Brownsville is probably not the first item on most people’s travel itinerary when visiting Texas. Located on the banks of the Rio Grande river close to the Gulf of Mexico, it is over 1100 kms. / 700 mls. round trip from Houston, where we are planning to catch up with friends. We are drawn to Brownsville, or more accurately Boca Chica, the home of SpaceX’s Starbase, to see where the construction of the Super Heavy boosters and the Starships are being undertaken.
I find the SpaceX story fascinating, developing a reusable rocket system from scratch. When I watch the boosters landing either on the ships or land, I am transported back to my childhood watching Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds or earlier Fireball XL5 series on black and white television where model rockets appeared to land vertically just like we see today. Science fiction then, reality now. Until SpaceX developed the Falcon series, rocket boosters were just dumped into the ocean. I wonder if there is an undersea mountain of discarded boosters down there.
As we headed south through Texas, we notice that in addition to the good old “nodding donkeys”used for oil extraction that have been there for decades, we start to see wind farms with the giant wind turbines rotating in unison, seemingly stretching to the horizon in some locations. The change to a renewable future is even here in oil rich Texas.
As we have travelled over the preceding years, much of what we have seen and experienced has been historically based. We read the plaques that give details of events that have shaped the past and present. In a sense, we are looking backwards, not forward. What we are about to see with the Starship is the future, it has not happened yet and the reason we are here. We want to see and feel the future.
Texas State Highway 4 runs from Brownsville to the beach at Boca Chica on the Gulf of Mexico. The state of the road, potholed in some places, gives no clue as to the importance of this route High voltage transmission lines the only indication that something of substance lies ahead. We notice on our left a US Border Patrol checkpoint for vehicles coming back from the coast due to the proximity of the US Mexican border along the Rio Grande river. We will have to negotiate the checkpoint on our return.
Our first glimpse of Space City is of two tall grey buildings rising out of the almost flat sandy landscape, as we drive closer a series of tall objects come into view, The Rocket Garden.
We both feel the excitement rising as we approach what is the SpaceX construction facility. We were not sure if it would be worth the long detour here, but as the buildings and rockets come more clearly into focus, we both know the trip was worthwhile.
I had expected that we would see more visitors here to see what SpaceX is doing, but only a couple of locals are present. There is no large visitors car park full of curious visitors, souvenir stands or guided tours. It is all so low key. I guess I was expecting large gates, fences topped with razor wire and guards shepherding away those of us who get too close. The opposite is true, low fences open gates and in some cases no gates just a small sign saying “ No trespassing Private Property”. We get an uninterrupted view of the Starships and booster.
Our first stop is the launch pad where to see the rocket combination on the launchpad. We are able to just park at the side of the road in the sand and walk back towards the rocket. What an amazing scene greets us. Only a day or so before we arrive, SpaceX have assembled Super Heavy Booster No. 7 and Starship 24 on the launch pad. We hear that this is the combination that could be used for the first test launch. Did they put it up just for our visit, or for passengers the convoy of Teslas that probably had Elon Musk inside one we saw entering the complex? We will let you decide.
Driving back, we park outside the Rocket Garden, an aptly named area that has earlier designs three Starships including SN15, which was the first to successfully take off and land on the 5th of May 2021, plus a Super Heavy Booster to round off the display. It interesting to compare each one and see external differences as the designs have evolved.
We are back again the following morning to see everything again in the early morning light, better for photographs. Just beyond the launch site the road abruptly finishes at the beach on the Gulf of Mexico. Golden sands stretch north and south with the mouth of the Rio Grande just a short distance away.
In addition to purchasing a number of the original Boca Chica village residences for staff accommodation, a certain Airstream salesman must have got a great commission of the dozens and dozens of Airstream trailers/caravans that dot the landscape.
We are educated on how to identify the house that Elon Musk stays in when visiting, sorry no clues from us. No, it is not a Tesla parked outside, Teslas are common cars around here. Sadly Elon was not home to discuss our longer term travel plans. Yes we would move from motorcycles and cars to Starships given the opportunity, but there are many many more qualified than us ahead in the queue for such adventures. We will just have to dream.
The place is a hive of activity, even on the weekends. We understand from a local that SpaceX operates multiple shifts a day, 7 days week in some areas. You can see that this level of activity must move things along more quickly than the Monday to Friday 9-5 routine. The challenge would be the handovers each day. It must be much easier to come into work as we did and know that nothing has changed since you went home.
One of the perhaps lesser known facts about SpaceX operations is the clever recycling they use. There are two 9m high S-Band Tracking Antenna that were formally used by NASA for the Space Shuttle program and were considered scrap that have been purchased by SpaceX for their use with Starship and Falcon programs. One of the original rocket engine test beds that flew a few meters off the ground is now a water tank.
We leave the SpaceX Starbase complex for the second time and head for Houston. We feel lucky and privileged to seen what we have. The detour here was definitely worth it. Thank you SpaceX for making this all so open to see for those who come here. Please respect the boundaries and enjoy seeing the future before it becomes reality.
PS Anyone has Elon Musk’s email address so we can discuss our future travel plans?