way they have for years along Florida’s Space Coast, cheering rockets as they tear through the sky.
“It’s exciting,” said Sofia Benavides, a county commissioner who represents Boca Chica. “I’m 69 years old and have never been to a rocket launch. For my children and grandchildren, it’s great that this is happening in their backyard.”
Not everyone is cheering, though.
A handful of residents who live next door to SpaceX’s facilities recently received letters from SpaceX, which said the company’s footprint in the area was going to be bigger and more disruptive than originally imagined. As a result, it was seeking to purchase their properties at three times the value determined by an appraiser hired by SpaceX. The deal was nonnegotiable, the letter said, and the company wanted an answer within two weeks, although some have received extensions.
Called Boca Chica Village, the area is made up of about 30 homes within walking distance of the Gulf of Mexico, occupied mostly seasonally. Many are boarded up. A few have weeds as high as the mailboxes.
The few full-time residents moved here seeking an end-of-the-road refuge. It’s nothing fancy — an outpost with little more than surf and sun and spotty cell reception, where fishermen drive their trucks up on the beach. There’s no running water, so the county brings in giant water tanks for residents once a month.
Ray Pointer discovered the area by accident in 2002. He was trying to make his way to South Padre Island, the resort town just to the north but, instead, made a wrong turn, ended up in Boca Chica and decided he had found an oasis where he would plant his flag.
His neighbor Bonnie Heaton moved to Boca Chica 18 years ago from Minnesota with her husband after they retired. It was a place so desolate and tranquil she recalled the UPS delivery man once saying, “I didn’t know anyone lived out here.”
“We came across this place and never left,” she said.
The letter from SpaceX, then, came as a shock, one that she said felt like “a hostile takeover.”
“The thought of a company that’s going to shoot a rocket to the moon or Mars, that’s exciting, that’s history,” she said. “But when you get to the other side of the coin, and you lose your house, it’s terrifying.”
Ray Pointer and his wife, Maria, feel the same way. They were offered $233,000 for their home, Ray Pointer, 72, said, a figure he believes is outlandishly low. (Zillow estimates the value of their home at $103,655.)
“To tell me to leave and not really compensate me is unconscionable,” he said. “It’s not fair. It’s not the right thing to do. SpaceX is better than that.”
While many of their neighbors, who don’t live in Boca Chica year round, have taken the offer, they continue to try to negotiate.
To Treviño and other local officials, moving a few residents is a small price to pay to make way for SpaceX and its starry ambitions.
“We have to think big-picture,” Treviño said. “And the fact that an individual with the vision like Elon Musk is investing his time, his money and his efforts to build his dream of launching to the moon and Mars here — it’s important that we be a part of that.”
SpaceX chose the area because of its location and comparative desolation — you want to launch rockets near the equator and over unpopulated areas. On Saturday night, Musk was here himself, to show off the rocket his team had been working to complete and to discuss his vision of the future. As for the rocket ranch he is building, he said it would continue to grow with more buildings and increased activity that forced the company to buy out residents’ property.
Initially, SpaceX had intended to launch its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets from here. But as the concept for Starship began to form in his imagination, he decided to switch gears and make Boca Chica home to the new, massive rocket he hopes will take people deep into the solar system.
“I think there will be a lot more buildings and a lot more stuff — way more stuff than is currently here,” he said. A sense of urgency to get Starship built led the company to do it in the ramshackle way it has — outside, without a factory in sight, in a barren setting fit for Star Wars that, as he wrote on Twitter earlier this month, could be labeled “Droid Junkyard, Tatooine.”
“Since it was going to take too long to build the buildings we built [Starship] outside,” he said. “My new thing is management by rhyming: If the schedule is long, it’s wrong; if it’s tight, it’s right.”
Most of the presentation focused on technical details, the benefits of stainless steel vs. carbon composites (“I’m in love with steel,” he said at one point), orbital mechanics, reentry vectors (“It’ll look totally nuts to see this thing land.”), the importance of orbital refueling and a future where humanity is “out among the stars.”
“The critical breakthrough that’s needed for us to become a spacefaring civilization is to make space travel like air travel,” Musk said. The first flight of the test vehicle — which looks as if it were born from a collaboration between Wernher von Braun, the designer of the Saturn V Apollo-era rocket, and Frank Gehry, the modernist architect — would come within a couple of months, he said, a short, suborbital hop to about 12 miles high.
Saturday’s presentation was the latest in a series of grand space talks that Musk’s fans have lauded as visionary and critics have derided as fantasy. But for all the hype SpaceX has received, and for the myriad times Musk has talked about making humanity a “multi-planet species,” it still has not flown a single human being anywhere, let alone the moon or to Mars.
All the talk, then, of futuristic spaceships and deep space exploration rubbed NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine the wrong way. SpaceX is preparing to fly NASA astronauts to the International Space Station under a contract worth $2.6 billion. SpaceX, like Boeing, the other company hired to fly astronauts to the station, is years behind schedule. And in April, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, designed to carry the crews, exploded during a test of its emergency abort engines.
In a tweet Friday, Bridenstine took the bold and unusual step of firing a shot at the company, saying that while he was looking forward to SpaceX’s announcement, the agency “expects to see the same level of enthusiasm focused on the investments of the American taxpayer. It’s time to deliver.”
In response Saturday, Musk said that the company’s “resources are overwhelmingly on Falcon and Dragon,” the rocket and spacecraft that would be used to fly NASA astronauts. And company officials stressed that flying NASA’s astronauts is SpaceX’s top priority.
But Musk’s focus is clearly on the next-generation spacecraft he has been envisioning for years, one that has gone through multiple iterations and is still evolving, a stubborn problem not fully solved.
Meantime, Bonnie Heaton wonders where she’ll go next and whether she’ll ever be able to afford another place so close to the water, where during the evening, the “sun melts into the ocean,” she said.
There is one thing she knows for sure, though: “I don’t want to go to Mars. Let him do that.”