Editors’ note: As we approach our fiftieth anniversary, in February 2023, we will, every week, highlight an important story from our past and offer some perspective on it.

When I visited Brownsville on a breezy day back in February 2022, I drove to the SpaceX launchpad site, just meters from the Gulf of Mexico at Boca Chica, a beach on the city’s outskirts. I was shocked by how close I could get to the rockets. The only thing that stopped me from touching the towering metal cylinders was a sense that something was off. “It feels like you’re being monitored,” says Brownsville native Domingo Martinez, author of The Boy Kings of Texas, a 2012 National Book Award finalist for nonfiction. “The back of your neck is tingling.” 

I had mentioned the incident while Martinez and I were discussing his August 2016 Texas Monthly article “Countdown to Liftoff.” The story braids a personal account of Martinez’s youth spent on the free and open beaches, where he and his family and later teenage friends would dig fire pits in the sand to cook freshly caught fish, with a report on SpaceX’s plans to establish operations near Martinez’s erstwhile paradise. “When I heard that SpaceX was considering Brownsville versus Florida, I was rooting for Brownsville,” Martinez says. At the time, SpaceX was promising to revolutionize extraterrestrial science. Its CEO, Elon Musk, was on a charm offensive. “And we all fell for it,” Martinez says.

The true cost of SpaceX’s move to Brownsville wasn’t yet known. Martinez read the Federal Aviation Administration’s environmental impact statement while writing “Countdown to Liftoff,” but he says that despite the document’s hundreds of pages of research, appendices, and comments, it fell short of predicting the full effect launch failures would have on the area. There has been noise pollution that scares away the migratory birds that attract bird-watching winter tourists from all over Texas and beyond; the scattering of debris from equipment explosions; and fuel drops in the Gulf of Mexico. Martinez says that Brownsville residents expected there to be some environmental impacts, but few expected it to be so immediate. 

Looking back at “Countdown to Liftoff,” Martinez says he regrets giving SpaceX the benefit of the doubt back then: “It feels like we sold our souls.” He especially laments the loss of his once pristine patch of paradise. Future generations aren’t going to experience the freedom of being alone on Boca Chica. Gone, perhaps, are the days of driving to the beach in a pickup truck full of beer, wood, and meat. “That was a great weekend,” Martinez says. “I’m afraid that with the introduction of SpaceX, that’s not going to be possible for very much longer.”