Not far from the windswept Texas dunes that adjoin Boca Chica Beach, several plaques commemorate the Battle of Palmito Ranch. Without these markers, the 1865 battleground would probably go unnoticed by most visitors; a century and a half of storms have washed away all evidence of the last land action of the Civil War and, in its place, created an ecologically rich matrix of beaches, bays, grasslands, upland scrub, tidal flats, and hilly formations called lomas. It’s an isolated, rugged landscape, where the two-lane strip of asphalt that forms Texas Highway 4 east of Brownsville expires in the sand. Generally, just a few fishermen, the occasional birder, and a handful of winter Texans make the drive to this portion of the 90,000-acre Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, home to the endangered ocelot and numerous migratory shorebirds that thrive along the coastline where the Rio Grande drains into the Gulf of Mexico.
Today, however, a new battle is brewing over this hallowed ground. On one side of the fight stands a world-famous entrepreneur, along with his political allies; on the other, a scrappy group of environmentalists and local homeowners. And though the conflict may not yet be as pitched as the one in which members of the Texas Cavalry and their Confederate allies vanquished Lieutenant Colonel David Branson’s Union troops, emotions are running very high.
Last year, PayPal founder Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corporation—a.k.a. SpaceX—signed a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. In the past, SpaceX has launched its rockets from federal facilities, most often Cape Canaveral, in Florida. But as his company’s business expands (it is now also delivering cargo for several private satellite companies and various international customers), Musk has decided that SpaceX needs its own private spaceport—and Boca Chica is his preferred choice.
In 2012 the company quietly began purchasing and leasing parcels of private land that are interspersed among the “string of pearls” that makes up the Lower Rio Grande wildlife refuge. The most crucial and controversial parcel is a sandy 57-acre trapezoid between the beach and the battlefield where construction could soon begin on the world’s newest orbital launchpad. The plan, which is still being reviewed under federal environmental regulations, would include storage facilities, hangars, machine shops, and a command center on another 28 acres.
The company’s application with the Federal Aviation Administration details a target of twelve launches a year, most involving SpaceX’s Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy rockets, the latter of which is billed as “the world’s most powerful rocket,” capable of carrying more than 53 metric tons. (Among other advantages to the Boca Chica site, the Gulf’s deep waters offer an ideal splashdown zone for when the rockets parachute back to earth.) News reports have estimated overall project costs at $80 million to $100 million, and the Brownsville Economic Development Council (BEDC) estimates that SpaceX will create one hundred short-term construction jobs, five hundred permanent technological jobs, and as many as six hundred ancillary jobs in supply and manufacturing. That’s a lot of money flowing to Texas’s most chronically depressed region, and it’s one reason the 2013 Legislature seemed to catch the fever, allocating $15 million to spaceport development.
“We’re a traditional blue-collar community, so this was pretty out there for us,” says Gilberto Salinas, the executive vice president of the BEDC, who has worked for three years on the Boca Chica program. “SpaceX gives us a real way to address the brain drain we face,” he noted, sitting in a conference room decorated with blueprints of the launch site and photos of rockets firing. “People here, when they get an education, they go to Austin or Dallas or Houston. I hate to say that it would be a game changer, because I’m from here and I’m proud of this place, but this could make a real difference.”
Musk, of course, has a reputation for making a real difference. In addition to co-founding the Internet banking platform PayPal, he started Tesla Motors, an electric car company, and in 2002 turned to SpaceX, which is valued at over $4 billion, according to Forbes. Though SpaceX is headquartered in Southern California, the possibility that it will be launching rockets from the Gulf Coast strikes a deep chord among Texans; our legacy as a hub of space travel adds a twist to the classic jobs-versus-the-environment equation. Thanks to recent cuts to NASA and the end of the shuttle program, in 2011, Texas has lost its bragging rights as a major player in the space race. The private sector, though, has begun to take up the slack statewide. In addition to SpaceX, which already has offices in Houston and a manufacturing and testing facility outside Waco, Amazon honcho Jeff Bezos’s Washington State–based Blue Origin has set up a launchpad in West Texas, and the California-based XCOR Aerospace is planning to open a facility in Midland.
Boca Chica, though, has a legacy of its own, one that has nothing to do with nose cones and rocket thrusters. Ecotourism thrives in the Valley, driven by the region’s extraordinary biodiversity, including nearly fifty species of avifauna found nowhere else in the Lower 48. About five thousand people attend the annual Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, and according to a Texas A&M study, birders and their kin bring more than $463 million to the region each year. It’s a sharp contrast to the $51 million in payroll that SpaceX is expected to bring.
“The space launch will be quick, easy money,” says Liz Deluna Gordon, who was raised in the Valley and works for the Colorado-based American Birding Association. “But it will damage an immensely valuable coastal grassland and the habitat for one of the most sought-after Valley sparrow specialties, Botteri’s sparrow. People come from all over the world to see that bird.”
Still, the pushback has been relatively modest. Last year, a public hearing in Brownsville drew an enthusiastic crowd of several hundred SpaceX supporters, including kids in space suits, with only a few detractors on hand. Social media is more evenly distributed; the pro-SpaceX Facebook page “Launch Brownsville” has more than 800 likes; the Boca Chica Preservation Society’s Facebook page (“sayNOtoSpaceX”) has 556. Veteran activists, including the Sierra Club’s local leadership, are holding out for a compromise that would have SpaceX acquire four thousand or five thousand acres of additional habitat to donate back to the refuge.
Caught in the middle of this debate are the managers of the wildlife refuge, who, as public officials, may find themselves in the unenviable position of putting the brakes on a deal that the governor’s office and local politicians hope will be sealed sometime this summer. “We are here to manage the refuge for the wildlife,” explains Robert Jess, a project leader at the refuge. This swath of the Valley is home to a variety of animals, such as the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, the aplomado falcon, and the piping plover, that are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. The refuge scientists must balance their criticism of SpaceX with their obligations to their agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which asserts that, despite increased traffic, high fences, bright lights, and possible fuel spills, the launchpad is likely to pose no persistent threat to endangered species.
On a blustery February morning, with the surf pounding the nearby beach, Jess paces the shoulder of Highway 4 and gestures to an expanse of dunes, tidal flats, and coastal prairie, where survey stakes mark the 57 acres that Musk hopes to transform. “The footprint is small,” Jess says, “but the potential impacts are hard for us to even imagine. When it comes to the space program, we are behind the curve. Our fear is that we are missing some big questions we don’t even know to ask.”
Jess will learn the answers to at least a few questions sometime this month, when the FAA is expected to issue its final Environmental Impact Statement on the launchpad. The hotly anticipated document, which has been twice delayed, could pave the way for the federal government’s permit decision.
Regardless of the verdict, no study can resolve the betrayal some people feel over the need to close Boca Chica Beach on launch days. The FAA has mandated that during a launch, people must be kept three to five miles away in order to protect them from extreme heat, loud noise, noxious emissions, and the potential of a misfire, which means the beaches will be closed at such times. Those rules fly in the face of the state’s 55-year-old Open Beaches Act, which ensures public access to any beach on the Gulf of Mexico. Nonetheless, last year Governor Rick Perry signed House Bill 2623, written by Brownsville Democratic representative René Oliveira, allowing Boca Chica to close for up to 15 hours at a stretch and as many as 180 hours per year.
Brownsville mayor Tony Martinez, a liberal Democrat, is behind Perry 100 percent. “I give a lot of credit to the governor’s office,” says Martinez, who seems to have developed a bit of a man crush on Musk. “The aerospace industry is one that’s fun to watch. We’ve been out to Cape Canaveral and watched a SpaceX launch. Elon Musk is my kind of guy. He’s a dreamer, but he’s a doer. He’s got a twinkle in his eye.”
Others are less enthusiastic. Fish and Wildlife supervisor Kelly McDowell, who is in charge of all refuges in Texas and Oklahoma, notes that though wildlife protection is his top priority, public access is a genuine concern for federal land managers in a state where an estimated 95 percent of all property is in private hands. “We’ve spent a lot of taxpayer money to open these lands for the public to enjoy,” McDowell says, standing at the end of Highway 4 as several pickup trucks roll by on their way to the beach, fishing rods bouncing in their beds. “There’s never a good time to tell someone they cannot have access.”
Yet that issue pales in comparison with the nightmare scenario that McDowell has been contemplating, despite the Fish and Wildlife Service’s apparent willingness to accommodate the launchpad. Back in 1986, he was working at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge when the Challenger shuttle exploded, and his staff was deployed to the national forests of East Texas to look for mechanical debris and human remains. Turning his gaze to nearby South Bay, he has visions of three million pounds of metal, liquid oxygen, and kerosene crashing into the water. “What happens with a rocket that doesn’t successfully launch?” he asks. “What happens if one of those rockets lands in the best wildlife and fisheries habitat in the state?”