Little has changed at this remote South Texas beach over the past six decades since it was a finalist to become what Cape Canaveral, Fla., became: the launch site for the U.S. space program.
Unlike neighboring South Padre Island, 5 miles away over the water, Boca Chica has no high-rises, no marinas and no condos. Texas 4 is a two-lane blacktop that runs east from Brownsville and dead-ends where the sun rises over the sand dunes and wetlands. The beach is surrounded by a patchwork of private lots, a state park and a federal wildlife refuge.
It is here that California billionaire Elon Musk is considering building a site to launch rockets carrying payloads to space. “A commercial Cape Canaveral” is how Musk described it to state lawmakers this spring when he identified Texas as “probably” the leading candidate for the launch site.
It would be the first commercial orbital launch site in the world.
First, Boca Chica must beat out competitors in Georgia, Puerto Rico and, once again, Cape Canaveral, where government cutbacks in the space program could open more launch space for Musk’s company, SpaceX — the first private firm to ferry cargo to and from the International Space Station.
When he isn’t designing rockets and electric cars, Musk is imagining a hyperloop tube system that would whisk passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 35 minutes. He has been likened to everyone from Thomas Edison to Tony Stark, the fictional billionaire in the “Iron Man” movies.
Musk came calling on Texas lawmakers in March.
The Legislature responded by approving $15 million in incentives and passing legislation allowing the beach to be closed once a month for rocket launches and limiting the company’s legal liability for making noise.
“We are in a competition to revitalize our space industry,” said state Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, a co-author of the legislation. “The job creation, the economic development, the spinoff is absolutely incredible.”
The Federal Aviation Administration has given preliminary approval for a permit after its initial review of the environmental impact, but hasn’t delivered its final verdict. Meanwhile, local officials in South Texas are in negotiations with SpaceX officials for more incentives. And Gov. Rick Perry and state leaders could try to close the deal by tapping the Texas Enterprise Fund.
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Musk said he expects to make a final decision on the launch site before the year ends.
Texas has been a traditional leader in space because of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, but budget cuts cost 3,500 high-paying technical and engineering jobs and left NASA looking for help in its reduced role.
The private sector is filling important gaps and is being touted as being a cheaper and faster alternative to government space programs. The nascent commercial space industry in Texas already includes a SpaceX rocket engine testing site near Waco and early efforts in Houston, Midland and Van Horn to build suborbital spaceports.
Landing SpaceX, the most successful commercial space endeavor, would be a coup for Texas.
“To be a true space state, we have to be more aggressive to show these people they are welcome and we have the brainpower to support them,” said state Rep. John Davis, a Republican whose district includes the Johnson Space Center. “If we can actually launch at Boca Chica, think of the synergy between the Rio Grande Valley and Houston.”
‘Rockets here? Really?’
The Boca Chica plan caught both supporters and opponents off-guard.
Gilberto Salinas, executive vice president of the Brownsville Economic Development Council, remembers getting the first call about SpaceX’s interest in Boca Chica almost three years ago.
“Rockets here? Really?” said Salinas, who grew up going to Boca Chica beach and still fishes there. “But here we are.”
Two weeks after that first phone call, Salinas said, local officials met with Musk at his California headquarters. “It showed us how serious he was,” he said.
Salinas says SpaceX officials first spotted Boca Chica from the air as they scoured 14 different South Texas sites. On the ground it didn’t look promising at first because government maps showed that it owned all the land.
Salinas said a SpaceX employee discovered the maps were wrong. SpaceX took an option on 56.5 contiguous acres of dunes and wetlands that were privately owned. The launch site would be built on 20 of those acres. The launch pad would be 500 feet from the beach and the control center a couple of miles away. There would be a hangar, a warehouse and tanks for storing rocket propellant.
State and local officials have overwhelmingly endorsed locating SpaceX at Boca Chica. At a community hearing last year, a crowd of more than 500 echoed the officials’ dreams of jobs and economic development.
Opponents, if they were there, didn’t make it to the microphone.
The issue has environmentalists on both sides, but the opposition — largely invisible at first — seems to be growing or, at least, speaking out more as a decision nears.
Joe and Elida Mosqueda live in Del Valle, but she grew up in Brownsville. They are retiring to a house near Boca Chica that they have owned since 1997. They are not happy about the prospect of rockets being launched within 3 miles of their house.
They wouldn’t be displaced. Their tiny subdivision is on the edge of the zone that would be closed on launch days, but they fear the environmental impact as well as losing the peace and quiet of Boca Chica.
“It kind of pisses me off someone wants to build their dream on top of my dream,” Joe Mosqueda said.
Musk’s dream, as the billionaire explained in March, is to advance the technology to send people to Mars.
He bemoaned cutbacks in the U.S. space program and the grounding of the space shuttle fleet.
“It’s sad that we sent people to the moon in ’69, then we lost that ability,” Musk said. “I don’t think we want to tell our kids that 1969 was the high-water mark. I think that’s a terrible thing.”
SpaceX has about 3,000 employees, builds rockets at its headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., and has launch sites at Vandenberg, Calif., and Cape Canaveral. It tests rocket engines at McGregor, a small town outside Waco.
Musk said the company has $4 billion in revenue under contract, including agreements with NASA to ferry cargo — and possibly astronauts in two or three years — to the International Space Station.
In 2010, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule became the first commercial spacecraft in history to be launched into orbit and brought safely back to Earth. Last year, SpaceX scored another first when its vehicle docked with the International Space Station, carrying scientific experiments and supplies.
American astronauts won’t be launched from Boca Chica. SpaceX will continue its NASA-funded launches at Cape Canaveral. But Musk said Boca Chica would be focused on business from companies and foreign governments as well as, eventually, space tourism.
Under the new state law, SpaceX could launch rockets up to 12 times a year, mostly between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., but not on weekends or holidays unless the company can show local and state authorities that scrubbing a launch would cause significant business consequences. At least one nighttime launch would be allowed per year.
The beach would be closed for 15 hours on a launch day, up to a maximum of 180 hours per year.
SpaceX would use its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. Musk testified that the rocket thrust would be the equivalent of four 747’s taking off simultaneously.
Musk designed his rockets to be the maximum size that could be transported from California over roads, but Texas officials are banking on manufacturing rockets here someday.
“Eventually larger rockets must be built,” Musk said. “The logical thing is to build near the launch site.”
Bob Mitchell with the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership has witnessed what the Johnson Space Center in Houston can mean for an economy.
“Once you get someone like SpaceX here, it brings the cottage industries that support it,” he said.
Addressing the issue of economic impact, Musk told state legislators that SpaceX will be spending $300 million to $500 million over the next decade at Cape Canaveral.
In Texas, the Brownsville Economic Development Council estimates that SpaceX would be an $80 million capital investment, bring 600 direct jobs and $50 million in annual salaries as well as 10,000 to 15,000 visitors per launch. Salinas said the numbers were compiled from SpaceX and the council’s independent economic analysis.
Opponents dismiss those numbers.
Cheryl Stevens, an Austin activist who grew up in Brownsville and has a house near Boca Chica, said she is organizing opposition to SpaceX.
She questions the number of jobs that will actually be created and whether local residents will get the high-paying ones.
“The only jobs I can see it will create is construction jobs,” she said.
Stevens speculated that the engineers might commute to the Rio Grande Valley from Houston or beyond.
“They are only talking about a few launches a year,” she said. Then again, she worries what would happen if the launch site is successful: “Once they are here, they can do what they want.”
Stevens said South Texas officials have “steamrolled” the project, adding that Boca Chica “has always been the poor people’s beach.”
The most repeated objection is about what SpaceX might do to the environment.
The Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge is 10,000-plus acres of rare coastal habitat, including mangrove marshes, salt flats, shallow bays, beaches and dunes. It serves as a wildlife corridor between Mexico and South Texas that is home to endangered species from the ocelot and jaguarundi, both small wild cats, to piping plovers, a shore bird.
Kemp’s ridley sea turtles nest at Boca Chica beach in the spring and summer.
Pat Burchfield is director of the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville and director of the U.S.-Mexico Sea Turtle Association.
“My No. 1 concern is the wildlife and its long-term survival,” he said. “If I thought it was going to be a problem, I’d be standing up and opposing it.”
He said SpaceX officials were well prepared when he met with them to discuss how to mitigate the impact on the wildlife.
“They had done their homework,” he said.
He noted that Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge co-exists with the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in Florida, but opponents counter that the Florida wildlife site is 14 times the size of the South Texas refuge.
Boca Chica has remained undeveloped largely because of the expense of extending water and electricity to the beach. For example, Boca Chica Village, the small subdivision about 3 miles from the beach, has one electricity line and the residents must truck in water.
Over the years, Burchfield said, developers’ grander plans for Boca Chica never materialized, but development remains a threat.
“This would be the least intrusive thing that could happen out there,” Burchfield said of SpaceX.
The Sierra Club has raised issues about the impact on wildlife and the environment, but it has taken no position on SpaceX locating at Boca Chica until the FAA completes its final review. But Environment Texas opposes it and challenges the notion that a SpaceX facility would protect the area.
“This is a false choice,” said Rachel Stone, a lawyer with Environment Texas. “We think it’s entirely inappropriate to build a rocket launch pad right in the middle of a national wildlife refuge and state park.”
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