Rocket Man vs the Earthlings
Published by The Mail on Sunday (6th June, 2021)
There cannot be many more idyllic spots for those seeking the quiet life than Boca Chica, which sits on one of the most unspoilt beaches in the United States beside a wildlife refuge, 20 miles from the nearest town.
A hand-painted sign on a black barrel by the road points the way to the little village – a cluster of 35 bungalows amid mesquite and palm trees.
Little wonder Celia Johnson and Cheryl Stevens fell in love with it as children, enjoying days out with their families, then, decades later, choosing it as the perfect spot for a peaceful retirement. They watched bobcats and coyotes stroll down the street, porpoises glide through the Bay of Mexico waters, and numerous bird species nesting by the mudflats.
But things are different now. For billionaire tycoon Elon Musk has picked their remote slice of paradise as the base for launching missions to the Moon and Mars, declaring that he is ‘creating the city of Starbase’ in this pristine corner of Texas.
So now there is a giant rocket nose cone sitting at one end of their street, alongside towering cranes, fuel silos and gantries under construction. A silver starship looms over the beach, shimmering in the sun as it reaches into the skies.
The village is sandwiched between two fast-expanding developments – one for the launch-pad for the missions that Musk believes may one day save humanity, and the other for the bustling production facilities filled with his SpaceX staff.
The streets are packed with lorries, on the kerb sits debris from rockets that have exploded, tourists throng to see the site, the beach is sometimes closed off, the road is blocked, sirens wail and residents are routinely evacuated before launches in case another test flight goes wrong.
‘It’s not just that we did not want this in our back yard – they stopped us using our own back yard,’ said Stevens, 60, a store manager.
She ditched her dream, and along with some other residents, accepted SpaceX’s persistent offer to buy her home, and moved out in October.
But Johnson is among ten rebel residents in this battle for Boca Chica who are determined to resist the pressure to leave.
‘We had no idea it was going to be so humongous,’ said the former social worker who is now in her 70s. ‘But I still don’t want to move from this lovely area when the beach is so close and with all the birds.’
This is the ultimate David and Goliath battle – a handful of mostly retired folk hankering for a simple life who suddenly find themselves confronting the world’s richest man (worth £139 billion) who’s famous for stopping at nothing to achieve his bold visions.
And few dreams are more ambitious than this South African tycoon’s plan for space exploration. He recently won the backing of Nasa, with an order to provide a landing craft to be used during future manned trips to the Moon – despite four of his first five launches here exploding.
Musk, the founder of Tesla electric cars who built his first fortune with Paypal, says he is on a mission to save humanity from probable extinction on Earth by creating what he calls ‘a space-bearing civilisation and multi-planetary species’.
He declared in April that humans need to create a permanently occupied base on the Moon, ‘then build a city on Mars and become a spacefaring civilisation… we don’t want to be one of those single-planet species’.
As one visitor gawking at the rockets told me, this might be hokum but a billionaire spending his cash to save our species and commercialise space travel is rather nobler than all those egotistical plutocrats frittering away vast sums on giant yachts.
Standing in his way, however, is the unlikely figure of Celia Johnson. This pensioner’s determination stems from her childhood as one of 11 children in a family from the nearby town of Brownsville, which has lived in the area for five generations.
‘My father was a labourer and this was a place for poorer people who did not have money for vacations, so they would pack up their pick-ups with watermelon and sandwiches for a day on the beach. I loved that this was for the locals, for the poorer families, and it was so remote and beautiful with such a long stretch of beach.’
Although Johnson worked as a social worker in Michigan, she was determined to return to her south Texan roots and bought one of the houses in 1982. ‘This was my dream home,’ she said.
Later, she used a slice of her pension pot to buy a second home for holiday rentals to pad out her retirement income, while two of her sisters also bought bungalows in the village. ‘It was really nice when we could all get together,’ she said.
She moved back full-time three years ago – just as the SpaceX plans, first revealed on a far smaller scale in 2012, were taking off. The firm also began trying to obtain all the properties using a mixture of money and, allege residents, bullying.
‘We were told the Federal Aviation Administration had said it was hazardous to live here, but then they moved in their staff and remodelled the homes they had bought,’ said Johnson, who has had three windows shattered by rocket launches.
As we chatted, I saw an elegant woman clad in black designer clothes park at the next door property, plug in a Tesla for charging and stroll off to a SpaceX meeting. She declined to talk with me, but the contrast was striking with the older residents.
Johnson said her sisters had both sold up, fearing that if they did not take the cash on offer – slightly more than the market value of about $110,000 (£77,000) – there would be forced purchases at a far lower figure. One official told me they hoped to avoid such drastic action, although he did not rule it out.
Johnson’s friend Cheryl Stevens, who reluctantly sold her home, is furious at how her retirement plan was destroyed. ‘It felt like a dictatorship moved in and we had no power to do anything to stop them,’ she said.
Or as Johnson herself puts it: ‘It was our heaven, our little piece of heaven that God gave us. And then, with SpaceX, everything changed.’
Yet she bears no animosity towards Musk and ignores him if she sees him in the street, since she believes we all have the right to privacy. ‘Everyone can follow their dreams,’ she said. ‘I don’t think living on Mars is a possibility… but I’m not a scientist.’
Although she is evacuated from her home during rocket launches and loathes the road closures, she admits they are exciting events to watch. ‘The whole ground seems to move and shake, although it is disappointing to see them crash.’
SpaceX is developing its Starship vehicles as reusable launch systems that Musk says will form the core of its deep-space fleet with ‘Super Heavy’ boosters on trips to the Moon, Mars and beyond.
The first was launched last December, flew to 41,000ft but exploded when landing. Each of the following three flights also disintegrated. ‘Looks like we’ve had another exciting test,’ commented the announcer on the SpaceX livestream after the fourth failed launch spread debris five miles away.
Last month, SN15 – the silver rocket by the beach – landed successfully after a six-minute flight, having soared six miles into the sky. Starhopper, an early prototype that looks like a giant R2-D2 robot from the Star Wars films, can also be seen over a wall.
SpaceX, which was founded in 2002 and has nearly 10,000 staff, recently sent the first humans into space from US soil in a decade, delivering two astronauts for Nasa from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to the International Space Station.
Yet scraps of debris from the exploded rockets in Texas still litter areas of Boca Chica, as well as a very full skip of disintegrated parts by the entrance to the launch zone.
Unsurprisingly, conservationists are dismayed at the sprawling site in the midst of such a precious wildlife zone that includes a state park and nationally designated refuge, where 500 migratory bird species pass through and turtles lay eggs.
‘This is a unique area,’ said Stephanie Bilodeau, a biologist with the non-profit Coastal Bend Bays And Estuaries Programme, who spends her days on a boat counting birds and overseeing nesting habitats.
‘Elon Musk said this was the ideal place to launch rockets because it is just a big wasteland, but this is one of the best places for birds. There is nothing else like it with the combination of coastal grasslands, lomas [hills] and saline mudflats.’
She pointed out that intensely loud rocket launches and explosions unsettled the birds, while all the construction, traffic and tourists had begun altering the nature of a previously isolated place and damaging some habitats.
There are also significant flocks of space geeks and tourists visiting the site. ‘This is amazing – it is where we will be going to another planet,’ said Bradley Lynch, 52, a computer scientist who was touring with his family from Indiana.
Ryan Tucker, 41, has even moved from Michigan to watch the site’s creation, regularly posting footage on social media for fellow space fans.
‘This is like a real-life Star Trek,’ he said, looking up from his camera opposite a wall emblazoned with ‘Starbase’. ‘I wanted to be as close as possible because this is the most exciting thing on Planet Earth. Musk is awesome – everything he does pushes humanity forward.’
Some might disagree with such an analysis of a maverick billionaire whose restless desire to shape the future often ruffles feathers, as have some of his intemperate comments on social media, including nasty jibes aimed at a British diver in the 2018 Thai cave rescue of stranded boys.
Local politicians in Brownsville, the nearest town (and supermarket) to Boca Chica, hope SpaceX will boost the prosperity of a struggling area sitting by the Mexican border.
Musk has already given $20 million (£14 million) to schools in the area. But some have concerns about the power of a mega-rich private company and fear that gentrification of the area might drive out low-income families and irrevocably alter their community.
‘Space exploration is wonderful and important but there is a big difference between Nasa and SpaceX,’ said Nansi Guevara, an artist, lecturer and member of Fuera SpaceX (Leave SpaceX), a group fighting for a stronger community voice in Musk’s plans.
‘We are not against space exploration, but the role of a private company led by a billionaire ruling over our land raises ethical questions.’
Eddie Trevino, the county’s top elected official, admitted that some people in Boca Chica were suffering from SpaceX having landed in their midst but that he was optimistic the wider benefits of Musk’s arrival would boost the region.
‘We are talking about changing the trajectory of our community for ever with space travel to the Moon and Mars,’ he said. ‘Who would have thought we would see the testing and launching of rockets out of our back yard?’
A good question. But it has already happened – much to the chagrin of Celia Johnson and the other residents who had found a sanctuary for their retirement amid the natural beauty and serenity of Boca Chica.