Brownsville, we have a problem
July 28, 2021
The money and will of Elon Musk are reshaping a tiny Texas city. Its residents are divided on his vision for SpaceX, but their opinion may not matter at all.
The money and will of Elon Musk are reshaping a tiny Texas city. Its residents are divided on his vision for SpaceX, but their opinion may not matter at all.
In Boca Chica, Texas, the coastal prairie stretches to the horizon on either side of the Gulf of Mexico, an endless sandbar topped with floating greenery, wheeling gulls and whipping gusts of wind.
Far above the sea on a foggy March day, the camera feed on the Starship jerked and then froze on an image of orange flames shooting into the gray. From the ground below, onlookers strained to see through the opaque sky. After a moment of quiet, jagged edges of steel started to rain from the clouds, battering the ground near the oceanside launch pad, ripping through the dunes, sinking deep into the sand and flats.
Yet again, a SpaceX rocket had exploded in a test flight over the empty miles of Boca Chica beach. For the people of Cameron County and the nearby city of Brownsville, the March explosion was the most apocalyptic of several in early 2021. For Elon Musk and SpaceX, it was a normal testing snafu in the necessary process to build a prototype for a rocket that they hope, one day, will carry 100 people to Mars. "A high production rate solves many ills," Musk tweeted at the time. "At least the crater is in the right place!"
SpaceX never replied to Protocol's numerous requests for comment on this story.
The single 20-mile stretch of road to the beach was closed on March 30, the day of the explosion. When the road reopened, the space fanatics who'd flocked to the launch facility at the southernmost tip of Texas swarmed down past the launch pad and over the dunes, searching for their own little memento — a piece of rocket debris.
"People circled back around from the beach and climbed over the dunes," said Stephanie Bilodeau, a conservation biologist who walks the dunes and coastal prairie for her research almost every other day. We had sheltered from the heat and wind in the front seat of her white pickup. In the back, her little dog panted quietly, nestled among the gear Bilodeau uses to count and tag the rare red knots and plovers that nest at the edge of the 91,000-acre wildlife refuge. On one side of our perch, the view stretched unbroken to the ocean; on the other side, the horizon was blocked by newly constructed letters, taller than us, that proclaimed we'd entered "STARBASE."
For SpaceX, cleaning up the debris wasn't a simple matter of loading it onto trucks and driving back to the facility. Driving heavy trucks out onto the flats and ripping out the chunks of steel would only cause more damage. The company had to come up with a way to cut the wreckage into smaller, lighter pieces to remove it.
The company ultimately completed most of the cleanup, but researchers like Bilodeau who work in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge and the local Cameron County residents were furious. The explosion had, at least temporarily, destroyed the delicate ecosystem in the area near the launch. Bilodeau had seen plovers nesting near the launch pad the week before, and now they were gone. A local entomologist was devastated by the destruction posed to the invertebrates that sustain the ecosystem. In certain areas, steel had sunk into the sand every couple of feet.
For Cameron County and Brownsville, Musk's money is a bit like his rockets. The Starship prototype was a gleaming vision for the future of space exploration, but its explosion was devastating to the natural environment. Musk's determination to build a spaceport and town that will one day launch hundreds of people to Mars has brought with it the promise of jobs, economic revitalization and an influx of wealth to one of the poorest and least-connected places in America. But the investment will also bring wealthy outsiders to a culturally vibrant, family-oriented border town that is proud of its history and the people who've lived there for generations, a town full of people skeptical that the money and prestige Musk is offering might be anything more than a poison pill.
SpaceX's investment likely does mean a change in economic status and power for Brownsville. But the money and vision of the world's second-richest man could also upend the culture and values that make Brownsville special to its community, a fear that has riven the people of this usually quiet place.
From afar, only electricity and cars signal that Brownsville hasn't been plucked from the early 20th century. The old stables, yellow brick, stucco, painted general-store signs, the occasional colonnade and elaborately wrought balcony all echo with a kind of faded glory. The ghosts of a place that was home to Spanish colonizers, the last battle of the Civil War and generations of Mexican immigrants remain in the still-standing architecture.
Up close, the picture is a different one. The abandoned downtown storefronts with dusty, off-kilter wigs and broken glass convey the decades since almost anyone could afford to own a local business; the long nearby highway with strip malls, pawn shops and dried-out palm trees suggest the tax dollars are slim. Despite its historic charm, Brownsville is one of the poorest urban areas in the United States.
But statistics on relative poverty and a blighted downtown don't capture the realities of life for the people who grew up there. Resacas — "long forgotten meanders of the Rio Grande" — glimmer in the sun behind houses and cut through the local parks. The bridge to Matamoros, Mexico lingers in the backdrop of daily life, symbolizing both literal and metaphorical ties between Brownsville and its sister city across the Rio Grande. For years, teenagers from Mexico would bike across the bridge to the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley campus that stretches along one side of the city. The Main Street Deli, glitzed up with twinkly lights, ice cream and gleaming booths in the middle of downtown, is the place to see and be seen. Across the block, Dodici Pizza and Wine is one of a few facades oozing polish and charm on the otherwise rough street. Co-owned by Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez, it's the place the locals go if they want to support the mayor, or at least seem like they do.
When Mendez moved back home to Brownsville to help deal with a family crisis in the mid-2000s, he was just like many other locals, a kid who came back after leaving for a better education. In Brownsville, he built himself a law firm, joined the historical preservation society and co-founded Dodici's. When he decided to run for mayor in 2019, SpaceX was still nothing more than a big-name company settling down 30 minutes outside of town, an interesting but largely irrelevant industrial experiment. His campaign mostly pledged to increase public safety and battle Brownsville's reputation as a place that couldn't move past its economic plight.
When he's photographed, Mendez is almost always wearing a pale collared shirt and slim-fit pants. The day he shakes my hand in City Hall, he looks the mirror image of almost every picture he's ever taken. "A few years ago, people always talked about the potential. Brownsville could be a good city," he said, leaning back into the pale leather couch in his sunlit office, always smiling at least a little bit.
The kids working at the local coffee shops said the same. "When I was young, it felt like a small town with nothing to do," one told me. "We always wanted to drive away."
Trey Mendez, mayor of Brownsville, poses in front of his law offices.Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for Protocol
Mendez won the mayoral election by promising to change that perception. But his power to make that happen was nothing compared to the force that was building just 20 miles down the road, almost completely out of his control. Engineers from Florida and California were filling up Brownsville hotels. Trucks loaded with cement and building materials were chugging out of town toward the beach. Just four months after Mendez won the election, Musk hosted an event at the still fairly small SpaceX facility. It was the local population's first real chance to see what had been quietly built on their beach, and Musk's signal to the world that for the first time, SpaceX was planning to get publicly aggressive about pursuing its efforts to build a spaceport to Mars.
Mendez seemed surprised to be asked whether he feels the pressure of being one of the few people with the ability to stand up to all the money and power that comes with SpaceX. "No. Nah. I guess some people are just built differently," he said.
This story doesn't really start in 2012, when SpaceX first started to scope out sites in South Texas for a launch facility. Nor does it start in 2014, when the company received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration for about 12 Falcon Heavy launches (the rockets used to launch low-earth orbit satellites). And not in 2016, when the first tracking antenna was built near Boca Chica Village.
It really starts the moment Musk got up on a stage at the SpaceX facility to introduce the locals to Starship in 2019. The wind gusted into the microphone, the stage was aglow with spotlights. "It's windy out here!" Musk shouted into the microphone. The crowd cheered as the billionaire grinned, turning into the wind to let his black blazer flap open.
It could have been a rock concert, except there has never been a concert in the middle of the national wildlife refuge on the southernmost tip of Texas. Musk could be the pop star, except never before had someone of his wealth and acclaim visited the undeveloped beach on the Gulf of Mexico. Behind him, hulking into the night sky, glittering steel in a straight shot toward the heavens, rested the Starship prototype.
"It's quite windy here. It's tied down well, though!" Musk shouted into the crowd. The gleaming steel was just an early prototype of a rocket that should one day house 100 crew members, but to Musk, it was a symbol of promise.
At some point in 2018, without consulting local government leaders, SpaceX quietly switched course. Instead of launching its Falcon rockets, the company decided to use the South Texas facility for a longer-term project to build both the Starship and the Super Heavy booster that Musk hopes will one day serve as the main transport vehicle for people to live on Mars. Getting people to live on Mars entails years (and likely even decades) of rocket prototypes and launch tests, and likely more explosions over the wildlife refuge. All of those rockets require new fuel, energy and water supplies. The tech necessary to make this happen means SpaceX has to hire hundreds and even thousands of top-tier engineers from the best schools and companies in the country, who will want houses like the ones they could have had in Florida or California, and good schools for their kids. Space ambitions of this scale always end up reshaping the place they're located (see: NASA in Cape Canaveral and Houston).
Starship prototypes are seen near the SpaceX facilities.Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for Protocol
When SpaceX changed its plans, Musk only really had to share details with one partner: the FAA. While the Texas state government has some say over how public land is used, all other space and rocket-related activities in the U.S. are monitored only by the FAA, meaning that Cameron County doesn't have official power to tell SpaceX to do — or stop — much of anything.
"In November 2016, we were aware that SpaceX was committed to Falcon heavy launches, once a month for satellites, and that was the extent of it," said county Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. "In 2017-2019, Elon changed gears. Instead of doing Falcon 9, he started developing Starship. It was not anticipated."
Treviño, a former Brownsville mayor and a local kid like Mendez, exudes the kind of warmth, power and confidence you'd expect of a successful small-town Texas politician. He likes to talk football. He's direct. He's not afraid of Musk, but he also knows he's under an immense amount of pressure to represent the needs and desires of people who are now passively watching their lives be transformed by Musk's choices. His role as county judge is an administrative position that positions him as a mayor for everyone who lives in the parts of Cameron County outside the Brownsville city limits.
SpaceX is creeping higher into the sky and farther up the road almost daily.
Musk's presentation that night in 2019 was part of SpaceX's effort to make the people of Cameron County feel that they were invited on the Mars-bound space train that had, practically speaking, left the station years ago. "We're faced with a choice: Which future do we want?" Musk asked the crowd that night. "Are we going to be in many worlds and out among the stars, or in one where we are forever confined to earth? And I say it is the first, and I hope you agree with me."
Like Mendez, Treviño has little choice in what SpaceX will or will not do in Cameron County. The best he can do is play Musk's game and hope he wins."Sometimes lots of money can leave destruction and waste in its path. This business is a dangerous business," he said. But lots of money also means more than 1,500 jobs for skilled tradesmen that didn't exist before (many of whom would otherwise leave Brownsville to find work), and the potential for many more jobs on top of those. Some of Treviño's constituents are thrilled about the higher wages that let them stay closer to home; others are terrified to see a California billionaire taking over the place they see as their birthright.
"I have to get this right because there are so many diverging interests on this project, both for and against," he said. "If we're not getting everything we want, but getting some of what we want — it needs to be better than what we had before. I'm trying to help SpaceX get what they want, not have SpaceX create a blueprint for damaging Cameron County."
Eddie Treviño Jr., county judge, poses in a courtroom at the Cameron County Courthouse.Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for Protocol
The domed buildings, the rocket and the cranes on the launch pad are the only structures that break the horizon on the single road from Brownsville to Boca Chica Beach. The complex of rapidly growing structures alongside the boulevard would suit a new dystopian sci-fi franchise perfectly: all gray, white and pointed steel. Security gates prevent drivers from turning even into the parking lot — and guards in tactical gear wait to escort those who might happen to slip through not-so-politely back to the road. Condominiums and the massive "STARBASE" sign, stretching hundreds of feet down the previously untouched road, sprung up over the last few months. The construction has continued so fast that Google Maps can't keep up with the changes. SpaceX is creeping higher into the sky and farther up the road almost daily.
Just past the facility on the road to the beach sits the turnoff to the tiny Boca Chica Village, where a handful of homeowners still live. SpaceX has drawn national attention for making life difficult for the people who remain there and for trying to force out the residents who refused buyouts. The once-small beach village, essentially a Brownsville outpost, is now a deeply unpleasant place to live for some residents, and will only grow more dangerous as SpaceX expands. One of the small houses left in the village, owned by SpaceX, is now Musk's primary residence (he spends most of his time there, and has sold or is in the process of selling all of his other properties).
Beyond the turnoff to the village, the beach road passes within a few hundred feet of the launch pad and rocket, separated only by a low wall and some fencing. On one sweltering, sunny Wednesday in May, Susan Eade and Victor DeAnda Jr. are picking up trash along the dunes with their dog; they go out every week to do the same thing, collecting plastic bottles and rocket debris alike.
A "Boca Chica Village Welcomes You" sign on the road leading to the Boca Chica Village neighborhood, where existing homes and Airstream trailers house SpaceX employees, including Elon Musk.Photos: Verónica G. Cárdenas for Protocol
Eade recently came back to live in Brownsville after more than 45 years away, only to find little change except for a massive construction project on the beach. She's furious that the company is building in the middle of the wildlife refuge. "Even if it was three or four miles down the beach ... It's the middle of a wildlife refuge," she said. "Who allowed that?"
Bilodeau, who works for the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program, spends long days walking the beach and flats along the road, searching for red knot and plover nests. "At first glance, it looks like a big, desolate area. It doesn't look like much to anybody," she said. "But tidal flats and coastal prairie, the water is wind-driven, you can't find an area like this. I don't even know how to describe how amazing this place is for birds."
Because the birds nest on the ground, their future in the refuge will likely depend on how much SpaceX expands in the area and the size of future rocket tests. The prototype Starship uses three engines, but the final Super Heavy booster for the Starship rocket will one day use more than 30, which could mean far larger explosions than the one that savaged the beach in March. And SpaceX plans to grow far beyond just its rocket. The company wants to expand its solar farm and parking lots and build a natural gas pretreatment facility, a desalination plant and a power plant, in addition to more towers, support buildings and other assorted structures.
Bilodeau's nonprofit isn't the only group upset about the harm already caused by the project. The environmental approvals that originally allowed construction to begin in 2016 were based on the plan to launch a limited number of Falcon rockets. When Musk announced the change in 2018, no serious reassessment was done. In 2019, the FAA then issued a written re-evaluation to its original approval, saying it believed the Starship tests would meet the same environmental criteria as the previous approval. Only in late 2020 did the FAA announce that it would begin a new environmental review of the Starship and Super Heavy plans, all while SpaceX charged ahead with its Starship testing and spaceport construction. When the FAA asked for public comments to shape the new research, a flood of critiques from researchers and locals over the habitat and natural environment flooded in.
A National Wildlife Refuge sign is near the SpaceX facilities in Boca Chica Village, where pelicans fly over its launch pad facilities.Photos: Verónica G. Cárdenas for Protocol
The local Brownsville residents are worried about more than the wildlife refuge. SpaceX closes the road to the beach often and unexpectedly, infuriating them. Many see the beach as part of their Brownsville birthright; it's the place they tell everyone to visit, the place they grew up playing, the place where the Rio Grande opens into the Gulf of Mexico (Boca Chica means "little mouth.") "It's still open to the public, but it doesn't feel like it," Bilodeau said from the perch on the side of the road we'd picked just in case access was blocked that afternoon.
One local nonprofit, called Save RGV,
says that the roads have been closed more than 380 hours so far just in 2021, a number far above the 300 hours of road closures the company has permission to use in all of 2021.
"Who gave him permission to take over our beaches?" DeAnda Jr. asked me the next day.
Because the birds nest on the ground, their future in the refuge will likely depend on how much SpaceX expands in the area and the size of future rocket tests.
The road closures aren't all that's making the locals angry; the ongoing construction of a new rocket assembly "integration" tower at the facility never received any approvals. The FAA could force SpaceX to tear down the tower if it violates the new environmental review underway, but Musk has a reputation for doing whatever he feels needs to be done, regardless of the government. He resents the regulatory and government officials that try to slow his work, and he hates plans and designs that take a long time to develop — "If it's long, it's wrong. If it's tight, it's right," he's known for saying.
It's not just the tower or the road closures. Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz is accusing the SpaceX armed security guards of preventing the public from turning down two small roads near the complex that, legally, are not private property. The roads are county property, but they've been renamed, built over and closed off by SpaceX guards — the same guards that turned me away during my visits to the complex.
"This was my favorite place to work before all of this happened. Every time it's more stressful," Bilodeau said. "I think a lot of people have just stopped coming here. Sometimes I am just like, is this a lost cause?"
The March day the rocket exploded over the beach was also the day nearly everyone in Brownsville realized that SpaceX would become a part of their personal future.
Just a few weeks earlier, Musk had tweeted that he wanted to turn Boca Chica Beach and Village into an incorporated town called Starbase. Treviño doesn't think a proposal for a proper town has much potential juice; building real infrastructure, like water systems and gas lines, would be incredibly difficult in the remote location, especially given the environmental restrictions. "They haven't done the logistics. The main problem they are going to face is lack of infrastructure," he said. But SpaceX can likely persuade the United States Postal Service to grant the area its own zip code, which will let everyone put Starbase on the mailing address.
"He can call it Starbase, but for everyone who was born and raised down there, that is Boca Chica. It's one of the last pristine, undeveloped beaches," Treviño said.
The drive from SpaceX to the Main Street Deli is 24 miles, but Musk's presence lingers in the local gossip as if his Tesla is always parked around the corner. For many of the older locals, he's bringing the kind of change to their peaceful beach town that they never wanted to see. For the high school girls working the counter at the deli, in the last year there had been so much change so quickly that, for the first time, they don't feel the desperate need to "get out" at the first possible chance. "I don't know how things will be a year from now. Things are changing so fast. It's so exciting," one of them told me.
24 hours after the rocket explosion, Musk tweeted that he would be gifting $30 million to Brownsville: $10 million would go to revitalize the downtown area, and another $20 million to the county school district.
The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, UTRGV, Stargate building in the SpaceX facilities.Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for Protocol
The news caused an absolute sensation, driving locals further into their "pro" and "anti" SpaceX camps. The town's local Twitter feed was bombarded with angry people,
furious that Brownsville was letting itself be bought by a billionaire. "I've never seen a city kiss ass on this level," one resident wrote. "Imagine how much good would come to our people if Elon Musk actually paid taxes," wrote another.
Mendez wasn't exactly ready with a quick answer for the angry or the excited: The news of the gift had come as a complete surprise. Mendez hasn't even ever met Musk, and the donation didn't come with an invitation to change that.
Mendez is not the kind of man to let that bother him. He explained that he's a lawyer and a businessman. He's eager for the potential that comes with SpaceX's growth. "It's what you do with that," he said. "Brownsville could be a good city. It's grown way more than I could have anticipated. It's an opportunity to take advantage of what we have in Brownsville. Really be accommodating."
He's sanguine about Brownsville becoming a space town. "What they want for Brownsville and what I want for Brownsville are the same thing — to make it a place where people want to live."
But many of the people who grew up and stayed in the town all of their lives resent the idea that Brownsville isn't already a good place to live. Sure, the desolate shopfronts and buildings reduced to rubble aren't exactly pleasant to look at, but a good life is more than a couple of empty buildings.
"Whenever you see a rocket explode, it's a concern."
"They tell us that you should be so grateful that Elon Musk chose you all. But are we?" Jackie, a local artist, asked. "This is trying to turn Brownsville into something it's not. How do you do this without getting rid of all the people who can barely afford to live here?"
"How are we supposed to trust Musk when he already broke the rules by the beach? I wish they would answer our questions. I thought we were supposed to vote," DeAnda Jr., the man who picks up trash with Eade every week, asked.
"Sure, there are some concerns. I'm not going to say there aren't concerns," Mendez said. "Whenever you see a rocket explode, it's a concern. But as far as the community goes, it's not just the higher wages; it raises everyone. Whenever you grow so quickly like this, it becomes difficult to plan for. For people already here, I don't see why they won't be able to afford it." He cited two new efforts to build affordable housing in the downtown area, and then changed the subject back to the potential for positive growth.
"We lose a lot of good people to other cities. We're trying to build a city they want to come back to," he said.
Eade vacillates between anger and hope. "I can see both sides of it. I came back after 45 years and Brownsville is just the same. No revitalization at all. I hope they do something good with the money," she said.
One month after the explosion and Musk's surprise financial gift, what felt like half of Brownsville descended on an old stable a few blocks north of City Hall. The wide cement ground floor, usually empty, was filled with paintings of rockets and crowded with chattering people. The stairs to the second floor of the newly opened Livery Gallery led to more photos in the wide, window-lit space, capturing the Starship's evolution from that fateful night in 2019 to the explosion at the end of March, all taken by local amateur photographers. Presiding over it all, the painted face of Musk grinned into the distance on the neighboring building, his head larger than the people crowded underneath him. "BOCA CHICA TO MARS" proclaimed the letters atop his hair.
People fixed Starbase stickers to their phone cases and took selfies with Musk's face. The art gallery opening was a smashing success. The events of the previous two months had made SpaceX important to more than just the local enthusiasts; everyone in town wanted to see and understand what the company was doing.
And when it ended, the mural remained, suddenly an iconic destination. The painting was originally nothing more than an accident (the gallery owner never even approved the design), and now it is one of the must-see sites in downtown Brownsville, surrounded by and on top of abandoned storefronts.
"Boca Chica to Mars" is now one of those phrases that will linger as part of the city's identity. When Musk chose Cameron County, he changed its future irrevocably, even if it was, at first, an accident.
"He can call it Starbase, but for everyone who was born and raised down there, that is Boca Chica."
Treviño doesn't wish he could turn back the clock. "I'm not going to doubt Elon or his goal or his motivation. If it creates jobs, that should be something that we are all wanting," he said.
And Mendez? He loves what's happened. He and his city government have fully embraced the idea that, from now on, Brownsville should be a space town: the next Houston or Cape Canaveral.
Mendez's government has done some small, practical things to create the "space industry" vibe, like persuading the Space Channel to relocate to the city from California and helping venture capitalists establish ties to local space startups. The town is situated in one of the few geographical places on Earth ideal for rocket launches (about 750 miles from the Blue Origin launch site in West Texas, but similarly situated relative to the equator), meaning SpaceX is not the only rocket company interested in setting up shop. "We are getting a lot of interest from space companies," Mendez said. "We're well-positioned globally for the science of rockets and launching, so it's up to us to really be able to sell the city, and sell to the community."
Brownsville also has a shiny new airport, empty except for customs equipment and security machines still wrapped in plastic, anticipating an influx of workers and tourists. SpaceX has promised to donate one of the Starship rocket wings for an airport monument, and the road that wraps around it has been renamed Starship Road.
The children growing up in Brownsville and Cameron County today are growing up surrounded by space. Driving down to watch the SpaceX launches may be the biggest events they'll ever witness. Many of their toys are space-themed. Their high school field trips and extracurriculars will involve partnerships with SpaceX. "When they talk about space in school, you can drive the kids to the launch area. They get to see it in front of their eyes," one local mother said.
SpaceX facilities.Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for Protocol
Hundreds of engineers have been recruited to live in Boca Chica and the surrounding area. Florida and California natives have filled up the hotels and bought up all of the local properties, pushing property values up. Commercial lots near the SpaceX facility have more than doubled in value over the last few years.
The FAA's upcoming environmental review might require the company to make some contingency plans for the harms it could cause to the local environment and community, but Musk has proven he has little interest in letting his project slow down. Angry locals have no real recourse or power, and most of them don't know that almost all of the authority to stop Musk rests with state and government agencies, not their local officials.
"To me, it feels silly. It just feels like a waste of time. We should just focus on fixing our planet a bit more," Bilodeau said. "Why are we focusing on sending people to Mars?"
But stepping off the tiny plane from Dallas, you can smell the inevitable change in the upturned soil across the airport and hear it in the squeaking of sneakers across gleaming new floors. Walking into the airport to leave, the last thing you see is the sign proclaiming "Starship Road." Regardless of how the locals might feel, there's no stopping SpaceX now.
Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (Twitter: @ anna_c_kramer, email: email@example.com), where she writes about labor and workplace issues. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.