In a gay bar in Brownsville, Texas, drag queens are the reason, plucking like petals lengthwise-folded singles, cheek-kissing regulars, and dazzling everyone with sequins and shine. It’s a Friday night in early January. “Heart of Glass” is playing, and the drink of choice is Dos Equis dressed with chamoy and dusted with Tajín: a red sweet-and-sour paste and a chili-lime powder. I, a writer from out of town, have been warmly welcomed even though between sets I keep asking patrons what they think about SpaceX, the California-based company that has set up its rocket shop and launchpad about 20 miles away.
Kira, in her 20s and here at Bar-B with friends, says she really likes space (she loves sci-fi); she just doesn’t appreciate the gentrification that’s come with it. She wants to move, but can’t find a one-bedroom for less than $800. Stephen, a retired educator who sometimes drives for Uber and Lyft, says that SpaceX employees generally are not the best tippers. He tells me he’s just started his second act, as a real estate agent. Drag queen Kathryn York, who’s performed here and in Vegas and elsewhere for more than 30 years, says it’s a good time for her “gaudy alien costume” that she wears for Dua Lipa’s “Levitating.” Some queens already have silver astronaut looks, she says. “Maybe there’ll be more of that.”
This article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
Leo Zuniga, a co-owner of Bar-B who was recently elected to the city’s LGBTQ task force, says a main concern with the arrival of SpaceX is housing. “It’s changed Brownsville in the sense that people who live here are used to a very humble and affordable life,” Zuniga says. “You could buy a house for 60K, but now those houses are 250K, and salaries haven’t changed…. They can’t afford it” because newcomers are buying property “sight unseen.”
SpaceX officially landed in this border town in 2014, soon buying up property 40 minutes east on the Gulf Coast, an enticing location for launching rockets—close to the equator for easy orbit and with water nearby, taking advantage of Earth’s rotation to catch debris if anything goes wrong. Brownsville’s also one of the poorest communities in the United States as well as in Texas. State and local politicians offered tens of millions of dollars in incentives to SpaceX, which is owned by Elon Musk, Earth’s richest billionaire, at the time hoping to bring between 300 and 500 jobs to the Rio Grande Valley region. Current openings include launchpad technician, barista, laser-tracker toolmaker, and shuttle driver, among more than a hundred others.
By 2019, the company had begun to test-fly prototypes of its next-generation rockets, which are similar in scale to those of the Apollo era, though projected to be almost twice as powerful. It also started to build out its manufacturing and launch facilities at Starbase, its beachfront property, which is surrounded by a state park with protected species and adjacent to the small community of Boca Chica Village, home mostly to retirees who have long appreciated the views and the quiet of a place that feels like it’s on the edge of the world.
In recent years, new arrivals have come to the greater Brownsville area either to work for SpaceX or to take advantage of the company’s promise of a new kind of space economy. From the southern tip of nearby South Padre Island, a popular spring break destination, you can get a clear view of the Starbase launchpad across just five miles of shimmering turquoise gulf. Or you can sit inside a café off the causeway in Port Isabel and feel the tremor of a test launch through vibrating concrete walls.
I’ve always been interested in space exploration, mostly the human side of it—the sociology of leaving home and the psychology of the people who want to do it and what it means for those of us back on Earth. In 2013, I was the crew writer and second-in-command on the NASA-funded HI-SEAS mission, a four-month simulation of a Mars mission on the island of Hawaii to provide data for a thoughtfully imagined future Mars shot. At the time, NASA didn’t have the means or an actionable plan to get there.
Back then, SpaceX’s reusable rockets were starting to look viable for transporting satellites and eventually astronauts, though Musk’s move-to-Mars-to-save-humanity rhetoric was already in full swing. But in recent years, NASA has continually turned to SpaceX for help in meeting its goals. The company is now regularly taking astronauts to the International Space Station in its reusable Dragon capsule, launched atop its reusable Falcon 9 rocket. In April 2021, NASA announced a $2.89 billion contract with the company to use the rocket system SpaceX is developing in Texas to send astronauts back to the moon. It’s the same rocket system that will power Starship, the craft SpaceX believes will take up to a hundred paying customers at a time to Mars.
At this point, crewed missions to the red planet and the success of Starship are both big hypotheticals, eliciting public opinion on what might be possible and what might be a pipe dream. Enthusiasts believe that any Musk claim, no matter how outlandish, can come true. Naysayers see human space exploration as a distraction from real, lived problems on Earth. In between, of course, are thousands of other takes. No matter where you stand, however, with each technical milestone surpassed, SpaceX’s vision for spaceflight becomes less like fantasy. For better and for worse, the view from the southernmost tip of Texas is showing the contours of a new reality.
The road from Brownsville to Boca Chica State Beach cuts through mangrove marshes and tidal flats studded with thorn scrub, prickly pear, and Spanish dagger. When streams spill over, clay dunes called lomas turn into islands. Brown pelicans, peregrine falcons, reddish egrets, and piping plovers hunt for worms and crustaceans, which in turn feed on blue-green algae that flourish in the wet-dry environment. The ocelot, a wildcat federally listed as endangered, is known to cross through this wildlife corridor.
About halfway there, you’ll come across a plaque on the south side of the road commemorating the 1865 Battle of Palmito Ranch, the Civil War’s last land battle, whose site is now a national historic landmark.
A few miles from the beach, some tall buildings and oddly shaped towers come into view. This is Starbase, as designated by an enormous sign roughly the length of a short city block. There’s no gate to keep out the public. I pull up and have an unobstructed view of a prototype of Starship.
If a five-year-old drew a spaceship and engineers copied the basic design, it would look strikingly similar to Starship, a 164-foot-tall stainless steel tube with fins at its tapered top and at its base. SpaceX wants various versions of Starship that would, in addition to taking people to the moon and beyond, deploy untold numbers of satellites, planetary probes, and space telescopes. It could also shuttle people between cities on Earth, faster, obviously, than even the Concorde once did, suggesting future goals in line with those of a transportation company rather than a traditional rocket maker.
Starship would do all this with the help of its Super Heavy booster, another enormous tubular structure, also under development, that would supply the bulk of the power. Together, they are almost as tall as a 40-story building, and Musk estimates that they would have 1,000 times the payload capacity of other rockets. Because both the booster and the spaceship are designed to be reusable and because the payload capacity is so large, the Starship–Super Heavy system could become the cheapest option for getting to space, by far.
Just past the Starbase industrial complex is a side road that leads to a patch of dozens of Airstream trailers, a setup for visiting VIPs. Beyond them, the modest one-story, ranch-style beach homes of Boca Chica Village appear incongruous among the stainless steel towers and cranes that dominate much of the landscape. The white one with modern trim and a new roof, flanked by a high wooden fence, is owned by SpaceX and leased to Musk, who, since 2021, has announced donations of $10 million to revitalize downtown Brownsville and more than $20 million to benefit the schools in surrounding Cameron County.
In the fall of 2019, SpaceX proposed buyouts to the Boca Chica community in a letter warning that the expansion of spaceflight activities “will make it increasingly more challenging to minimize disruption,” such as road closures and relocating residents during test launches. At the time, most balked at the offers—roughly $150,000, or three times the assessed value of some of the homes. The amount is only a fraction of what you’d need to relocate to a similar beach community. But since then, many have left, taking the money or negotiating better deals. Last spring, the company approached the county to express interest in incorporating Boca Chica Village and renaming it Starbase, Texas.
Rob and Boanne Avery, who live next door to Musk, have decided to stay as long as possible. Rob, a retired union pipe fitter from the Northeast, and Boanne, who worked for a health insurer, settled in Boca Chica Village in 2004. The couple enjoy daily beach walks, collecting shells, and watching the sun set from an elevated wooden deck Rob built in their backyard. Last year, SpaceX put them and other neighbors up on South Padre Island for as many as 19 nights to protect them during tests. “What baffles us,” Rob says, “is they launched with three engines. We were on the island, and it was intense.” The company plans to eventually operate 39 engines on its Super Heavy booster, which he says he can’t imagine. “It’s going to knock out hundreds of windows.”
Atop a dune at Boca Chica State Beach, just north of the highway’s end, I look inland to see the launchpad, with its towering service structure and nearby booster and spaceship. But if I turn and look toward the water, I can see old pylons jutting from the sand, remnants of a Union railroad bridge built near the end of the Civil War. Called Sheridan’s Bridge, it connected the mainland to nearby Brazos Island but was destroyed by a hurricane in 1867—only two years after it was built.
For much of this region’s human history, it was occupied by hundreds of small, distinctly named hunter-gatherer groups who have come to be collectively known as the Coahuiltecan. According to Martín Salinas’s landmark single volume on these groups, Indians of the Rio Grande Delta, first contact with Europeans was made in the early 1500s. Spanish colonization of this resource-rich valley began in the mid-1700s. Nearly all the Coahuiltecan people subsequently died of smallpox and measles, moved elsewhere, or relocated to missions. When the missions closed around the end of the 18th century, Native families were given small parcels of land, and survivors eventually absorbed into Mexican society, though, as in all colonial tales, without many chances to flourish.
To the south of me is the mouth of the Rio Grande, these days a trickle if anything, owing to drought, damming, and irrigation upriver. In contrast to the beaches on South Padre Island, this stretch of sandy coast has remained undeveloped and, before SpaceX, had the feel of a local’s secret. Liana Garcia, a natural resource specialist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), is an expert on the region’s wildlife and plants. “This area was a no-man’s-land until 2010,” she says. “So tranquil and peaceful. Now it’s a different place.”
Garcia’s referring, of course, to the arrival of SpaceX and to the four major rocket explosions since 2020 that turned this protected area into a debris field. You might still be able to find small pieces like bolts, but the beach and the marshes are now mostly free of rocket parts, says Willy Cupit, a coastal ecologist with the TPWD. The largest chunks were as long as an extended-cab truck, he says, and embedded at least six feet deep in the ground. It took months to clear them out, because removal in wet conditions would have been more damaging to the ecosystems than when the tidal flats were dry. So they waited. “I know for us and other agencies, we’re learning as we go,” says Cupit. “It’s very novel to us, responding to space-rocket explosions on our property and to assess damage and impact on habitats and natural resources.”
Boca Chica State Park holds an immense amount of conservation value, says Reagan Faught, the regional director for the Texas State Parks in South Texas. “The ecosystems on that property support a system rarely found in the U.S.,” he says. “It’s a part of our mission to steward and conserve these natural places, whether it’s for purpose of wildlife or environment or for people to observe and learn.”
It’s common for the TPWD to cooperate with adjacent landowners, Faught explains, from ranchers to municipalities, power plants to subdivisions. “We work with those folks and with developers for how the park can benefit them,” he says, “but we’ve never had a neighbor like SpaceX before.”
Loud booms, extreme vibrations, and bright lights would seem likely to disrupt the behavior of wildlife, in particular the many endangered and protected species of the region. Tens of thousands of migratory birds stop over each year; in the spring and summer, endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles lay their eggs on the beach. For more than a decade, volunteers from local organizations like Sea Turtle Inc. have collected these eggs and relocated them to protected and monitored areas in an attempt to ensure that newly hatched turtles have a better chance of survival.
While SpaceX construction and operation is not within the sea turtle nesting area, the heat plume from launches extends to the beach, where it could affect nesting females or any hatchlings from eggs not collected by patrols. Though this turtle species often builds its nests on windy days, when a launch is unlikely, it’s also possible that lights from the facility could disorient turtles, which navigate by the light of the moon. Studies on SpaceX’s impact on the sea turtles are in progress, but there is evidence of change in the piping plover, a little round shorebird that winters near the SpaceX facility and is protected by the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Research by the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program shows that between 2018 and 2021 the bird’s population in the area decreased by 54 percent.
Faught explains that environmental studies are ongoing. “I don’t want to speculate yet on the true outcome and long-term impact from noise or vibration,” he says, pointing to the most recent Federal Aviation Administration environmental review. The final report was due to be released on December 31, 2021, but was delayed until the end of May (after this issue of Alta Journal went to press) because the FAA received more than 19,000 public comments on the draft report, all of which needed to be considered. The process must be complete before SpaceX can launch Starship into orbit—so far, it has run only suborbital tests, sanctioned under a prior FAA approval that the company flouted when it launched Starship in a suborbital test flight in 2020 amid FAA concerns over “safety culture issues.” The test ended in an explosion as the ship attempted its landing. In a congressional hearing regarding the test-flight violation, the agency’s associate administrator Wayne Monteith defended SpaceX despite prior internal FAA criticism of the company.
“We have confidence in the FAA process,” says Faught. “We’ve had our experts provide comments, so that’s the mechanism, as an agency, that we use to express our concerns.”
Musk, for his part, has tweeted, “Unlike its aircraft division, which is fine, the FAA space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure. Their rules are meant for a handful of expendable launches per year from a few government facilities. Under those rules, humanity will never get to Mars.”
Boca Chica in early 2022 in some ways resembles the east-central coast of Florida of the 1960s. Small villages, fishing, a lot of open land and sea. Back then, thousands flocked to Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach to be a part of the excitement of NASA’s early days. Today, Florida’s Space Coast attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists who come to see astronaut crews rocket into space.
Space documentarian and recording artist MaryLiz Bender loves a good launch. She and her partner, Ryan Chylinski, a photographer and cinematographer, have traveled the country to watch dozens of them. When they came to South Texas, however, they saw something they’d never seen before, she says, the start of something new. About a year ago, they decided to move to Port Isabel to capture and share the experience through their website Cosmic Perspective. Bender cohosts launch livestreams from Starbase on a popular YouTube channel called Everyday Astronaut.
“We’re paving the way to Mars,” she tells me, “trying to become a species that goes out there and establishes a new world. My vision and mission is that we do that as consciously and as thoughtfully as we can. What I love about space exploration is it projects you into the future where you can’t help but face these bold questions about what it means to be human.”
Bender, who drums in the band Twin Limb and has opened for Jim James of My Morning Jacket, has focused her creative work on the “overview effect,” an almost spiritual phenomenon astronauts report after seeing Earth from space. No borders. Part of a larger whole. She believes that music has the potential to induce a similar effect and sees the space-loving community in and around Brownsville as an ideal environment in which to bring the astronaut view to people here on Earth. “Everyone’s calling it the gateway to Mars,” Bender says, “but it’s also the gateway to the cosmos.”
We’re standing in the sand just east of the launchpad as the low sun silvers the contours of a massive cumulus behind the launch tower. Scattered on the dunes are other watchers, cameras on tripods, recording videos and taking pictures to post for followers around the world. Over the loudspeaker, a voice announces a two-minute warning for some kind of test.
Bender introduces me to Marcela Ronquillo, the founding principal of NewSpace Capital, a firm that’s focused on funding space exploration and development. Ronquillo, who has gone by the nickname Mars since she was young, is the former executive director of the Brownsville Museum of Fine Art. She’s a community leader in arts, culture, and environmental efforts. Like Bender, she’s committed to scaling the overview effect, in her case through the environmental nonprofit EarthX. “We’ve talked so much about how everybody who goes to space comes back a conservationist,” she says. “It’s this passion for making the world a better place.”
Daylight’s fading, but artificial light illuminates the launchpad. If 2022 goes as planned, SpaceX will send Starship into orbit and safely land it back on Earth. And then it’ll do it again. And again. Ultimately, hundreds upon hundreds of launches. It’s almost an impossible thing to imagine—spaceflight becoming so ordinary. Those who are gathered at the dunes this evening seem to believe it will happen and believe in it as a cause for good, despite the significant changes it’s already brought to the Rio Grande Valley and despite the unknown changes, beyond, to come.
At the base of the launch tower, a sudden cloud of white exhaust hisses and swells. All eyes turn toward the spectacle. People cheer. It is, perhaps, the future.•