Neighbors Concerned SpaceX Could Transform South Texas
On a rainy day in February, the Boca Chica area is fogged in. Terry Heaton stands on a raised porch in his backyard. He squints into the light rain.
“You can’t see it now but we have a beautiful view of Port Isabel. We see deer up here a lot of coyotes. I mean yeah it’s like right there, like boom,” he said, pointing towards the coast.
Heaton lives in Boca Chica village, a lonely 45-minute drive from the border city of Brownsville.
He’s lived here for 18 years with his wife Bonnie, whose name is emblazoned on his left bicep. He’s a retired construction worker.
“I do the lawn and fish, almost in that order,” Heaton said.
Boca Chica Village is composed of more than 30 houses on two streets, about two miles from Boca Chica state beach. They moved to the remote coastal neighborhood for the value, he said. The houses were cheap, they had beach access, and it was quiet.
The Heatons are one of two year-round families in what is predominantly a vacation community many are upper Midwesterners. It’s the kind of community that invites a reporter in from the rain before declining to be interviewed.
From Heaton’s kitchen table you can see the towering antennas of spaceflight company, SpaceX. Heaton is convinced their new neighbor jeopardizes the peace and quiet he enjoyed in this neighborhood. The launchpad for the company is less than two miles away.
Heaton worries about a rocket exploding, like the ones the company suffered in 2015 and 2016.
He’s concerned about the monthly launches the company can make and access to his home. According to a plan filed with the Federal Aviation Administration, the state will shut down State Highway 4 to all but residents.
But mainly, Heaton said, he is frustrated because the company hasn’t told them anything in two years.
“We’ve had three meetings I think it is with SpaceX, and that was at the very beginning,” Heaton said. “What they told us then was we were not going to have to leave. We weren’t gonna have to do any of this. They were going to be good neighbors. Haven’t lived up to any of it as far as I am concerned.”
Residents are out of the loop on everything from when the first launch is, to what kind of rocket will be launched there, Heaton said. They were told it would be the Falcon 9 rocket or the Falcon Heavy.
Company CEO Elon Musk said after the history-making Falcon Heavy Launch in early February that it may be something even bigger, the company’s Big Falcon Rocket.
“But mostly it’s gonna happen at our Brownsville location because we have a lot of land with nobody around. So if it blows up it’s cool,” said Musk in the press conference.
Heaton and others said they delayed investing in their homes, passing on new hurricane windows. They are worried that the powers that be may force them out at some point.
SpaceX didn’t answer questions about Boca Chica Village, but company spokesperson James Gleeson wrote in an email that the company had devoted millions of dollars to the project already in construction as well as hiring costs.
“Most recently, we installed a solar field that will power our two ground station antennas to track Crew Dragon missions to the International Space Station and beyond beginning in 2018, as well as for tracking launches from South Texas," he wrote.
The company began construction on the launch area in 2014. They suffered a setback when a rocket exploded in mid-air in 2015. After a 2016 Falcon 9 explosion crippled one of their government launchpads, the company had to devote time to rebuilding it. In both instances, the company reportedly stopped all operations until investigations were conducted into the cause of the explosions.
During this period, progress at the Boca Chica site was slow. The company was forced to return some state incentives due to a lack progress.
Currently the site, which is across the street from him, is two former NASA antennas, a mud field that is supposed to be the command center, and a bank of new solar panels. The addition of the solar panels and Tesla power packs, bolstered by a request for more funds, and commentary from Musk that the company could launch the BFR from the site, has refocused attention.
According to public records, SpaceX —through subsidiary DogLeg Park LLC — purchased six properties from his neighbors the past three years. Residents said the company reached out years ago to interested parties, but hadn’t been aggressively pursuing purchases.
“They own that house on that side of me. They own this house on this side on me,” said Andrew Goetsch, the other permanent resident of Boca Chica Village.
Like Heaton, he’s retired. But unlike Heaton and, he said roughly 99 percent of his neighbors loves SpaceX.
“The idea, of some people, that this whole thing should be canceled so they can come down from Minnesota every winter and wreck the opportunity for Brownsville to be on the world map … seems ridiculous to me,” he said.
Goetsch moved from California two years ago to be near the project. He mounted a security camera to a 40 foot pole in his backyard to watch the development of the control site.
Goetsch isn’t worried about an explosion, he said he’s seen estimates that put them outside any serious explosion debris. He doesn’t worry about the company buying up properties — he wished they were doing more of it. But he agrees SpaceX doesn’t talk to people here.
“The general public gets frustrated by that,” said Nick Serafy, the volunteer head of the Cameron County Spaceport Development Corporation. He is one of the few locals that does talk to the company regularly, so he said he gets a lot of calls from people who want to know.
“They are very guarded about the information they release” he said, explaining the company is private and has competition. “I own some private companies and I don’t like to release it , especially if it’s proprietary.”
Serafy said the development corporation doled out more than $2 million of a $13 million dollars in incentives budgeted for SpaceX’s efforts.
He says it’s a good investment because of the 200 jobs that could come from it, and the public-private partnership with the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley that has produced a $1.8 million facility near the command center.
But its tourism that Serafy believes will see the biggest boon.
More than 100,000 people poured into Brevard County in Florida for the Falcon Heavy launch, according to The Space Coast Office of Tourism. Serafy doesn’t think it will be that big, and even if it were, Brownsville doesn’t have that many hotel rooms.
“No, but they’ll overflow into Harlingen, McAllen. They’ll be a positive tourism impact for the entire Rio Grande valley,” he said.
Harlingen Economic Development Council head Raudel Garza says he sees the impact right now, and that Harlingen is expanding its hotel room stock by a third.
“Two of those hotel developers told me a year ago, when they were talking about bringing their hotels in at this time is they were trying to time it so they could be open by the time SpaceX was launching their vehicles,” he said.
Predicting SpaceX timelines hasn’t proved easy for even the company, who initially said they would be launching Falcon 9 rockets from South Texas two years ago. But Garza said the company will likely transform the area.
Boca Chica Village resident Andrew Goetsche agrees.
"Border patrol might be checking for red cards when Martian immigrants come to visit town," he said.
Whether or not Boca Chica Village survives that transformation is exactly what Goetsche’s neighbors worry about.
Paul Flahive can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @paulflahive