Elon Musk, His Rocket, and the Grand Scheme that Tore Apart Boca Chica
SpaceX is dismantling a remote beach community at the southernmost end of Texas, one house at a time. Some residents took its money. Others refuse to leave. Still others are sticking around to see what happens.
“The schemes and dreams of developers to build on this beautiful and desolate area die hard, but die they always have.” —Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine, 1992
“We’ve got a lot of land with nobody around, and so if it blows up, it’s cool.” —Elon Musk, 2018
At the end of September, when tensions were at their peak, the residents of Boca Chica Village received a message from SpaceX. The private space company was publicly unveiling its new spacecraft here, at the southeastern tip of Texas, and they were invited.
The gesture came as a surprise. Earlier that month, homeowners in this tiny community of independent-minded retirees had received another letter from SpaceX, via FedEx. “Expansion of spaceflight activities,” it read, “will make it increasingly more challenging to minimize disruption.” Given the company’s ambitions—massive and, as the residents had come to learn, always shifting—SpaceX wanted to buy their homes. As an incentive, it had offered three times the properties’ assessed values. As an incentive of a different kind, the letter had declared that the offer, which was final, would expire in two weeks. That deadline passed three days before the rocket unveiling. Of the residents who planned to attend, not one had accepted SpaceX’s offer.
The afternoon of the event, Mary, sixty-one, a wiry, practical woman who was arguably the rocket’s biggest fan in Boca Chica, painted her fingernails a sparkling silver and put on star-shaped earrings. Cheryl Stevens, fifty-nine, a former legal secretary with expressive hands and frizzled, graying hair, almost turned down the invitation—she’d been battling SpaceX for years—until she heard her neighbors were going. She borrowed a friend’s elegant teal dress—then, after spotting a neighbor in shorts, changed into something more casual. About a dozen people gathered at the cozy, cluttered home of Terry and Bonnie Heaton, seventy and seventy-one, the community’s longest-tenured residents. Cars were already streaming in from the west, through the Border Patrol checkpoint, past the wildlife preserve and its nesting shorebirds.
At dusk, two SpaceX employees wearing effortful smiles herded the Boca Chicans into a van and drove them to the launch site. It was surreal to see Boca Chica so busy. A few years earlier, it had been a sleepy neighborhood of a few dozen houses on just two streets, the perfect counterpoint to the spring-break madness of South Padre Island, a few miles up the coast. Sometimes during the slow summer season, the Heatons were the only people around. In the winter, the main source of excitement was the weekly game night over at the Averys’ house. Then SpaceX chief Elon Musk took an interest in the area and began building his new rocket prototype here. Now the mile-and-a-half drive to the launch site was lined with SpaceX enthusiasts and Musk hangers-on.
The 164-foot-tall spaceship, named Starship Mk1, loomed above the site, its stainless-steel hull gleaming in the floodlights. Mary asked if she could hug it. Her friend Gene Gore, a sunbaked surfboard builder from South Padre Island who was invited as a local SpaceX supporter, peeked inside the bulkhead and felt as though he’d entered the future. Gene and the other SpaceX fans mingled with company executives and local politicians as the Boca Chicans were ushered over to a private, cordoned-off area. Their minders didn’t let the residents out of their sight.
SpaceX installed a security fence to better manage the curious onlookers. Still, the launch site sat by the side of the road that led to it.
Musk took the stage to detail his big plans: how Starship Mk1 was the first full-scale prototype of what would eventually be the biggest, cheapest spacecraft ever built, the rocket that would make humans a multiplanetary species. “This thing is going to take off, fly to sixty-five thousand feet, about twenty kilometers, and come back and land, in about one or two months,” he assured the crowd. He talked about moon bases, asteroid mining, and how fuel could be produced on Mars. It was an expansive, optimistic vision of the future, and, according to Musk, much of it was centered here, in Boca Chica.
As Musk took questions from the audience, the Boca Chicans were hustled back into the van. They assumed they were heading home, but instead their minders said that a “special guest” wanted to meet with them. Musk, they presumed. They were escorted to a nearby building, where they grazed on platters of fudge and fancy chips and mingled uneasily. Another resident, Maria Pointer, received a text from a reporter she’d grown friendly with over the past several months: “Elon is talking about you guys!”
“We are working with the residents of Boca Chica Village because we think over time it’s going to be quite disruptive,” Musk was telling the crowd. “The actual danger is low to Boca Chica Village, but it’s not tiny. So therefore, we want super-tiny risk. So probably over time it’s better to buy out the villagers.”
In July, the Starhopper prototype completed a “hop,” then ignited a hundred-acre brush fire.
An hour passed, then another. One by one, the Boca Chicans began giving up: Bonnie went home to take her medication; Ellie Garcia just got fed up and left. It was after 11:00 p.m. when Musk finally walked into the room. Here was the man they’d all been talking about for years, sometimes with excitement (Elon retweeted my picture of the rocket!), sometimes with bitterness (Elon thinks he can just have my house?). He wasn’t charismatic, but his power felt palpable in the room. Andy Goetsch, who’d moved to Boca Chica to be close to SpaceX, was giddy. But most of the other residents wanted to vent.
Musk crossed his arms, assumed a stiff, wide stance, and listened as they unloaded their grievances and disputed their appraisals. Their houses weren’t just brick-and-mortar structures—you had to take into account the wildlife, the proximity to the beach, how special Boca Chica was. He did a lot of nodding.
Before the meeting ended, Cheryl took a selfie with Musk, then handed him a sort of peace offering: a Mars-themed issue of National Geographic from 1977, which she’d found in a library’s giveaway pile that morning. He seemed taken aback. He reacted that way, she reasoned, because he wasn’t used to being given things; usually Musk was the one doing the giving.
The next day, Cheryl received a text from someone she’d just met—a SpaceX superfan who’d flown in from California to attend the event, only to find that he couldn’t secure a ticket. So in the morning, he’d hiked over some sand dunes, passed the no trespassing signs he’d claim not to have seen, sidled up to the rocket, took a selfie, and posted it on Facebook. The company had seen his photo and considered it proof of trespass. “I’m in handcuffs, please call my mom,” the superfan wrote to Cheryl. SpaceX was pressing charges.
When I first visited Boca Chica, in October, I was startled to see the rocket sitting out in the open, by the side of a public highway. when Jeff Bezos decided he wanted to venture into space and founded Blue Origin to do so, he quietly bought up three hundred thousand acres of remote west Texas ranchland so he could experiment in seclusion. Richard Branson opted to base his private space company, Virgin Galactic, at Spaceport America, a facility owned and operated by the state of New Mexico. But Musk has always done things differently. “head down, plow through the line. that’s very SpaceX,” the company’s president, Gwynne Shotwell, has said. And in this case, the line ran right through Boca Chica. (Neither musk nor SpaceX would comment for this story.)
To observe SpaceX’s progress, Boca Chicans need only step outside.
The area isn’t the most obvious place to build a home base for space exploration. Cell service is spotty. The nearest grocery store is a half-hour drive away. Freshwater is nonexistent; it must be trucked in each month. “Everything out here rusts, rots, and mildews,” a former resident told Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine in 1992. “And the dust off the flats can blow something awful!” That hasn’t stopped developers from targeting the area over the years. Musk is only the latest outsider to arrive here with big ambitions. But nothing before has stuck, mostly due to the hurricanes. In 1867, a hospital and barracks built down the road from the site of the Battle of Palmito Ranch, arguably the Civil War’s last land skirmish—which the Confederates won—were washed out to sea. Between the world wars, tourists frolicked at a seaside resort—the author Sherwood Anderson caught several “gorgeous redfish” there, according to his wife’s diary—until, in 1933, another hurricane, with a thirteen-foot storm surge and 124-mile-an-hour winds, wiped it away, too. A Moon Motor Car flipped over on the beach and in time became nearly buried in sand, where it remained for three decades, until Hurricane Beulah (twenty-foot surge, 136-mile-an-hour winds) uncovered it.
In the sixties, a schemer named John Caputa began pitching Polish communities in the greater Chicago area on a beautiful retirement village in Boca Chica. He called it Kennedy Shores, in homage to the president, and he promised investors an improbable 12 percent return. Few bought into the dream, and Caputa completed only a fraction of the planned development. A few years later, he died, penniless, of a heart attack. In time, the community changed its name first to Kopernik Shores, in homage to Copernicus, then to Boca Chica Village. But most of the houses that now stand are Caputa’s.
After Mk1’s bulkhead shot into the sky during a pressure test in November, SpaceX began dismantling it, while speeding up production of its next prototype.
The Heatons bought one of them in 2001. Fed up with Minnesota winters, they’d decided to retire somewhere warm and quiet and affordable. They’d planned to go to South Padre Island, but a barge accident destroyed a portion of the bridge, rendering it inaccessible. Someone suggested they check out Boca Chica, a dozen miles down the coast, and they never left.
Many residents arrived here like the Heatons: accidentally, while trying to get someplace else. They felt as though they’d stumbled on a secret shared only with their neighbors, and with the day-trippers from nearby Brownsville. The community marks the eastern edge of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, a two-hundred-mile stretch of federally protected land along the southern border, intended to allow safe passage for animals such as the ocelot, whose U. S. population has dwindled to fewer than one hundred. For a certain kind of person—one who prizes independence over convenience and who doesn’t mind living among more pelicans than humans—there was no better place on earth.
Sitting in their living room, Bonnie told me how the seclusion suited her and her husband, and the fishing was world-class. In the winters, Bonnie cut her neighbors’ hair and Terry helped out with their home repairs. Most of their neighbors were part-timers, returning to their homes in Alaska or Michigan or Wisconsin during the hot months. I asked Bonnie if it got lonely during those quiet summers, and the question seemed to make her feel sorry for me. “It was wonderful,” she said. “It was wonderful.” But that was before SpaceX and its intrusions. “They don’t want us here because it’s costing them money to have us here. But we were here first,” she told me. “This is where we thought we were going to live until we died.”
Cheryl, who lives a few doors down from the Heatons, decorated her house with seashells and left out dishes of water for migratory birds. She paid her mortgage by renting out her house on Airbnb. In the summer, sea turtles lay their eggs on the beach; once, she helped a nest of hatchlings find their way to the sea. Another time, in the eerie calm before a hurricane, she saw a jaguarundi—a rare wild cat that has since gone extinct in Texas. She befriended Wiley, the half-tame coyote who skulked through the village at dusk.
Cheryl grew up in south Texas, the fourth generation of her family to play on Boca Chica Beach. As an adult, she lived in Austin until it got too crowded and expensive; then she moved to Portland and repeated the process. When her grandmother got sick, she returned to Texas and, in 2005, bought one of the Caputa houses; if anywhere was safe from the exhausting logic of gentrification, she figured Boca Chica was it. So when Musk started sniffing around, she told me, “those of us who lived here hoped [the project] would implode, or he’d run out of money.”
Musk crossed his arms, assumed a stiff, wide stance, and listened as they unloaded. He did a lot of nodding.
Cheryl’s shell collection is rivaled by that of Rob Avery, sixty-six, a retired pipe fitter with graying copper hair, and his wife, Sarah, sixty-three, who used to work in insurance. On their daily walks along Boca Chica Beach, the couple has found oyster beds, rare shells, bison teeth, and even a remnant of a centuries-old shipwreck. They spend six months each year in Boca Chica and recently became Texas residents so they could relocate permanently. When the offer letter from SpaceX arrived at their other home, in Connecticut, “we were floored,” Rob told me. “It made you feel that if you didn’t accept this offer, eminent domain would be the next step,” Sarah said. Rob added, “We felt under duress. We were caught off guard.” He paused. “We’d had two deaths in the family,” he said. “It couldn’t have been a worse time.”
Feeling that they had no choice, the Averys signed the paperwork and rushed down to Texas six weeks earlier than usual, prepared to pack up their house and say goodbye to Boca Chica. When they arrived, they saw the partially assembled Starship Mk1 rocket for the first time. Some of their neighbors refused to look at it. Others couldn’t look away.
One morning, before dawn, I headed toward the launch site in search of the burgundy van that always seemed to be in its vicinity, as close as you could get to the rocket without SpaceX security shooing you away. The van belonged to Mary. She and her husband, gale, seventy-eight, retired to Boca Chica twelve years ago. They loved the community, with its neighborly solicitude—one time, Mary helped Cheryl get TV reception by jerry-rigging an antenna out of scrap lumber and coat hangers. But unlike her nimby-minded neighbors, Mary was intrigued by the community’s transformation into a space corridor. Her interest spiked in November 2018, when SpaceX began assembling Starhopper, the squat prototype built to test the company’s methane-fueled raptor engine, which, if all goes to plan, will one day propel the starship fleet into space. “that’s when I fell in love with a rocket,” she sang, to the tune of T-Pain’s “I’m in love with a stripper.”
Mary spent most days by the side of the road, observing the rocket and its surroundings as if it were her full-time job—never mind the heavy heat of the Texas summer or the dense swarms of mosquitoes that arrive after the rains. She doesn’t have an engineering background, but she has a keen observer’s eye, and she started posting pictures and videos of the project’s developments on Twitter, as @bocachicagal. She averaged twenty tweets a day, and she had a fondness for the star-eyed emoji. Space obsessives took notice. She’s now a go-to source for on-the-ground updates out of Boca Chica. As of press time, she’s amassed nearly seventeen thousand followers. Mary was joined that morning by two other rocket enthusiasts, Gene, the surfboard builder, and Andy, the Musk fan who moved here because SpaceX did, too. Andy is a retired IT technician; when he learned that the houses in Boca Chica were cheap, he bought one, rigged it to run on solar panels hooked up to a Tesla battery, and waited for the launches to begin. That was four years ago.
We clambered up the beachfront dunes to get a better view of the rocket. The vibe was celebratory, even though today’s activities were relatively low-stakes: SpaceX was transporting Mk1’s ninety-foot cylindrical propellant tank over from the assembly site. The launch area, mostly unpaved and at least one-quarter puddle, had an ad hoc feel, like a haphazard construction site. A stone’s throw away sat Starhopper on its three fat legs. A white sign was posted on the chain-link fence: notice: sea turtle nesting season in progress. There was something dizzyingly improbable about this futuristic hardware plopped down amid the seagrass, beside the indifferent storks wading carefully through the mudflats. “It’s not made out of some super-high-tech carbon composite,” Gene was enthusing about Mk1’s hull of stainless steel—a material vastly cheaper than carbon, with a higher melting point. “It’s not some super-secretive thing. It’s like—you can buy this crap at the hardware store.”
“It’s just—it makes people stutter, like I’m doing now,” Andy said. “These guys come out in the middle of the desert with some plumbers and welders, and they just start building something. Started welding it together out here, in the open.”
Mk1 was omnipresent, impossible to avoid unless you never looked southward. Still, Mary, Gene, and Andy—and the rocket’s other local fans—couldn’t get enough of it. Seven years after SpaceX began buying up their backyard, there was finally something to see. Since Musk founded SpaceX, in 2002, the company has relied on government-owned sites, Cape Canaveral in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, to launch its rockets. But doing so chafes against Musk’s desire to get things done his own way, at his own pace. In 2005, SpaceX was temporarily booted from its launchpad at Vandenberg at the request of Lockheed Martin, which had raised concerns that the newcomer’s rocket would explode and damage nearby infrastructure. Musk was outraged. “Somebody else builds a house next to you and tells you to get out of your house,” he said at the time. “Like, what the hell? . . . We’re going to fight that issue, because it is just fundamentally unfair.”
Building its very own commercial orbital launch site—the world’s first—would free SpaceX from such hassles. In 2011, the company began scouting. The location would need to be close to the equator—better for the launch trajectory—with a low population and a welcoming local government. SpaceX quickly narrowed down its options to three: Florida, Puerto Rico, and Boca Chica.
Musk, it turned out, had a knack for Texas politics. That year, he invited Cameron County officials to SpaceX headquarters, in Hawthorne, California. The following year, the company upped its force of Texas lobbyists from one to five, and Rick Perry, then the governor of Texas, wrote in a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration, “Please know that I strongly support the efforts of SpaceX and the Brownsville community to bring this business to Texas. I ask you to favorably approve their application.” SpaceX formed a shell company, Dogleg Park LLC, named for the path its rockets would zag to avoid passing over populated areas, and later another called the Flats at Mars Crossing LLC, and began scooping up properties at the local sheriff’s sale. The land was cheap, in part because it was difficult. Roads washed out all the time; in the spring, sand swirled in the fifty-mile-per-hour gusts.
Even so, in 2013, at a hearing before the appropriations committee of the Texas state legislature, Musk laid out his vision for “the commercial version of Cape Canaveral.” He was there to support two bills intended to lure SpaceX to the state. One would reduce a private space company’s liability in the case of a nuisance complaint; the other, written by the congressman from Brownsville, would empower county officials to deny access to public beaches when “spaceflight activities” were on the calendar. In his speech, Musk was by turns encouraging and coy. “Texas is our leading candidate right now,” he told the room. But also, “any support Texas can offer will be helpful.” Perry signed both bills into law.
SpaceX spoke loftily of up to twelve launches each year. Each month, one of the company’s rockets—a Falcon 9, its workhorse, or a Falcon Heavy, the most powerful rocket in operation—would shoot into the sky, destined for the International Space Station, or perhaps beyond. According to Brownsville’s then mayor, Tony Martinez, Musk told him, “One day, you are going to read that a man left Brownsville and went to Mars.”
Local officials were flattered by the attention, but they also saw an opportunity. Brownsville is the country’s poorest metropolitan area; in recent years, if it makes national news at all, the stories pertain to the crisis at the southern border. “Anything positive, people are hungry for it,” Juan Montoya, a local political blogger and lifelong Brownsville resident, told me. SpaceX was promising nothing short of an economic transformation, estimating it would create five hundred local jobs at an average salary of $55,000. The Brownsville Economic Development Council claimed the economic impact would be a “game changer for the region” in a PowerPoint presentation used to sell the community on the idea. Sure, the launches might occasionally shut down Boca Chica Beach, one of the state’s few remaining stretches of undeveloped coastline—a place Montoya described to me as “the poor people’s beach” for the role it serves for the residents of Brownsville—but the trade-offs would make the sacrifices worthwhile. The BEDC conservatively estimated that fifteen thousand people would come watch each launch. “Nobody really knows very much about Brownsville,” Martinez told me. “But if you talk about SpaceX and Brownsville, now you’ve got a marketing tool. You want to go watch the launch? Well, you gotta go to Brownsville.”
Riding high on his promise of economic expansion, Musk didn’t encounter much resistance. The city, county, state, and University of Texas system put together an incentive package worth nearly $40 million. “Elon says—‘Man, you guys need a new airport.’ Even though he doesn’t fly commercial,” Martinez recalled. “And we’re building a new airport.”
Finally, the deal was done. In 2014, Musk and then-governor Rick Perry posed together, their shovels stuck in a mound of sandy soil, at the groundbreaking. The company renamed streets—Joanna Street was now Rocket Road.
Viewers of Starship Mk1, before it failed a pressure test and was dismantled.
Things got off track almost immediately. Crews drilled in search of bedrock on which to build a launchpad but didn’t find any. Instead, they learned that when you dig a hole on the mudflats, murky water soon seeps in. If SpaceX needed solid ground in Boca Chica, it would have to create it. So the company trucked in 310,000 cubic yards of earth, then waited three years for the soil to settle. Musk had agreed to protect fifty acres of wetlands via land transfer to the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. When the approval didn’t move forward at the pace SpaceX expected, the company convinced the feds to allow the land to go to the state of Texas instead. Musk had claimed the project would be an operational spaceport by 2016, but that year came and went, with not much to show other than an expensive pile of dirt.
For years, the main sign to Boca Chicans of SpaceX’s presence was the company’s steady accumulation of houses and vacant lots—as of press time, it owns more than 150 properties in the area—as well as the procession of reporters who began knocking on their doors, seeking their take on living next to a spaceport, albeit one that didn’t yet exist. In the press, residents opposed to their new neighbor voiced their distaste. Terry and Bonnie Heaton appeared most often, perhaps because they were the only year-round residents. With a clear-spoken folksiness, the couple explained to one outlet after another—The Brownsville Herald, the Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Post, NPR—how SpaceX was intruding on the golden years of retirement they’d looked forward to for so long. Boca Chica homeowners were invited to meet with SpaceX in 2015. Musk wasn’t there, but his representatives made several reassurances: They’d provide ample advance warning for all launches; they wouldn’t close the beach on summer weekends. They wanted, the company told the Boca Chicans, to be a good neighbor.
The community marks the eastern edge of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, a two-hundred-mile stretch of federally protected land along the southern border, intended to allow safe passage for animals.
Meanwhile, SpaceX was struggling with more than just dirt. A Falcon 9 rocket disintegrated on a flight to the ISS in 2015, and another exploded the following year. Musk was also putting out fires of his own making: In 2018, NASA rebuked him for getting stoned with Joe Rogan. This came after his tweets drew the ire of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which fined him $20 million and forced him off the board of his own electric-car company, Tesla. Then, in the midst of the drama, Musk made headlines when he called a heroic cave diver in Thailand a “pedo guy.”
But SpaceX worked hard toward improvement, and it paid off. The company was launching more mostly reusable rockets, sending more successful missions to the ISS. Its Falcon spacecraft were proving reliable enough to earn the company billions of dollars in government contracts. And then Musk decided he needed a new space vehicle—one theoretically capable of interplanetary travel—to set in motion the next ambitious phase. At first, SpaceX referred to this next-generation spacecraft as the BFR—the Big Fucking Rocket; eventually, it was rechristened Starship.
Last May, the company quietly filed paperwork with the FAA indicating that its plans for Boca Chica had changed. Instead of being a commercial launch site to send Falcon rockets into orbit, it was now home to SpaceX’s “experimental test program,” through which the company would design and build Starship. And because Starship was now central to SpaceX’s vision of its future, Boca Chica was, too. The government required the company to up its liability insurance from $3 million to $100 million, largely because of the residents’ proximity, but otherwise approved the pivot.
None of this was immediately apparent to the people of Boca Chica, however. All they knew was that since the fall of 2018, the area had been buzzing with activity. White pickups and heavy machinery clogged the boulevard; SpaceX workers scurried around “like a bunch of ants,” as Bonnie put it. The company had opted to build its rockets outside—constructing a building would take too long, Musk said, and floodlights illuminated the rocket-assembly area throughout the night. The generators never stopped humming, and employees banged on the prototypes around the clock. Maria and her husband, Ray, whose home is closest to the rocket-assembly site, could see the welders’ acetylene torches spark from their bedroom window long after midnight. The couple put a webcam on their roof, which transmitted a round-the-clock YouTube stream of SpaceX activity. Some of Cheryl’s Airbnb renters requested refunds; they had expected Boca Chica to be a quiet retreat, and instead it was a 24/7 construction site. (In October, when I rented Cheryl’s place, I could hear the rumblings of Starship’s construction from her backyard.)
This past summer, as Mary documented the construction of Starhopper, activity continued to ramp up. In July, the prototype successfully completed a “hop”—that is, it lifted sixty feet in the air, moved laterally, and landed back down—then ignited a hundred-acre brush fire. The fire was frightening, but what frustrated Cheryl the most was how the county seemed to bend over backward to accommodate the company. A sheriff’s deputy was stationed across from the launch site, keeping guard. At SpaceX’s request, Boca Chica Beach was closed at least half a dozen times between June, when the temperature in Brownsville was already hitting triple digits, and August, which marked that month’s second-hottest average on record in Texas. Every time the company was up to something big—which seemed to be every couple weeks—the only road to Boca Chica was blocked off, essentially trapping the residents in their homes.
The beach road was shut down again the October day I stood on the dunes with Mary, Gene, and Andy, so Mk1 could be moved. We watched the Starship prototype slowly roll down the road and inside the gate, where it came to a stop. Up close, I could see dents in its silvery hull. They made the rocket seem friendlier somehow, almost relatable. For a long while, nothing happened. A small crowd had gathered and was growing restive; due to the roadblock, no one could leave until SpaceX was finished, and it was already an hour behind schedule.
A red SUV with a "Hooked on Jesus" bumper sticker pulled up to the sheriff’s road barrier. It was Terry, back from his morning fishing expedition. He, too, was told he could not pass. “This is a load of crap,” he said, brandishing a printout from the county that said the road should’ve been reopened an hour and a half ago. He said he was diabetic and needed to go home to get his insulin. “My hand’s already shaking,” he said. His house was right there, just a mile away. He started to slowly roll forward.
“You can’t,” the deputy said. “You’ll be arrested.” Terry’s face reddened, but he stopped and waited for the rocket business to finish.
By mid-fall, Boca Chica Village began to fracture. The homeowners who had accepted the buyout offered in September felt judged by the holdouts; the holdouts felt betrayed by the sellers. Everyone wanted to know how much money their neighbors ended up with. Mary was no longer speaking to Maria, whose coverage of SpaceX’s snafus—like when Starhopper’s nose cone blew off in a big gust of wind, and when it burst into flames after a static fire test—she found distasteful. She also claimed that Maria tried to use the @bocachicagal handle as her own. (Maria disputed the accusation.) Mary changed her Twitter bio to read, “My name is NOT Maria.”
In October, SpaceX made some concessions to the holdouts, extending the offer deadline by a few weeks and arranging for more-thorough appraisals. The initial valuations had been based on drive-by assessments and hadn’t taken into account many of the improvements the homeowners had made. But the revised appraisals weren’t much better, and the company made it clear they wouldn’t extend the deadline again. Once it expired, the three-times offer would be off the table. The Heatons hosted a meeting with a prominent eminent-domain lawyer in their living room. The good news, the lawyer told the assembled residents, was that they were sympathetic; any jury was likely to feel for them, and perhaps rule in their favor. The bad news was that getting to that point meant engaging in an ugly, expensive, protracted legal battle that they may well lose. Take the money, he advised, unless you’re really in this for the long fight.
It was hard for residents to believe they’d be formidable opponents. Perhaps the biggest threat to ever face SpaceX’s concern in south Texas was Donald Trump’s “big beautiful” border wall, with a proposed pathway that would have bisected the launch site. But members of Congress had successfully lobbied to adjust the wall’s path to protect five places: a state park, a butterfly sanctuary, a wildlife refuge, a historic church, and SpaceX’s Boca Chica operation. (A lawyer from the Institute for Justice, a legal-aid nonprofit that specializes in eminent-domain cases, is in touch with several Boca Chica homeowners.)
In mid-November, as Mary and her camera watched from down the road, Mk1’s bulkhead suddenly shot up into the sky; the rest of the rocket disappeared behind a billowing plume of nitrogen. The boom was so loud that Gene heard it on South Padre Island, eight miles away. The rocket the Boca Chicans had watched from infancy had just blown up during a pressurization test; it wouldn’t be traveling to space after all. SpaceX spun the incident as not “a serious setback,” since crews were already working on an updated version, the Mk3.
After the accident, activity at the construction site got even more frantic, as if the company was trying to make up for lost time. The Pointers covered their windows with hurricane shutters to block out the noise and light from the round-the-clock construction, but Ray still wasn’t sleeping well. Eventually they decided to make a deal with SpaceX, although Maria didn’t feel happy about it. “This tiny little spit of land is so important,” she said. “And that I got to live, breathe, and experience it? In the last house on Texas [Highway] 4 before you get to the ocean, in a beach villa with gorgeous views, and a frickin’ rocket shipyard on both sides? You can’t pay a person enough for that.”
Even Cheryl, with her keen sense of justice, was considering selling to SpaceX. Being in a constant state of outrage exhausted her, and she worried about her Airbnb income drying up.
Then, one morning in November, the Heatons were gone. Word around town was that they had sold to SpaceX. (After our initial conversation, the Heatons didn’t reply to further interview requests.) The news stunned Cheryl. Not only had the Heatons been vehement opponents of SpaceX, “they’re really the foundation of everything here,” Cheryl said. “Not just mowing everybody’s lawn, but when things break. . . . They had everyone’s keys. And they’re like, ‘We’re out of here.’ You can’t blame them, but I wish they would’ve communicated with us.” Now who would you call if your pipe sprung a leak?
By then, the Averys had decided to rescind their acceptance of the buyout. The offer had been framed to seem generous, but the appraisal had valued their sunny three-bedroom, two-bathroom home, with broad views of the bay, at only $47,000. As they looked at real estate nearby, they were dismayed. For $141,000—SpaceX’s offer—“we couldn’t even find a fixer-upper,” Rob said. The prospect of leaving behind the home they’d spent fifteen years improving to instead spend their retirement somewhere cramped, hemmed in by other houses, and far from the beach was disheartening. They hadn’t yet signed over their deed nor accepted SpaceX’s money. Rob and Sarah told me that if Musk wanted to sue them for breach of contract, so be it. Even if things devolved into a lengthy court battle, at least they would have a few more years in Boca Chica.
In the days after the Mk1 explosion, dead sea turtles began washing up on the beach. On their morning walks, the Averys saw two dozen of them. Sixty-three corpses were found in all, according to a local turtle-protection group. The deaths were determined to be related to illegal fishing, but the incident threw into sharp relief the fragile world in which SpaceX was expanding its empire.
The more I read about SpaceX, the more I realized how radical its vision of the future actually was—not so much its hypothetical journeys to Mars but rather its near-term ambitions. The company is seeking approval to launch forty thousand satellites as part of its Starlink program, a Google- and Fidelity-funded endeavor to bring high-speed Internet to rural areas and expedite international financial transactions. Starlink would allow SpaceX to capture a portion of the trillion-dollar global telecommunications industry. If all goes according to plan, there will be five times as many SpaceX-launched satellites in the sky as visible stars.
Starship—and therefore Boca Chica—is key to making this a reality. A Falcon 9 rocket can hold several dozen satellites, a Starship several hundred. Musk has said that he’d like to see as many as three launches a day from Boca Chica. “I did the calculation—that’s more than nine billion pounds of fuel per year,” said Dave Mosher, a reporter for Business Insider who covers SpaceX. “I don’t think you can get the fuel there fast enough.” Even correcting for Musk’s characteristic overstatements, it seems likely that Boca Chica will soon be less a poor people’s beach or a community of fixed-income retirees than a busy industrial corridor. Indeed, the beginnings of a liquefied-natural-gas export facility at the Port of Brownsville are already visible on the horizon. And so when I returned to Boca Chica in late December, I imagined I’d find a depressed, depleted place. Instead, after a tumultuous year, the community seemed infused with a fresh spirit. Residents seemed to have come to terms with SpaceX’s presence, for better or worse. The rocket might be intrusive, but it was their neighbor, and unlike them, it was here to stay. For some, that was an incentive to hash out an agreement with the company. “I jumped ship before it sank,” Cheryl told me. We were sitting in her living room, among the thrift-shop décor she’d carefully amassed over her fifteen years here. “I’m going to find a cheap home somewhere else, probably in a different state, since I’m disgusted with Texas. And I’m going to try to re-create my life.” SpaceX had granted her until March to move out, and she was determined to make the most of her final winter by the beach.
Others were resolved to fight. As of press time, a dozen homeowners still refused to sell. Some thought they might get a better offer from SpaceX if they waited—a risky gamble, since the company said the three-times offer was off the table. Others just wanted more time.
If all goes according to plan, there will be five times as many SpaceX-launched satellites in the sky as visible stars.
The holdouts also included the rocket’s biggest fans in Boca Chica. By now, Mary was a micro-influencer to the rabid community of SpaceX fans worldwide. Andy told me, “People go to Florida and pay a thousand dollars to watch a rocket launch there. I can say I turned down $200,000 to watch a rocket launch.” I got the sense that after spending so much time watching Starship get built, neither one wanted to leave it behind.
One moody, misty afternoon, Rob and Sarah Avery took me on a drive along Boca Chica Beach. We cruised down to the mouth of the Rio Grande. Two men with fishing poles waded into the surf; Mexico was just a coin toss away. I tried to picture the fuel-production facilities, the fleet of reusable rockets, the tens of thousands of SpaceX satellites spangling the night sky. As with so many of Musk’s visions, it seemed at once difficult to take seriously and dangerous to dismiss.
At the launch site, expansion continued apace. Earlier that month, SpaceX had announced that it was winding down activity at its other rocket facility, in Cocoa, Florida. Components were salvaged and sent on a chartered ship to Texas, where the company installed an enormous white tent to shield its work from the very thing that had rebuffed so many outsiders before them: the weather. The towering, matte-black wedge-shaped windbreak they’d erected wasn’t doing the trick. “Our main issue here in Boca,” Musk tweeted, “is that it can get very windy.”
Back at Boca Chica Village, Mary was by the side of the road again, keeping an eye on things. This week, she was photographing the crews as they assembled the skeleton of an enormous building. It seemed as though the next version of Starship, now called SN1, would be built inside, out of the sight of its critics and fans. Even so, Mary would keep taking pictures as long as she could, even if she was only documenting her own exclusion.
SpaceX’s Starship SN1 prototype blows up during pressure test on its Texas pad
A prototype for SpaceX’s Starship super-rocket was destroyed tonight during a pressure test on its pad at the company’s South Texas facility.
Streaming video from Boca Chica showed the silo-shaped tank assembly for the prototype known as Starship SN1 wreathed in light and vapor during the test, which was conducted with inert liquid nitrogen. At about 10 p.m. CT (8 p.m. PT), the tank popped. The structure imploded as it flew into the air, then fell to the ground.
Initial reports suggested that the tank suffered a structural failure during pressurization. Information about potential injuries or the extent of damage wasn’t immediately available, but we’ve reached out to SpaceX and will update this item with anything we hear.
This prototype was designed only for initial rounds of tests. SpaceX plans to use future Starship prototypes for more ambitious tests that would build up to orbital flights. “Not much to worry about here,” Next Spaceflight’s Michael Baylor tweeted. “Test, fail, fix, test, fail, fix is SpaceX’s game. They will learn from it and get it right.”
SpaceX's latest Starship test was uneventful and that's great news for its flight debut
According to Elon Musk, SpaceX has successfully completed its latest Starship prototype test in a uniquely uneventful fashion, great news for the next-generation rocket’s next steps and first flight tests.
The SpaceX CEO revealed the news some 12 hours after the company wrapped up the Starship tank test at its Boca Chica, Texas facilities. Another excellent example of SpaceX’s preferred process of agile development, the test followed just nine days after the Starship SN01 prototype’s first cryogenic test unexpectedly unearthed a design flaw. SpaceX analyzed the results of Starship SN01’s unintentional launch debut and drew up plans to rapidly repurpose a Starship tank initially destined for the SN02 prototype.
By using existing hardware to test an upgraded iteration of the part that destroyed Starship SN01, SpaceX has now effectively retired the risk posed by that prior failure less than two weeks after it occurred. Elon Musk specifically noted that the former SN02 engine section “passed cryo pressure & engine thrust loads,” confirming that there was more to the exceptionally uneventful evening of March 8th than met the eye. While putting on much less of a show for local observers, this particular boring test is a great sign for the next few steps of SpaceX’s Starship development program.
SpaceX’s latest Starship test tank is pictured here shortly after being transported to the launch pad on March 6th.(NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
Simply put, despite successfully demonstrating that Starship’s improved “thrust puck” and engine section can survive flight-level tank pressures and the thrust of a Raptor engine, one would be hard-pressed to determine as much by inspecting the prototype that managed the feat. Such a visually uneventful test is a first for SpaceX’s post-Starhopper Starship testing, where “before” and “after” photos typically start with a shiny tank and finish with a well-distributed field of steel shrapnel.
Musk’s description of the test suggests that SpaceX’s intention with the SN02 test tank – built in just two weeks – was to stress it up to (and likely beyond) the pressures and mechanical stresses Starship engine sections will need to survive in flight. In simpler terms, they likely tried to burst the tank by pressurizing it with liquid nitrogen, a supercool cryogenic fluid. It’s unclear exactly how far SpaceX pushed the tank, but it’s safe to say that it went at least as high as past test tanks, meaning 7-8.5 bar or 100-125 psi. At a bare minimum, a test that failed to reach Starship’s minimum flight pressure of 6 bar (90 psi) would be of dubious value for the actual orbital ship.
A step further, SpaceX installed a hydraulic jack underneath the test tank in a bid to simulate the stresses it would experience with a single Raptor engine. Capable of producing approximately 150-200 tons (1500-2000 kN) of thrust, even Raptor is relatively minor compared to the Starship tank’s likely ~500 metric ton (1.1 million lb) mass. Still, the fact that the SN02 test tank survived the combination of a highly pressurized tank and the simulated thrust of a Raptor engine suggests that SpaceX is now ready for a more successful repeat of Starship SN01 testing.
Confirming those suspicions, Musk subsequently revealed that the Starship prototype integrated immediately after the SN02 test tank will likely attempt the first Raptor static fire tests and may even perform short flights further down the road. As always, SpaceX’s testing programs are fluid and likely to change as new results continuously shape the path forward, meaning that Starship SN03 could easily be destroyed during testing. Starship SN04, said by Musk to be the hopeful candidate for “longer [test] flights,” would thus be repurposed to continue SN03’s test campaign — and so on with SN05, SN06, and beyond.
Regardless, as the CEO notes, perhaps the most important aspect of all these rapid-fire tests is that SpaceX is quickly building up an impressive Starship production line. Before, during, and after SN02’s test campaign, SpaceX’s South Texas team has been simultaneously fabricating and stacking new steel rings, bulkheads, and noses for the next few Starship prototypes. As a result, Starship SN03’s tank section could be just a week or two away from complete integration, after which SpaceX will likely transport it to the launch pad to prepare for Raptor static fire testing.
Boca Chica residents take Elon Musk’s money, make way for SpaceX launches from Texas
Maria Pointer, a Boca Chica resident whose home is next to SpaceX Boca Chica location, waits for the SpaceX’s Starship vehicle prototype to be stacked next to her camera on Friday, Sept. 27, 2019.
Maria Pointer held one final party at her home overlooking the SpaceX facility outside of Brownsville, with guests visiting from early morning until the stars twinkled goodnight and said farewell to the woman who shared her front-row seat of Elon Musk’s rocket activities in Texas.
“I cried three times, and then I laughed three times,” Maria Pointer said, “and then I opened up another bottle of wine and hugged a few more people.”
Her husband Rayford, however, couldn’t bring himself to attend the party, devastated by the way things played out. The Pointers purchased the property for its isolation and birdwatching. They spent years building their perfect retirement home.
Then SpaceX moved next door and began building prototypes for its Starship vehicle that could one day take people to the moon, Mars and beyond. Maria Pointer, making the best of the situation, turned her energy toward photographing the company’s progress, building a reputation among SpaceX enthusiasts as Boca Chica Maria.
But the Pointers’ relationship with SpaceX grew tenuous last year when the company sought to buy their house and other nearby properties, saying it had become increasingly difficult to minimize disruption. SpaceX offered to pay three times the property’s market value, based off an independent appraisal. Residents, however, said the appraisals provided by SpaceX weren’t accurate, calling them a lowball offer from the company’s billionaire owner Elon Musk.
Negotiations continued, and some residents have since moved out. The Pointers hope to be out by this weekend. Maria Pointer thinks the home will be used by SpaceX employees and doesn’t expect it will be torn down. She wouldn’t say what SpaceX paid, but she acknowledged it was higher than the first offer of $231,000.
“SpaceX paid me to move,” she said.
SpaceX committed to building a launch site in Boca Chica in 2014. Progress was initially slow but saw an eruption last year as the company began testing prototypes for its Starship vehicle. Work has maintained its rapid pace this year as SpaceX hosts hiring events, builds new facilities and continues testing.
This activity has been captured on Maria Pointer’s Twitter (@BocachicaMaria1), her Facebook page (SpaceX Boca Chica) and a 24/7 livestream video from cameras mounted in her yard. She’s also welcomed people into her yard to watch the activities in person, becoming a gathering spot for many.
As she prepared to move, it was the cameras and their ability to inspire the children of Brownsville that worried Maria Pointer. But the cameras have found a new home, and the Pointers are ready to move on.
“When LabPadre found another spot, it just changed my world,” she said. “I was just like, ‘Oh my god, it gets to continue, and I get to continue.’ I just have another chapter to continue. Not the same chapter.”