Humanity's greatest adventure ever may launch from Texas. At the southernmost tip of the state, Elon Musk's company, SpaceX, is building and testing giant rockets. The hope is to send them to Mars someday to colonize the red planet.
SpaceX has two major facilities taking shape in a remote location near Brownsville called Boca Chica. They are along State Highway 4, which runs from the city to the Gulf of Mexico. One is a manufacturing site. The other is a launch and landing complex. SpaceX has dubbed the area "Starbase."
SpaceX's towering stainless steel vehicle is called Starship. Several of them point skyward from the flat landscape at Boca Chica. There have already been unmanned tests, with the rockets soaring into the South Texas sky. The most recent launch ended with a successful landing. But there have also been crashes and explosions.
Starship is massive. When it's fully stacked atop its Super Heavy booster, it stands nearly 400 feet tall, making it the largest rocket ever built. It is designed to carry cargo and astronauts into low Earth orbit as well as to the Moon and Mars.
SpaceX is still in the early stages of its plans for Boca Chica. The manufacturing and launch sites continue to grow. The first Starship destined for orbit, known as SN20, test-fired all six of its engines for the first time last week.
Work continues on the launch tower, which will have the ability to catch landing Starships using a mechanism likened to giant chopsticks. The goal is a fully reusable rocket that can be quickly relaunched.
Elon Musk has said that Starship could be ready for an attempted orbital launch as soon as this month. But that depends on clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates the project.
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Most observers believe the first unmanned orbital flight might come in early 2022.
Whenever it happens, SpaceX said it hopes Starship SN20 will reach orbit and then splashdown in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.
Not everyone is happy about what SpaceX is doing at Boca Chica. Environmentalists say the industrial complex that's rising near the Gulf coast is a disaster in the making.
The SpaceX sites are on private property the company owns just off Highway 4. But they're surrounded by protected public lands including the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Boca Chica State Park and Brazos Island State Park.
"This is a bad place to do what they want to do," said Jim Chapman with Friends of the Wildlife Corridor. "You have these habitats for especially wading birds and shorebirds that exist in very few other places," said Chapman. The area is also home to endangered species such as Kemp's ridley sea turtles and ocelots.
SpaceX, which declined to be interviewed for this story, has said in public documents that research from launch activity at Cape Canaveral in Florida shows that environmental damage at Boca Chica would not be significant.
Some people fear explosions, which SpaceX calls 'anomalies.' They have already happened during testing, raining debris outside SpaceX property. No one has been hurt. "I am worried," said Molly Smith with the group Save RGV.
SpaceX always clears the area for safety. Smith's concern is a rocket malfunction that could threaten nearby South Padre Island, the tourist and retirement mecca where she lives. "How are you going to face up to an explosion that could be so much bigger than the explosions we've already had?" Smith said. SpaceX says it has the ability to end any flight that goes off course. In the future, SpaceX plans to launch Starships from platforms far out at sea.
There is also the question of access to Boca Chica Beach, which is popular with many local residents. "I know people that spend the day collecting shells, and fishing and the family can come out," said Molly Smith with Save RGV. Highway 4 is the only way out to Boca Chica, and SpaceX wants permission to close the road for up to 500 hours per year.
There has been talk of building a tunnel from nearby South Padre Island to provide access to Boca Chica. Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño says it is a real idea from one of Elon Musk's other companies, The Boring Company, which specializes in building tunnels. "They came down, took a look. Our staff met with them. They believe it's possible," said Treviño.
As the top elected official in Cameron County, Treviño says he understands the value of preserving Boca Chica and its environment. "The concerns that have been raised by environmental groups are extremely valid and have to be taken into consideration," said Treviño.
But Treviño also believes there's a way to move forward with the Starship project without sacrificing a community treasure. "It can't be an all-or-nothing scenario. It has to be a win-win for everybody," said Treviño.
Treviño says he has spoken directly to Elon Musk about the environmental concerns raised by people in Cameron County. "The conversations that I've had with Mr. Musk and the members of his team at SpaceX all have voiced their concern and their support that they don't negatively impact the environment," said Treviño.
The job of regulating the project lies with the federal government, specifically the Federal Aviation Administration. SpaceX must have a permit from the FAA to continue its work and launch Starships into orbit from Boca Chica.
The FAA is in process of evaluating what's called the Draft Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA). It's a lengthy document outlining SpaceX's plans at Boca Chica and their impact on the environment. It was prepared by SpaceX with oversight from the FAA. Chapman says that's a big problem. "When the company that wants to do it gets to write it, this is what you get," he said. The FAA says its evaluation will be independent.
During a recent public hearing process, the FAA says it received more than 17,000 written comments and 121 verbal comments on the Draft PEA. The agency says it will take all of that information into account before making a decision on what comes next. The FAA says it hopes to complete that process by December 31, 2021 - a date now highly anticipated by SpaceX and environmentalists alike.
People in nearby Brownsville are also watching closely. The city has been called one of the poorest in the U.S. But there is new hope that SpaceX might provide a major boost to the area's economy. "I think opportunities like this don't come often," said Josh Mejia. Mejia is President and CEO of the Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation (BCIC), which fosters economic growth in the city.
Mejia says there is hard evidence that SpaceX is already having a positive effect on the city. "We've seen double-digit year-to-date percentage growth in sales tax collections. We know that a majority of that is coming from activities that are happening in SpaceX." SpaceX has already brought approximately 1,600 new workers to the area.
Elon Musk's charitable foundation is also pumping money into the community. BCIC has received more than two million dollars from the Musk Foundation. Some of the money will help build a business incubator in downtown Brownsville called eBridge. "It's meant to be the largest entrepreneurial center of its kind south of San Antonio," said Mejia.
Musk has also pledged $20 million for schools in Cameron County and $10 million to help revitalize downtown Brownsville. Hundreds of community members, including students, recently gathered outside SpaceX at Boca Chica to show their appreciation.
There are people in the community who are worried that SpaceX and the money it brings may change Brownsville in a way that pushes out longtime residents. Xandra Trevino represents a group of community activists who call themselves Fuera SpaceX. "In English 'fuera' is out. We want SpaceX to go," Trevino said.
One of Trevino's biggest fears is gentrification. "I fear that Brownsville is going to be less accessible to its residents because we're so focused on what these wealthier people are going to bring to the area," she said.
Trevino points to Boca Chica Village, a once-quiet neighborhood adjacent to the SpaceX manufacturing site. The company has bought and renovated many of the homes there to house employees. Trevino says some former property owners felt forced out. "They felt like it was a David and Goliath situation."
Property values in the Brownsville area have also spiked. Civic leaders acknowledge that increased interest and demand linked to SpaceX appears to be partly responsible.
However, some small business owners say SpaceX has been a lifesaver. Zeke Silva is a coffee roaster. Twice a day, he delivers fresh coffee to the SpaceX complex at Boca Chica. Silva says during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, SpaceX was his only customer. He says it saved his business. "No doubt about it. Without them, I don't know what I would have done," Silva said.
Diane Milliken Garza owns an art gallery in a renovated historic building in downtown Brownsville. She says SpaceX employees are boosting all aspects of the local economy. "They're supporting our local restaurants, hotels, gas stations, convenience stores," she said.
But Garza says the most important thing SpaceX may have given Brownsville is hope. "A lot of times when your children go away to college from here, they don't ever come back because there aren't any opportunities. There aren't any jobs. Now there are."
As SpaceX continues to build more at Boca Chica by the day, there are people who refuse to accept the idea that SpaceX may be a permanent part of Brownsville's future. "I feel like that's a compromise I'm not willing to accept yet," said Xandra Trevino. "I don't understand how people can just think in terms of only money," she added.
However, there are plenty of other lifelong residents of Brownsville who can no longer imagine this community without SpaceX. "Everything will change. Everything will change," said Garza. After years of economic struggle, there is a growing belief that Brownsville is finally about to boom. "The time is now," said Mejia.