When he’s in town, Elon Musk surely can’t miss neighbor Rosemarie Workman’s frayed “Come and Take It” flag whipping in the coastal breeze. Workers tinker in the side yard of the SpaceX founder’s temporary home on Weems Street. Across the road, Workman stands on her porch, her gaze gliding […]
When he’s in town, Elon Musk surely can’t miss neighbor Rosemarie Workman’s frayed “Come and Take It” flag whipping in the coastal breeze.
Workers tinker in the side yard of the SpaceX founder’s temporary home on Weems Street. Across the road, Workman stands on her porch, her gaze gliding past them — and the Teslas parked on the street — to focus on the South Bay and the bright afternoon sky.
Truck engines drown out the songs of the area’s many birds. A quarter-mile down the street, a silver rocket nose cone marks the skyline, and behind the small ranch homes, massive tracking antennas aim skyward.
So goes another afternoon for the holdouts in the tiny community next to SpaceX’s Starship facility near Boca Chica Beach, about 25 miles east of Brownsville.
Many things merge in this part of Texas: land and sea, the Rio Grande and the Gulf, Mexico and the United States, big business and the federal government, and now the Earth and space. The relationships are complicated, and so is SpaceX’s with the Rio Grande Valley.
SpaceX has followers around the world who devour every scrap of news about the pioneering commercial space company and Musk. But not all of SpaceX’s South Texas neighbors are thrilled with a rocket factory and launch pad in their backyard.
Musk, who also founded electric-vehicle maker Tesla, is trying to incorporate Boca Chica and the surrounding area. He announced SpaceX’s plan on Twitter on March 2: “Creating the city of Starbase, Texas” and “From thence to Mars, and hence the stars.”
The unincorporated area known as Boca Chica has roots in space exploration — at least in name. In the 1960s, as the Cold War space race played out, the area’s original developers called it Kennedy Shores, after President John F. Kennedy. In 1975, residents renamed it Kopernik Shores, after astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus.
The villagers have lived with SpaceX since 2014, but the company’s operations have exploded — both literally and figuratively — since 2019.
“We’ve been going through it for a long time, and we’ve got to live here,” Workman said. “You don’t want to say some of the words you’d like to use — they’re still neighbors, whether you like it or not.”
SpaceX has already bought out many of her neighbors. And in October, the company sent the dozen or so remaining property owners an email “final offer” of three times their property’s appraised value — roughly $150,000.
SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment, but property records show that SpaceX and its shell companies own 25 of the 37 properties on Weems Street. The company has renovated the houses, painting the bricks black and the trim white. They contrast sharply with the holdouts’ orange brick homes.
On this street, Boca Chica’s only residential thoroughfare, 1960s Americana meets the new space race.
The people who still live there, mostly retirees, want to be left alone. Only three or so residents — not counting SpaceX employees — stay in the village year-round. The others are “snowbirds” from northern states who spend their winters in Boca Chica.
The residents have an uneasy relationship with SpaceX. Workman said someone on Musk’s security detail hassled her husband about using binoculars for birdwatching in his front yard.
A few doors down from Workman’s house, dozens of birds milled around Jim and Nancy Crawford’s lawn. Jim Crawford pointed out hummingbirds, indigo buntings, orioles and summer tanagers. Asked about the prospect of SpaceX turning the area into Starbase, Nancy Crawford said, “It doesn’t matter to me as long as they leave us alone.”
Residents can stay in the village during static engine tests of the Starship, a reusable spacecraft that Musk hopes will someday carry people and cargo to the moon, Mars and beyond.
But they receive notices from SpaceX that a malfunction could break their windows. The company asks residents to go outside when a siren sounds as a safety precaution.
When a Starship launches, SpaceX evacuates the villagers and pays for them to stay at a hotel on South Padre Island, according to Jim Crawford.
“I don’t like what they do, but you don’t want to start a fight with them,” he said. “It really doesn’t matter anymore — they do what they want to do anyway.”
About 5 miles from the Starship production facility, a wrecking ball painted yellow with a smiley face welcomes people to Massey’s Gun Shop and Range, the southernmost shooting range in Texas.
The compound lies at the end of a dirt road on the banks of the Rio Grande. It’s the closest people can get to SpaceX when Texas 4 is closed for launches, and the business has capitalized on its proximity. It charges $20 per vehicle to park on its road for launches.
Another place space tourists gather is Rocket Ranch, a couple of miles from Massey’s.
Teslas kick up dust from the washboard road leading into the space-centric campground near the site of the Civil War’s Battle of Palmito Ranch.
After battling crowds for the launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy ship from Cape Canaveral, Fla., Rocket Ranch owner David Santilena thought there had to be a better way to watch blastoffs.
So Santilena, of Kingwood, bought 10½acres with a ranch house on the banks of the Rio Grande in January 2020. In less than a year, he created a campsite complete with vintage trailers for rent, a fishing dock, family-style meals, bonfires and a laid-back vibe.
Guests also can book a seat on the ranch’s pontoon boat for $350 to watch the launch from a special viewing area on the Rio Grande.
“Everybody’s interested in Elon and SpaceX and everything, so the conversations are good, and there’s some super smart people that come through here,” Santilena said. “Each launch is getting more and more popular, so this place is just kind of running away on its own,” he said.
On March 30, a Starship exploded and rained stainless steel and rocket parts across the Boca Chica marshes. About an hour after the blowup, Musk tweeted that he was donating $30 million to Cameron County schools and the city of Brownsville.
Mayor Trey Mendez sees SpaceX as a boost for his community, which has had a rough year with COVID-19 and February’s winter storm. Cameron County, with a population of about 425,000, has had nearly 40,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 1,600 deaths from the disease.
Mendez highlighted a real estate boom fueled in part by Musk’s March 30 tweet calling for people to move to the Brownsville area because SpaceX is hiring.
SpaceX has “been a real positive when it comes to the economic impact they’ve had on our community,” Mendez said.
Some residents, however, are concerned about the economic, civic and environmental impact of SpaceX’s expansion. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that debris from the late March explosion traveled 1,100 yards into federally managed land. Huge pieces of the rocket remain lodged in a marsh as the Federal Aviation Administration continues to investigate the explosion.
“SpaceX colonization of Mars is starting to impact the Rio Grande Valley,” said Bekah Hinojosa, a local activist. “It’s stripping away our access to our pristine beach, gentrifying our community and causing devastating explosions.”
Boca Chica Beach
In the afternoon light of April 19, a Brownsville family wrapped up their Boca Chica beach day celebration of 16-year-old Brianna Chavez’s birthday.
Jesus Chavez, Brianna’s father, manned the grill barbecuing beef fajitas and chicken. Cousins Andrea Gonzalez, 4, and Allison Chavez, 8, splashed in the surf.
“We come here every weekend and we barbecue, that’s what we do here in Brownsville,” Chavez said. “Now we have to accommodate (SpaceX) and check the time. We called the (county judge’s) office today to make sure that it’s open.”
In addition to closures for tests and launches, SpaceX often closes Texas 4 when moving equipment or rockets. The highway is the only way to the beach, and SpaceX needs county permission to close the road.
Despite publishing expected closures, the schedules change. Even after checking, the family got hung up in a 40-minute delay on the highway as SpaceX moved a giant crane.
Boca Chica Beach is “a national treasure — there’s nothing like it,” said Emma Gonzalez, Jesus Chavez’s sister-in-law.
“Before, we never had to wait. It was just a straight shot from Brownsville,” she said. “I’m not for SpaceX, I’m sorry.”
As the family packed their vehicles and prepared to head home, activity continued at the launch site. A sense of inevitability — like ocean waves or the onshore breeze — permeated the air.
Welders’ sparks flashed and heavy equipment rolled. A small group of visitors stood together across the highway from Starship SN15. They stared at the craft, snapped some photos and imagined it roaring toward the darkness.
A few miles down the road, in Boca Chica, Rosemarie Workman’s “Come and Take It” flag continued to fly.