February 29, 2024

BOCA CHICA, Texas – The text arrived late at night: For your own safety, leave the house by morning, it read. Nancy and James Crawford, no longer surprised but still unsettled, ran off in their SUV after sunrise, occasionally turning their necks to catch a glimpse of the space rocket looming behind them.

Moments later, the Crawfords, who are over 70 years old, watched from a 12th floor balcony on South Padre Island, a few miles offshore, as the missile splintered and fiery debris over the sand dunes and mud flats on impact during an attempted landing. The building was shaking, Mr. Crawford recalled, and in the distance there was “a ball of fire”.

“It was exciting,” repeated his wife, “but too dangerous if we had stayed home.”

The home of the Crawfords is a remote coastal community a stone’s throw from Mexico, a village so small it has to be loaded with water. With a single road ending on the coast, it has long drawn people eager to escape congested cities retirees looking to escape the harsh winters of the North and Midwest.

The nearest supermarket is about 20 miles from the community, which is nestled between lush wetlands, protected areas and sandy beaches. It leads past long gravel roads and a border checkpoint. Until a few years ago, the few residents could not imagine that missiles designed for interplanetary travel would be just as part of their perspective as the Rio Grande.

But since billionaire Elon Musk brought his private space company SpaceX to the region, life has not been the same. A gigantic gray missile surrounded by chain link fences less than a mile from the ranch-style brick houses is a constant reminder that the Crawfords and their remaining neighbors live near a launch pad.

SpaceX officials usually warn the 10 or so residents that a rocket is about to be fired. In other cases, they warn loud sirens and some, like the Crawfords, put on high-performance headphones to block out the noise. When a rocket engine is tested, the roar and tremors are so strong that they can blow windows inward.

Humans aren’t the only species that crouch. The deafening sound of rockets screeching over the tidal flats has caused some, such as B. waders have fled in fear or have completely stopped nesting in the area. And heavy machinery used to find the scattered debris often damage the road and scare away other wildlife, according to environmentalists.

While the Federal Aviation Administration has given SpaceX environmental clearance for the tests, environmentalists fear the recent explosions could seriously damage the ecologically-rich area, home to a number of endangered species such as ocelots and Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles.

“When you test brand new technology and brand new missiles, brand new engines, it happens,” said Jim Chapman, president of Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, a nonprofit group committed to protecting the native habitats of the Rio Grande Valley. “Well, we have a feeling this shouldn’t be happening here.”

The story of how SpaceX came to Boca Chica, about 22 miles from Brownsville, Texas, begins with the promise of much-needed economic recovery for one of the poorest regions in the country.

For decades, Brownsville and the wider Rio Grande Valley have grappled with a lack of opportunity and brain drain. Many college graduates choose to pursue careers elsewhere.

Before SpaceX was anchored in Brownsville’s consciousness, the local economy had relied heavily on jobs in government, schools, healthcare and some low-paying retail stores, officials said.

Representatives from SpaceX, which is investing a fortune in finding people on Mars, did not respond to a request for comment. But Cameron County officials, which includes Boca Chica, said the company gave the region hope and optimism.

When the company announced plans to move to the area in 2014, it promised to create around 500 local jobs, said Eddie Treviño Jr., the Cameron County judge, the county’s top elected official. By the end of last year, however, the real number was more than three times that, with more than 1,600 jobs in construction, office and other areas, most of which were given to local residents.

The benefits to the Brownsville area, where at least 30 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to the US Census Bureau, will ultimately outweigh the tension and disruption the company has brought, Treviño said.

“We have to balance the good with the bad,” he said.

The search for the ideal SpaceX launch pad began more than 10 years ago. Locations were considered in other states, including Georgia, California, and Alaska, but engineers needed a mostly desolate area near the ocean. Boca Chica, an age group with only a few residents all year round, is just the thing.

Several years later, after SpaceX signed a contract to set up operations near the village, serious tests began on missiles that would one day reach space, Treviño said. The company took a fail-fast and fix-fast approach. Essentially, this means engineers use the tests to identify flaws in the design and then make adjustments before the next test.

Last year, those still living in the community had to flee before each start. Four missiles exploded and spread debris across the area. (The last test this month did not result in an explosion, and an enthusiastic Mr. Musk took to Twitter to celebrate the milestone: “Starship nomination!”)

This was not the Crawfords’ idea of ​​peaceful retirement. Both worked in government jobs in Michigan, he in law enforcement and she in a crime department. And although they still spend their summers in Michigan, they bought their home in Boca Chica 10 years ago in search of nature and tranquility.

Then they knocked on her door and on the doors of their neighbors. SpaceX wanted their homes. Space giant officials had valued the Crawford’s one-story, three-bedroom brick house at $ 50,000 and were willing to pay “three times” for it. The Crawfords turned down what they thought was a meager offer from one of the richest men in the world.

“We can’t buy a new house with that money,” said Mr. Crawford with a chuckle.

The offers were finally discontinued last October.

“We’re pretty sure we can stay in our house,” said Mrs. Crawford with a sigh of relief.

But many of her neighbors who once liked her found Boca Chica the perfect winter oasis, took the checks, and left.

And one by one, the ranch houses have been replaced with modern white houses with solar-powered roofs, said residents of the younger aerospace professionals who work for SpaceX.

“You can tell which houses are SpaceX because they look the same, stale white and black,” said Rosemary Workman, 72, who spends most of the year in Boca Chica and has turned down offers to sell her home.

One of your new neighbors noticed. Mr. Musk was seen in a humble ranch-style house. Ms. Workman and her neighbors sometimes see him walking with two men who they believe are part of his security detail.

“He doesn’t really make an effort to say hello or get to know us,” said Jim Workman, 75, who lives across from the billionaire.

The feeling, he admitted, is mutual. He pointed to a flag on his porch that read “Come and Take It” beneath the picture of a cannon, the flag designed for the Texas Revolution and long a symbol of defiance in the state.

“I think he’ll get the message,” said Mr. Workman.

Concerns about SpaceX extend beyond Boca Chica.

In downtown Brownsville, Elias Cantu, an activist with the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, the oldest Mexican-American civil rights organization in the country, stood next to a mural by Mr. Musk that read “Boca Chica to Mars” and shrugged. He feared it was only a matter of time before Boca Chica’s extreme redevelopment hit Brownsville’s poorest neighborhoods.

“It’s inevitable,” said Mr. Cantu. “He’s going to need houses to accommodate all of the people he wants to bring here. I fear it will displace many of the low income families who have lived here for generations. “

Xandra Treviño, a member of Fuera SpaceX, an organization that is pushing back SpaceX’s rapid expansion (the name means “Leave SpaceX”), said she and many other activists felt ignored by the region’s policymakers.

“I feel like people believe that SpaceX will be good for the community, even though they are too big to control, too big to be held accountable,” said Ms. Treviño. “Local officials only see money signs. Local officials are hit by stars. “

But area officials said they could not turn down millions of dollars in local investment and the promise of high-paying jobs in a region that has not been investable for decades.

The space giant has already drawn other employers to the region with its “build and they will come” philosophy. Space Channel, an entertainment network devoted to space coverage, recently announced that it will be moving some of its operations from Los Angeles to Brownsville, including six executives who will follow local positions. Other companies are likely to do the same, said Rose Gowen, who sits on the city commission.

“One of the most important things that I and we have to support is increasing prosperity,” said Ms. Gowen.

Mr. Musk seems to agree. He recently announced on Twitter that he would donate $ 30 million for urban renewal projects and schools. Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez did not respond to a request for an interview. However, in a statement he said he supported raising funds. “We look forward to a discussion on how this can help our community thrive as we bring the next chapter in space exploration and innovation to the fore,” he said.

But that growth is no consolation for the residents of Boca Chica. The Crawfords like to sit in their backyard and admire the various species of birds that seek tranquility or the wonderful sightings of the walkers.

But memories of living near a launchpad are never far away. Every now and then they startle loud sirens that signal that the rocket engine tests are about to begin. Or they receive a text asking them to leave their home, an indication that a start is imminent.

When a local sheriff’s vehicle passes by with the sirens on, the Crawfords know to run into the street, or at least leave their home. They know their windows could break. But the last time they heard the siren, the two of them looked at each other one spring afternoon and shrugged.

“We got tired of running out,” said Ms. Crawford. This is life near SpaceX after all.