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On the cusp of history: a small Texas city adapts to life with Elon Musk and SpaceX

Bobby Lerma travels to his family’s pink stucco mausoleum on a sweltering, muggy morning by wading over dusty, ankle-length grass outside of Brownsville, Texas. Mr Lerma continues, pointing to a white marble carving on the wall, “That’s my dad up there.” We are filled because we also have my mom, who is seated up here on top, her brother, and my late wife, who is seated over there.

I guess not exactly. On the land that his mother’s family has held since the American Civil War’s outbreak in 1861, the 64-year-old retired municipal judge and lawyer says he wants to be buried close to his relatives. The only issue is that Elon Musk, the wealthiest man in the world, has constructed a space facility called Starbase 11 kilometres from Mr Lerma’s expansive 485-hectare ranch, turning the peaceful region into a busy hub of rocket scientists and engineers.

The 120-meter-tall Starship, a reusable spacecraft that Mr Musk thinks will one day be able to transport supplies and people on journeys to the Moon and Mars is being built as the biggest rocket ever built. One of the few remaining public beaches in southern Texas is bordered by Starbase, which towers above a pristine wildlife sanctuary.

The futuristic rockets, which shimmer as one travels down Texas State Highway 4, tower over a large area of relatively undeveloped territory and are like an extraterrestrial anomaly. Only a few kilometres from the point where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico, hundreds of birds and insects fly through the air under them in the nearby wildlife reserve.

The sole route connecting to Mr Lerma’s property and Boca Chica Beach, Highway 4, must be closed when SpaceX launches one of their strong rockets. According to Mr Lerma, “We have problems coming home because every time they want to do anything, the road and the beach become blocked.”

Public access to beaches is recognised as a constitutional right under Texas state law. The state government changed the rule to permit closures during SpaceX launch operations in 2013, however. According to a 2014 agreement between SpaceX and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the business must keep road closures to 180 hours annually, dispersed among 12 flights.

However, many locals believe that SpaceX has far surpassed the terms of the initial agreement. In addition to the inconvenience of road closures, there are environmental issues. The deaths of ocelots, a sort of wild cat that only inhabits two sections of Texas, are attributed to SpaceX’s operations, according to Emma Guevara, a Sierra Club organiser in Brownsville. “Just from that land being developed, we’ve already seen tremendous decreases in various bird populations,” she said.

The Texas General Land Office and Cameron County, where Brownsville and Boca Chica are situated, have been sued by the Sierra Club and other environmental organisations for road closures and limiting access to the beach.

According to a recent FAA environmental assessment study, SpaceX needed to make 75 changes to lessen its environmental effect before moving on with the Starship programme. Additionally, the study recommended that SpaceX refrain from restricting beach access on 18 federal and state holidays and set a yearly cap of five-weekend road closures.

Repeated efforts for comment from SpaceX were not answered. Their lone public response to the FAA findings so far has been a tweet.

One step closer to Starship’s first orbital flight test, according to the firm

How come, Boca Chica?

A few kilometres to the east of the city of Brownsville and the US-Mexico border, Boca Chica is located in the furthest southern part of Texas next to the Rio Grande Gulf. It was the perfect location for the SpaceX launch site because of its extreme isolation, which attracts both locals and tourists.

At a SpaceX presentation in February 2022, Mr Musk stated, “You want to have a good clean area because it’s always potential that something goes wrong. You want a radius of several miles surrounding the launch point to be either clear or uninhabited.

Along with being near the equator, it is also the southernmost point of the US mainland outside of Florida, which makes it simpler for rockets to enter orbit. The wealthy businessman chose Texas as the location for one of the biggest private space enterprises in the world because it provided a friendly business climate.

Then-Texas Governor Rick Perry offered Elon Musk more than $15 million in incentives to construct a business in Boca Chica in 2014. In a statement at the time, Mr Musk said, “SpaceX is pleased to extend our work in Texas with the world’s first commercial launch complex built particularly for orbital missions.”

Since then, Mr Musk has chosen to relocate both Tesla and his electric vehicle firm SpaceX to the state after finding an amicable partner in it. In February, Mr Musk made light of the situation by telling an audience, “I believe Texas has the proper number of laws and regulations.”

Musk apparently made Boca Chica his home base and resides there in a cottage that costs about $50,000.

Since its first arrival in Boca Chica in 2014, SpaceX has been aggressively acquiring property in an effort to build its own Starbase metropolis. The dwellings of Starbase personnel may be distinguished from those owned by residents hesitant to sell easily. The Tesla parked in the driveway is often the first indicator.

A developing city

In Boca Chica, SpaceX employs over 1,600 people, greatly enhancing the local economy. The surrounding city of 188,000 people, Brownsville, has long been regarded as one of America’s most disadvantaged areas.

According to the 2020 US Census, the city’s median household income was $40,924, which was lower than the national median income of $67,521 in the same year. The poverty rate in the city is more than one-quarter.

The bordering city of Matamoros, Mexico, is most often connected to the southern US border’s immigration problems, but SpaceX’s entrance has begun to shift that perception. The city is home to several historical structures from the 19th century that are in varying degrees of ruin. The hardscrabble streets and decaying buildings are clear signs of the years of economic decline.

However, a revitalization effort supported in part by Mr Musk has contributed to the return of a portion of the Brownsville city centre to its former splendour. The city’s newest inhabitants and SpaceX workers may enjoy the upmarket food at any of the trendy restaurants and pubs that line several streets.

At Terra’s, a well-liked new restaurant on Washington Street, customers eat tacos for $18 in a huge dining area with exposed brick. It is a scene right out of Austin, Texas, or New York City, two of America’s hippest cities. A Brownsville municipal commissioner named John Cowen remarked, “[SpaceX] has placed us on the map in terms of our potential and it simply brings a lot of optimism and desire.” “Innovation is now centred on us.”

But SpaceX has also driven up home values in Brownsville.

As of April 2022, the average cost of a home was $239,000. According to the website Realtor.com, it is approximately $100,000 higher than it was in April of 2019.

Mr Lerma said that SpaceX contacted him to inquire about the possibility of selling his land. He refused at once. It’s not up for grabs. No, the family values it too highly, he replied.

Local realtor Craig Grove pointed out houses he had just sold as he drove through a brand-new community outside of Brownsville. He pointed to an enormous house with a two-car garage and added, “I sold that one right there last year for $329,000.”

Mr Grove, who sees himself as the city’s largest supporter, thinks that SpaceX has provided Brownsville with a much-needed infusion of money and optimism. “There’s definitely been a bump – it’s something we never thought we would see,” he said. “These people coming from California, Seattle, Denver, and some parts of the East Coast to work at SpaceX, and these high-tech jobs, you know, speciality welding, computer programming, robotics, all these kinds of things.”

Even more, Mr Grove established Starbase Realty as a separate company from his primary enterprise to serve the needs of SpaceX personnel. According to him, SpaceX personnel often purchase three- to four-bedroom houses in more recent subdivisions that cost between $200,000 and $300,000.

He said that such rates are a great cry from what they would spend in Seattle or Los Angeles.

He told The National, “It’s traditionally far more inexpensive.” “And it’s insane when you look at it from the viewpoint of Los Angeles, or any of these other major metropolises, to Brownsville.”

Some people are concerned by the inflow of new, richer inhabitants in a city where a sizable portion of the populace lives on the edge of poverty. The organiser for the Sierra Club, Ms Guevara, said, “We’re experiencing overpopulation throughout the city. “We’re in the midst of a serious housing crisis; finding an inexpensive home, let alone housing overall, is quite tough.”

The same cannot be true of the whole neighbourhood, even if Mr Musk has brought a lot of money, excitement, and commerce to Brownsville and won the backing of many local leaders in the process.

A middle-aged guy in a white sleeveless T-shirt passes past a big painting of Elon Musk on a Brownsville building and raises his middle finger at the billionaire on a steamy June night.

But Mr Cowen, the municipal commissioner, said that since Mr Musk now lives nearby, the city is in a far better position.

Everyone has a brighter future with Elon, he said. Regarding Mr Musk’s presence in the region, Mr Lerma was less diplomatic, accusing local officials of “worshipping the altar of King Elon.” He acknowledged there could be advantages to having Starbase as a part of the neighbourhood, but he was concerned about its power growing unrestrained. Progress is already here, he continued, so I’m not getting in the way of it. “Perhaps one of my children will work for SpaceX. But one day, would my child be unable to visit the beach?

Source : TheNationalNews

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Written by Alex Bruno

Freelance space writer Alex Bruno specializes in covering China's quickly expanding space industry. In 2021, he started writing for SpaceXMania. He also contributes to publications including SpaceNews, IEEE Spectrum, National Geographic, Sky & Telescope, and New Scientist. When Alex was a small child, he first experienced the space bug after seeing Voyager photographs of alien planets in our solar system. When not in space, Alex likes to go trail jogging in the Finnish countryside.

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