Countdown to Liftoff
When high-flying tech entrepreneur Elon Musk announced that he was building a launch site in my old backyard of Boca Chica, two thoughts ran through my mind: Is Brownsville ready for SpaceX? Is SpaceX ready for Brownsville?
When I was growing up on the unincorporated farming fringes of Brownsville in the seventies and eighties, Boca Chica Beach was one of the few places my family and I went for fun. Back then the beach and the surrounding state park were free, seemingly lawless, and, well, fairly Mexican, because they were unmonitored and open. On Sundays after church, my father would call up a cousin or a friend; run to H-E-B for fajitas, chicken, sodas, and beer; and find some firewood. Then we’d head out, a small convoy of old pickups full of families. After the long, sandy drive to the coast, we’d find a spot, dig a hole, light a fire, and cast a few lines to catch catfish or red drum. This was recreation for the poor, and it was as welcoming to us as any campground or RV park is to people in other parts of the United States.
Sure, it was eventually miserable, but spending five to eight hours in the sun without sunscreen, rolling around on sand dunes and cavorting in the body-temperature waves, was heavenly for us farm kids. By the time evening came around, we’d have sand rashes and third-degree sunburns, the temperature would plunge, and we’d wrap ourselves in damp towels to keep warm while our teeth chattered violently on the ride back home in the beds of the pickups. Sometimes we’d spend the night, circle the vehicles like wagons of old for protection, put down some musty, dingy blankets, and make a bonfire to last a few hours. Inevitably, a huge fog bank would roll in after midnight and we’d endure the small hours until the morning, soaked, gritty, and unhappy.
But we never learned: Boca Chica was fun!
Standing on the shore as a kid on those Sunday afternoons, getting sizzled and looking east over the horizon line, I would often wonder what was directly across from us, hidden only by the Coriolis effect and the limit of human vision.
“Cuba,” said my brother, who was off by a few hundred miles.
“No hay nada,” said my father, who was metaphysically correct, if he meant Florida. Because it was Florida that I would have been looking at, and very nearly Cape Canaveral, the home of the space shuttle launches.
On his more creative days, on the drive to or from the beach, my father would look out over the dunes toward the north and say, cryptically, “You know there’s a treasure out there.” This would certainly pique my interest, given that I was an Indiana Jones freak.
“Really?” I’d bite.
“Oh, sí,” he’d answer. “They say Santa Anna buried treasure out there when he was escaping back to Mexico, and he shot six soldiers, whose ghosts guard it now, and you can dig it up only at midnight or it will just bring you bad luck.”
This blew my mind. Midnight Central time or Greenwich mean time?
My dad, a few beers in and limited in his folklore, may have had his wars (Texas Revolution and Civil) mixed up, but the story captured my imagination. That was the kind of magic the area elicited for those of us who couldn’t afford or fathom a camping trip to Yellowstone: no tents, no sleeping bags, no lanterns needed, just a taste for adventure and a borrowed truck. Maybe a firearm.
But then, roughly two years ago, I heard that SpaceX, or Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, arguably one of the most progressive, forward-thinking companies on the planet, was considering Brownsville—specifically Boca Chica Beach—as a site for a launching pad. A passion project for Elon Musk, the South African–born billionaire who oversaw the rise of PayPal and Tesla, SpaceX was going to privatize, and thus revolutionize, space exploration, satellite launches, and trips to the International Space Station. It was going to directly compete against NASA, against crusty government thinking and waste, and revitalize American interest in the human capacity to break Earth’s limits. In short, there was nothing else like this in the world, and it was coming to my old backyard.
This filled me with a swarm of conflicting emotions. The idea of building a spaceport so close to my family’s land, and upon the wild, unsullied alkaline stretch where I had felt safest as a kid, learning how to drive and fish and shoot—it was going to leave an environmental mark. Launching a rocket every month would alter the natural balance of the land and the lifestyles of the people who live there. Would it be worth it?
Initially, I was also worried for SpaceX, because I was fairly positive the company didn’t know what it would be getting into, building in Brownsville. But then I remembered a line written by playwright and director David Mamet: “Never feel sorry for a man that owns a plane.” Or in this case, a rocket company. So next I worried for Brownsville, wondering whether, as a city, it was prepared for such a courtship.
It’s no stretch of the imagination to consider the tropical, geographically isolated Rio Grande Valley as a modern-day banana republic, in which the corporate equivalent of red-coated, pith-helmeted colonialists in dusty jodhpurs sweep in and prop their worn boots on the backs of the working class. For much of its history, South Texas has attracted a particular type of manufacturing, enticed by pro-business laws, toothless environmental restrictions, and, most important of all, an all but unending cut-rate labor pool. Finding a position making $9 an hour was considered middle-class and lucky among my father’s people.
“¡Mira! Haggar’s está hiring,” I heard one of my dad’s friends say with enthusiasm to a couple of his sons when I was in Brownsville last year. They were both in their twenties and sleeping in the same bedroom. It rocked me back on my heels that in the two decades since I’d left, nothing seemed to have changed. I mean, there was an interesting trend happening at mom-and-pop stores, where the owners would build a covered drive-through and you could pull in, roll down your window, and order a six-pack, some tortillas, barbacoa, cocaine or marijuana, a two-liter, diapers, and then head on your way without ever leaving your vehicle. That was new, and fairly innovative. But as for legitimate work at a tradesman’s wages, landing a line job at the Trico plant was the big time when I left Brownsville, and it seemed to be still. In my travels outside Texas, I’ve occasionally bought Trico wiper blades with an unsettled feeling that I have yet to coin a term for, a dissonant combination of sadness and pride.
But this news was different. SpaceX is different—it’s not Haggar’s slacks, not an auto parts manufacturer. SpaceX is one of the most ambitious and cutting-edge companies in the world, trying to connect this planet with Mars, of all things, to create an umbilical from Boca Chica Beach to the valley of Mawrth Vallis, a potential landing site.
SpaceX is sheer possibility. I like to picture Musk, the celebrity CEO, and his fellow boffins standing on the other side of that horizon line I used to contemplate, in Florida, looking west and imagining the treasure my father dreamed about.
Who would have thought that in the end my dad was right? But instead of the treasure’s being buried in the land, the land itself would be the treasure, and the time would be now, and the ghosts of the dead soldiers would be our own fathers and mothers saying, “By God, people, grab the brass ring!”
The launch site, currently under construction, doesn’t really look like much. Even the artist’s rendering of the finished spaceport is no more than a collection of tanks, towers, warehouses, and a hangar. The visuals are deceptively simple, considering what will happen there and how much will be spent. The site lies at the end of Texas Highway 4, seventeen miles east of the Brownsville city limits and less than half a mile from the shore, on a scrubby patch of sand and rugged, ineradicable plant life. When it’s finished, in 2017, the installation will cover 56 acres, 22 or so of them developed for the platform and support warehouses and towers. The construction process will not be easy; one of the main reasons the area has remained almost uninhabited for so long is that it’s nearly impossible to build on a shifting coast. To stabilize the launch site, SpaceX will need a lot of the surrounding earth.
“Imagine a football field,” said SpaceX communications director John Taylor at a 2014 groundbreaking ceremony. “Now imagine that football field thirteen stories tall. That’s how much soil is needed to stabilize the foundation.” This process is called soil surcharging, and the soil will have to be trucked in, he explained, because there’s no bedrock, nothing to build on. They dug three hundred feet beneath the shore and hit nothing, just rocky mountain silt built up over millennia.
Currently, SpaceX has been using established launch sites, like Cape Canaveral, in Florida, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, in California. But with the addition of what it’s billing as “the world’s first commercial launch site designed for orbital missions,” it can increase its number of launches per month.
The construction work, along with other service, vendor, and support and production jobs, should provide an adrenaline boost to the area economy, apart from the larger prestige of bringing space technology to South Texas. The State of Texas and the City of Brownsville beat out competitors by offering more than $15 million in economic incentives, plus another $5 million from the Greater Brownsville Incentives Corporation, a publicly funded program that subsidizes businesses that create jobs paying more than $10 an hour. In return, SpaceX has promised three hundred new jobs that pay an average salary of $65,000 a year.
The only previous earnest attempt at taming Boca Chica happened back in the sixties, when an entrepreneur from Chicago named John Caputa started buying and selling parcels of land where he hoped to build a Polish enclave, calling it Kennedy Shores. He began laying an infrastructure of power lines and septic tanks for the thirty houses he built, but the land proved shifty and difficult to work with, salty and sandy. Then Hurricane Beulah brought a little bit of reality to the development, washing away some of the land and destroying the utility system. All that was left by the time I was a teenager was a small cluster of crumbling, windswept, barely habitable homes in an isolated, single-road “neighborhood.”
This neighborhood now goes by Boca Chica Village, politely described as a “hamlet,” with six permanent year-round residents and an average of twenty seasonal ones. Situated roughly two miles west of the launch site, it will be the most heavily affected by the activity, and its property owners are the spaceport’s most vociferous opponents. On launch days, Boca Chica Beach will be closed from the ship channel to the mouth of the Rio Grande.
It does seem a bit draconian, but them’s the rules: no driving, biking, ATVs, low-flying aircraft, et cetera. Residents can still drive the highway and get to their homes while on lockdown, but they can’t get to the beach, which admittedly feels rather un-American. I mean, it’s one thing to agree to the DEFCON 1 conditions when you move in, but it’s something else entirely to live in a place and then have them be set upon you. This part I can appreciate. But the reality of the matter is that you gambled that your property’s surroundings would remain the same, and then times changed. Needs changed. It’s really no different from buying a house on a hillside because of a water view, then having new, tech-boom homeowners move in downhill and build a Scandinavian monstrosity that obstructs your view; it’s how property law works.
Anyhow, when I was growing up, there were little to no amenities, the living was rough, and the exposure to the elements tended to take the pleasure out of the idyll. The romance of coastal living wears off quickly when you can’t take a hot shower, your toilet clogs, and a power line snaps in the middle of Wheel of Fortune. Hell, it was only very recently that the city sewage line reached as far as Oklahoma Avenue, where I grew up—the construction made it nearly impossible to visit my grandmother the last time I was there.
Still, progress always comes at a cost. Will the benefits of SpaceX outweigh the negatives? What will happen to the wildlife, the birdlife, the sense of salted peace and nonregulation, the last wilderness of Tex-Mex freedoms off the river? And not that I ever visited it, but what about the sanctuary of the Battle of Palmito Ranch, the scene of the final battle of the Civil War? The Civil War, people! This is history! Are we going to just give that away?
Short answer: absolutely.
I wouldn’t be the first person to describe the time distortion you feel as soon as you drive past the palm trees in Raymondville and enter the Rio Grande Valley. It’s not speculative imagination: this distortion really exists, relative to the rest of the world. Growing up, I would hear nonnatives refer to a certain laissez-faire temperament as the “mañana, mañana disease,” which was clearly sugarcoated code for “lazy Mexicans.” What’s more interesting to me is the attitude even other Hispanics in Texas have about their southernmost cousins: there’s an internalized classism in how Valleyites are viewed, an attitude to which I was utterly oblivious until last October, when I spoke to students at Texas State University about how my life changed after writing two memoirs. (This prejudice was something I hadn’t been exposed to previously, because I’d moved from Brownsville directly to the West Coast in 1990 and had lived outside Texas ever since, except for a nine-month period in my late twenties, when I mistakenly moved to Dallas because I wanted to see more Old 97’s concerts.)
At the end of the event in San Marcos, I met a student who’d waited in line to shake my hand and give me a hug, “because you are from Brownsville and you’ve done something NATIONAL!” she gushed.
Now, normally, my reaction is “Don’t touch the merchandise, ladies,” but something in her sincerity made me let my guard down, and I returned the hug and endured a selfie. But something didn’t sit right.
“Why would you say that? What do you mean, ‘because I’m from Brownsville?’” I asked her.
“Well, because I’m from Harlingen, and people here tell me that I’ll never get anywhere because I’m from the Valley,” she said.
I knew that by “people here” she meant other Texas Hispanics, and at this revelation, I was appalled. I wanted to either slap her or hug her harder. Instead, I settled for patting her head. It made me very sad, took the breath out of me as I left San Marcos and drove to Brownsville. I thought, if that’s how other Mexican Americans from Texas see Brownsville and the Valley, what the hell do outsiders think?
Yet having spent more than half my life outside South Texas, I recognize that the place where I grew up has a qualifiable atmosphere. Recently I was trapped for four days in a Brownsville La Quinta, during a rainstorm, working on deadline for a project for HBO. No one had told me about the hurricane that was moving in from the south just as I’d arrived. The next afternoon, the electricity went out right after I fortuitously stepped out of an elevator. The door to my room, which had an electronic lock, wouldn’t open. I went to the front desk and asked for the house engineer to open my room.
“¡Ay, no!” came the shocked response from the desk clerk, as if I’d asked her to do something uncharitable.
“The house engineer,” I insisted. “This is a hotel. You should have an engineer ready to help guests.”
“But it’s Sunday!” she said to me with a look of disgust on her face, as if I was belittling her or being pretentious. She expected me to understand that the “engineers,” if they had them, didn’t work on holy days.
I ended up working in the hotel’s breakfast area on battery power for four hours until the lights came back on and I could get into my room. Bewildered, I later asked my father if this was common; I didn’t seem to remember this part of Brownsville, this level of stupefaction and resistance to doing, well, more.
“Um, yeah,” he said, bewildered at my bewilderment. “Of course she’s not going to call anybody. It’s Sunday.”
This is the part that frightens me for Brownsville and SpaceX.
If the absence of infrastructure at Boca Chica is daunting to the company, it hasn’t let on; when asked whether he saw any potential issues with the lack of amenities and utilities, Taylor, the communications director, responded with a simple, flat “No.” Perhaps he was being polite, or just speaking with the confidence of someone with a multibillion-dollar private space company behind him, thinking, “If we can deliver a payload to the International Space Station and then land a rocket on a barge in the Pacific, we can get plumbing and electricity to the beach.”
Fair play. But let’s see them do that on an Easter Sunday, or when the Dallas Cowboys are playing. Then I’ll be impressed.
A Google Maps search of 1 Rocket Road in Hawthorne, California, suggests a vanity street in an industrial park. So I was surprised to find an actual thriving neighborhood strip when I took an Uber out to SpaceX headquarters on a recent trip to Los Angeles. From the outside, the three-story facility is unimposing and blockish, a bit mid-century. Polite, muscular security guards in monogrammed shirts monitor all arriving traffic, and the “space deco” furnishings in the lobby—vivid red velour chairs and white plastic tables in an organic shape—recall the moon station in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. A spokesperson for SpaceX met me there and walked me through mirrored glass doors, toward the production facility where the rockets are built. First we passed through an office area that could have belonged to any burgeoning tech company, with its open floor plan, its cubicles and personalized workstations and employees so young they looked like children wearing colored badges. Some cheeky jokes let me know that SpaceX is not just all business: the impressive servers had names like Cyberdyne Systems and Skynet (references to the Terminator franchise); there was a life-size replica of a Cylon from Battlestar Galactica and an actual Iron Man suit signed by Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow. (Elon Musk has long been considered the real-life Tony Stark, but more likable.)
Initially, I didn’t get the sense that life-changing science was happening. Then I walked through a hallway with posters and images of Mars and of SpaceX rockets—the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy, the company’s signature rocket models for delivering satellites into geosynchronous orbit or payloads of varying size and weight to the ISS—and through a set of heavy doors. On the other side of the doors was where the magic lay. What was once an abandoned Boeing warehouse was now a modern rocket-production facility teeming with activity.
Clearly this was no incubator for a “hook up with the nearest dog owner” type of app. The space was cavernous, its high walls painted a deep, rich blue so that it seemed to extend indefinitely in every direction. I couldn’t quite get my bearings or determine the distance to the ceiling, or to the other end of the room. The Dragon Capsule from the original Falcon 9, the company’s first rocket to breach the atmosphere and have its capsule return to Earth, hung from the ceiling, like a display at NASA. Protruding from the wall was a replica of the enormous polycarbon struts used to land rockets on platforms in the Pacific Ocean. People walked around with intention and commitment, as if they were on the forward deck of the Starship Enterprise. Every nationality and race and an equal ratio of men and women seemed to be represented, and they looked happy. This felt different, like both a start-up and an ensconced corporation, the passion of the former and the structure of the latter.
A two-level canteen with an espresso bar gave the place some warmth. Automation and robotic manufacturing arrested my attention at every corner. A monitor displayed a video of what the robots were building at each station, or what the 3-D printer was printing in iron and nickel.
At its most basic, the plant is an assembly line for the production of lean cylindrical rockets, which are fitted with wheels and then trucked to their destinations in California, Florida, and, eventually, Texas, once SpaceX begins using the new launchpad in 2018, which is also its projected date to reach Mars. As of now, the production facility is shooting for forty rocket cores per annum. The company’s goal has been to rethink every stage of the rocket production process, to reinvent the twentieth-century model. Because of these innovations SpaceX was able to underbid United Launch Alliance, a joint venture owned by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, by 40 percent for a NASA contract to put a GPS satellite into orbit.
Producing that many rocket cores will certainly keep the launchpads busy and keep competitors scrambling. Standing on an elevated platform that overlooked a finished Falcon Heavy ready to be trucked out the giant back door, I felt dwarfed by the sheer size of the sleek white horizontal tube. Photos and videos on the internet do not do the rockets justice. They’re beautiful, and enormous, very much the playthings of titans.
Back in March, a story on NPR’s All Things Considered highlighted the National Park Service’s concern that only 9 percent of Hispanics had a habit of visiting national parks. The focus was on Arizona’s Saguaro National Park, which is near Tucson. Cam Juarez, a Tucson native and a new outreach coordinator for the National Park Service, explained that there was no legacy of visiting national parkland in his family, because those parks, it was tacitly figured, were for white people. “We didn’t have camping gear or fishing gear,” he told NPR. “We had hoes and shovels, work implements and school books.” Even as he got older, Juarez said, he thought of national parks as places for “folks that were white or folks that had resources.”
I felt the same way when I first moved north and west. I didn’t understand why people paid $15 to park a car and pitch a tent overnight, then sit around a preconstructed fire pit and burn marshmallows on sticks. Where was the music? Where was the beer? The fajitas? The guns? The fireworks? It didn’t make sense to me, sitting like a hippie. It was like doing meditation outside, in the dark. Growing up in Brownsville, we took the stretch of highway out to Boca Chica and the wild area around the Rio Grande for granted, as if it belonged to us. We didn’t have to pay park fees or stick to designated, paved campsites, never doubted that it would be there for generations to come. I mean, who would want it? What could you do with it? But lacking federal protection, official campsites, or a visitors center, it was expendable, up for grabs and available for development.
It’s still a rugged place, for the time being. There’s now a Border Patrol checkpoint less than a mile from the Oklahoma Avenue/Boca Chica Boulevard crossroads, and I noticed the last time I made the drive to the beach that ICE is more regularly patrolling the area. The area has kept its wildness, though it feels different, as if it’s been broken, or at the very least tamed, as if someone is watching, and there’s less of a chance for you to see coyotes or an ocelot.
While an environmental-impact statement produced by the FAA acknowledges that SpaceX will bring traffic and noise to the Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area–Boca Chica Unit and the Laguna Madre—these are protected stretches of land and water separating the coast from the outer vestiges of the city—it seems a bit optimistic about lasting consequences. It projects that wildlife habitat will shift naturally and wetlands will hardly be affected. Larger birds and animals— the piping plover, the northern aplomado falcon, the ocelot and jaguarundi, the sea turtles—won’t be affected, it says. Only time will tell whether this turns out to be true. Still, it’s a risk that needs to be taken: compromise is the way of the world, and the world just outside Brownsville needs to let go of some of its natural coin and see the larger horizon, to understand that for South Texas to move into the now, the now needs the beach.
Brownsville will be forced to modernize in other ways too. At the intersection of Oklahoma Avenue and Boca Chica Boulevard/Highway 4, there’s a shuttered store we once called Betty’s. Its official name was the Village Hut Grocery, but we knew the owner, Betty Givens, who sold $3 hamburgers. It was a daily destination when my father’s trucking business ran productively. Next door and across an untended drainage ditch was the Seashell Inn, a ramshackle brick one-story dive bar that operated only when the owner had enough overhead to buy beer, which she sold from a cooler she sat on, usually going free of the restriction of a bra, which made certain my father and his friends would visit just as regularly as my siblings and I visited Betty’s.
It was the last bar before you drove out to the beach. It had a wobbly pool table and a jukebox that gave me an early appreciation of Jim Ed Brown’s “Pop a Top,” which was one of ten songs. Had it stayed open, this would have been SpaceX’s next-door neighbor by South Texas standards, and likely the nightly watering hole of every truck driver supplying the “soil surcharging” that made my dad consider restarting his trucking business when I told him about the contract. After his initial awe at the size of the project, he composed himself and remembered he was in his late sixties, and he thought better of it. “That was another time,” he said reflectively, in Spanish. Then he narrowed his eyes. “But at least none of those bastard P—— or R——,” he said, referring to old rival families, “won the contract either.”
I can appreciate Dad’s position. That’s how I feel when I see mentions of Junot Díaz or Lena Dunham anywhere. Bastards.
But it illustrates perfectly the sort of native infighting that I remember coloring much of the local politics and civic leadership in Brownsville. When a marginalized area is so conditioned to fighting over the same small pool of resources, long-standing vendettas and entrenched positions tend to inflect every decision. That’s all going to change now, or it will have to, when the lens of humanity begins scrutinizing the progress of the rockets as they deliver their payloads to the ISS and to Mars and land second-stage rockets off the Gulf of Mexico. South Texas will be put to the test.
During our first conversation, Taylor said something right off the bat that made my ears prick up tall. He was describing his visit to South Texas and how many of the area people—parents, in particular—would come up to the SpaceX coterie and say, “Thank you for bringing a reason for our children to stay.”
Recently, there was a disturbing list on the Forbes website that claimed that the Brownsville/Harlingen area was the least educated place in America. I wonder if the methodology was flawed. Education is a big business in South Texas. Nearly every family I know in or from Brownsville has some of its children either in school pursuing a degree or already graduated. In my own family of seven, my father and I are the only two without a degree or some sort of certification. I think more than anything else, the ranking is reflective of “brain drain,” the migration of the area’s best and brightest who, upon leaving their nests and seeing what the world outside South Texas offers, move away for good, leaving behind their first- or second-generation parents, who are less educated and so figure into the tally of the unlettered.
If SpaceX realizes the projections made by both the company itself and the civic leaders who helped bring it to South Texas, the effect will be long-lasting and cascading. It is already collaborating with local universities to groom the young minds of the area to involve themselves in the sciences of rocketry, not just in the support or manufacturing capacities. Along with the launch site, it intends to build a research center that will provide internships to students. These developments would amount to symbolic soil surcharging, allowing the company to stabilize its foundation in the area through civic and academic outreach.
This isn’t to say that Brownsville will become a “company town.” But look at what Microsoft did to Seattle, Apple to Cupertino, or Hee Haw to Branson. Then again, no company could keep all Brownsville’s children close to home. There’s that old song “How You Gonna Keep ’Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?),” which I think would be appropriate here. When you grow up in Brownsville, anything north of Corpus Christi feels more “real,” more cosmopolitan and worldly. Maybe once we’re done with seeing “Paree,” SpaceX could eventually create a place for us free-floating expats to land back home, if you don’t mind the pun. I mean, after twenty years of living on the West Coast, I know I’ll never fully be a West Coaster, and when I go back to Texas, I don’t fully feel Texan; people at either end of that spectrum are quick to study me and let me know that within minutes. “You ain’t from around here, are you, Derminguer?”
Yet as positive as I feel about SpaceX, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I appreciate the potential for harm. The effects could be irrevocable, the possibility for global humiliation extreme, because, well, quite frankly, if anyone can screw it up, certainly Brownsville can. It’s in our nature—believe me, I’ve struggled with this intrinsic compulsion toward the catastrophic my whole life. In the end, it’s easier to submit to your demons, get a “Born to Lose” tattoo on your chest, and sabotage yourself rather than own up to your potential; it’s a frightening thing when you look in the mirror and realize that you now have a responsibility to your strengths.
I’m reminded of an early Chris Rock routine, something he describes about growing up in a poor neighborhood and watching the first white family moving in down the street. “Aw, hell,” he says. “Here comes the neighborhood!”
That’s what this is like.
Welcome, Elon and company.