BOCA CHICA, Texas—Mary McConnaughey was watching from her car when the rocket exploded on the beach. The steel-crunching burst sent the top of the spacecraft flying, and a cloud of vapor billowed into the sky and drifted toward the water.
McConnaughey and her husband had planned to drive into town that day in late November, but when they pulled out onto the street, they noticed a roadblock, a clear sign that SpaceX technicians were preparing to test hardware. She didn’t want to miss anything, so she turned toward the launchpad, parked her car at the end of a nearby street, and got her camera ready.
The dramatic test was a crucial step in one of Elon Musk’s most cherished and ambitious projects, the very reason, in fact, he founded SpaceX in 2002. Weeks earlier, Musk had stood in front of the prototype—164 feet of gleaming stainless steel, so archetypically spaceship-like that it could have been a borrowed prop from a science-fiction movie—and beamed. He envisions that the completed transportation system, a spaceship-and-rocket combo named Starship, will carry passengers as far away as Mars. A few months before the explosion, hundreds of people came to the facility in South Texas, on the edge of the Gulf Coast, to see the spaceship, and thousands more watched online. “It’s really gonna be pretty epic to see that thing take off and come back,” Musk gushed at the event, as if he were seeing the finished Starship in front of him.
McConnaughey was there, and even posed for a picture with Musk. At the end of the night, she made the short trip home to her house on a small road lined with stout palm trees. McConnaughey lives in Boca Chica Village, a tiny neighborhood located in startling proximity to SpaceX’s facilities. Many of the village’s residents have lived there for years, long before SpaceX arrived, some before the company even existed.
Friction between next-door neighbors is quite different when one of them is a rocket company. Instead of an ugly fence, there might be an ugly fence with massive tanks of cryogenic liquid behind it. When residents find papers stuck in their front door, the notes don’t ask them to keep the noise down or clean up after their dogs; they warn them that their windows could shatter.
Boca Chica’s residents have learned to live with a rocket company, or at least tolerate it, over more than five years. But SpaceX’s work is about to become even more disruptive. (The explosion certainly made that clear.) So the company has offered to buy their homes. Some have taken the offer. Others, such as McConnaughey, have rejected it, even as Musk prepares to launch a giant rocketship just a short hop from their houses. SpaceX is already hard at work on the next Starship prototype, and Musk says the company might launch it into orbit as soon as this year. “We love Texas,” James Gleeson, a SpaceX spokesperson, said in a statement, “and believe we are entering a new and exciting era in space exploration.”
Few people in this part of South Texas could have predicted the recent trajectory of their life when SpaceX moved in. They have become space fanatics and legal experts, Musk supporters and thorns in his side, trying to make sense of their place in a strange story that could someday end millions of miles away from Earth. All because they got new neighbors.
“They’re here to stay,” McConnaughey told me, “and they want us to leave.”
Boca Chica is an unincorporated community of about 40 houses, mostly one-story homes with soft-orange brick exteriors, on the southernmost tip of Texas. There are no shops or restaurants or amenities of any kind around, including municipal water pipes; Cameron County regularly trucks in gallons of water, which is stored in outdoor tanks. Many residents are retired; they spend summers in northern states and flock south for the winter like migratory birds, eager for the peaceful stillness of the coastline.
The only way to reach the village is via State Highway 4, a two-lane road that runs through mostly empty land. It originates to the west, in the city of Brownsville, and disappears into the shores of Boca Chica Beach, an eight-mile stretch of unspoiled sand, free of boardwalks and souvenir shops. About three miles south, through thick desert brush, is the Rio Grande, winding like a curled ribbon along the border. On a clear day in the village, you can see straight to Mexico.
The residents of Boca Chica first learned of SpaceX’s plans at a public meeting in the spring of 2012. SpaceX was preparing to fly cargo for NASA to the International Space Station for the first time, and in anticipation of increased demand for the company’s services, Musk wanted to build “a commercial Cape Canaveral”—a launch site all SpaceX’s own, where Falcon 9 rockets could fly as many as 12 times a year. South Texas was one of several areas under consideration, in part because of its proximity to the planet’s equator, which spins faster than the poles, providing departing rockets with an extra boost. SpaceX also has a long history in Texas; it has tested rocket engines at a facility in McGregor, north of Austin, for nearly two decades.
Hundreds of people went to the meeting in Brownsville, according to The Brownsville Herald. Some had concerns about the local fauna—Boca Chica sits in a national wildlife refuge, where each year more than 500 species of migratory birds funnel through and sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. But most people spoke in support of the project, which SpaceX promised would bring hundreds of jobs to the area. To residents of Boca Chica Village, the whole thing felt like a pep rally. For Brownsville, one of the poorest cities in the country, SpaceX seemed to offer an unlikely dream: the opportunity to turn a border town into a 21st-century space city.
“Most of the kids that are fortunate enough to get a college education usually leave the area and they don’t come back,” Eddie Treviño, the county judge for Cameron County, told me. Treviño grew up in Brownsville, left for college, and then returned for good. “SpaceX may draw kids to either come back or maybe to stay,” he said.
A few days earlier, SpaceX had bought its first piece of land from the county. Texas had heavily courted SpaceX since 2011 with millions of dollars in incentives and legislation that would limit public access to beaches along the Gulf. SpaceX, the thinking went, could commandeer the coastline as needed. A review by the Federal Aviation Administration eventually found that rocket operations wouldn’t cause any “significant” environmental impacts, clearing the way for SpaceX to get started. In the spring of 2013, hundreds of people showed up to another meeting, some in Launch Brownsville T-shirts, and a state official read aloud a letter of support from then-Governor Rick Perry.
Company reps did try to reassure the few villagers who attended the meeting about being so close to a launch site. “They said that we would be okay, that we wouldn’t even have to wear hearing protection,” McConnaughey said. “They wanted to be good neighbors.”
SpaceX broke ground at the beach in the fall of 2014, and soon trucks made daily trips into Boca Chica, packed with soil that would provide a sturdy foundation for a launchpad on a bedrock-less shore, less than two miles from the village. State Highway 4, unaccustomed to so much traffic, stretched and cracked, so crews from the Texas Department of Transportation followed, patching the holes. A pair of massive antennae, shaped like mushrooms and larger than buildings, were shipped in from Cape Canaveral to track SpaceX missions.
McConnaughey found herself spending hours outside nearly every day, a camera dangling from her shoulder. She had never considered herself a photographer, and usually got behind the lens only on family vacations. Now she was snapping pictures of hardware and sweaty technicians, like a wildlife photographer angling to capture an elusive creature.
She posted the photos to a forum on nasaspaceflight.com, a community for space fans, with a watermark of her username, BocaChicaGal, in pink font. She learned a new language, writing on the forum—and eventually to her thousands of new Twitter followers—about leg mounts and bulkheads and stainless-steel coils. She learned to look for signs of activity, such as a raised construction crane, and stayed when she saw them, sending her husband into town to run errands without her. She usually goes to Michigan during scorching Texas summers, but she stayed put last year, intent on capturing the activity.
“A lot of it is just right place, right time, being observant,” McConnaughey said. “You have to pay attention to what’s going on. You just have to be patient and ready and wait.”
Elsewhere, SpaceX was making progress—punctuated by a fiery blaze or two. A Falcon 9 rocket exploded during takeoff. The company recovered a rocket booster after launching it into orbit, gently guiding it back to the ground, an industry first. Then another rocket blew up. The company got better at reusing boosters and returning them in one piece. In Florida, the inaugural launch of the Falcon Heavy, the most powerful rocket in operation today, was a milestone for SpaceX, and, it turned out, for Boca Chica Village. “I think it gives me a lot of faith for our next architecture, our interplanetary spaceship,” Musk said at a press conference after the launch in 2018. Forget about routine Falcon 9 launches; he wanted to test this new vehicle, the Starship, at the company’s location in South Texas.
“We’ve got a lot of land with nobody around, so if it blows up, it’s cool,” Musk said.
That December, a mysterious tower rose at SpaceX’s construction site in Boca Chica. Users on nasaspaceflight.com exchanged guesses about what the cylinder of patched-together metal could be. A water tower, probably. But then workers sliced holes into the structure and gave it legs.
Gene Gore drove over early one morning. The sun hadn’t yet risen when he saw a gleam in the dark, next to the mystery structure. “I’d never seen a rocket, but it looked like the nose cone of a rocket,” Gore told me. “That was the first time anybody had seen it. And then it was apparent. Oh, they really are building a rocket here.”
Gore, a South Texas native, has run a surfing company on nearby South Padre Island, a touristy resort town, since 1995, and operates a webcam for surfers checking up on the waves. “When they started building and you could see it, I’m like, ‘Whoa, we gotta point the camera over there,’ which kind of pissed off the surfers,” said Gore, who often surfs at Boca Chica Beach. “So I pointed it back, and then that pissed off the space people, and then I’m like, ‘I gotta buy another camera.’” On a clear day, you could see the earliest Starship prototype from the southernmost tip of the island, a tiny smudge of silver jutting into the blue sky.
Brownsville residents started stopping by too. Austin Barnard, a student at Texas Southmost College, discovered SpaceX by accident, when a binge of Carl Sagan videos led the YouTube algorithm to suggest something from Musk. For Barnard, State Highway 4 is “the highway to Mars,” the first leg of a trip that humanity is destined to take. He likes to walk around the fenced-in SpaceX facilities, soaking in the sounds of the construction. At home, before he starts his homework, Barnard sometimes sits in his room in silence, practicing for the quiet isolation of a months-long mission to the planet.
Around the time the “water tower” showed up, Rosemarie Workman and her husband were returning from Brownsville with groceries when their car was stopped near the village.
Residents are used to checkpoints; there’s a U.S. Border Patrol stop on State Highway 4 when you’re heading toward Brownsville and away from the Mexican border. This checkpoint was different. Instead of a border agent in a dark-green military uniform or a car-sniffing German shepherd, a SpaceX employee approached their car and asked the couple whether they were “on his list.” Workman was stunned. She and her husband have owned their home in Boca Chica for 20 years. “I should not have to be on a list,” Workman told me. “Besides that, why would a SpaceX employee have authorization to stop me on a state highway and tell me I can’t go through?”
To meet safety requirements from federal and county regulators, SpaceX sets up two checkpoints during launch operations, including testing. Only SpaceX personnel and village residents can pass through the first checkpoint, about 15 miles out from Boca Chica on State Highway 4; homeowners can add names to a list, but visitors must stay on their host’s property during road closures or they risk arrest for trespassing. No one is allowed past the second checkpoint near the village, beyond any homes and closer to the launchpad, an area the FAA says isn’t safe during testing.
The road closures became a fact of life in Boca Chica. So did the intrusions of SpaceX operations, which reached a new intensity. Nearly every day, beneath the sound of wind blowing through dry grass and the staccato chirps of blackbirds, there was the clanging, whirring, and buzzing of construction equipment, the high-pitched beeping of trucks in reverse and cranes climbing high, the music the workers put on to entertain themselves. The work lasted through the night, beneath the glow of industrial lights. On windy days, pieces of plastic wrap drifted away from the construction site and stuck to the yucca trees. Some residents started calling and emailing county offices, state officials, federal agencies—anybody who could tell them whether any of this was sanctioned.
All the residents I spoke with—close to a dozen—told me a version of the same story. Before SpaceX, the village felt like a coastal paradise, contentedly dislodged from civilization. At night, the only light came from the distant hotel towers on South Padre Island to the north and the Milky Way overhead. Now the place felt almost claustrophobic.
In August, the Cameron County sheriff dropped off notices in the village. When they hear a police siren, the memo said, residents should step outside their home. Better yet, they should consider leaving for the day. SpaceX was scheduled to conduct an important test of Starhopper, an early Starship prototype, the one mistaken for a water tower. “There is a risk that a malfunction of the SpaceX vehicle during flight will create a overpressure event that can break windows,” the notice read. “It is recommended that you consider temporarily vacating yourself, other occupants, and pets from the area.” Before the flight, which was, at the time, SpaceX’s biggest Starship test, the FAA required SpaceX to increase its liability insurance, from $3 million to $100 million.
Starhopper rose into the sky, climbing to a height of nearly 500 feet before levitating back down. McConnaughey watched from a safe distance, along with some SpaceX workers, who whooped and cheered as they watched. “It was just amazing,” she said.
Musk was in awe too. “Congrats SpaceX team!!” he tweeted. “One day Starship will land on the rusty sands of Mars.”
The letters, printed on SpaceX letterhead, arrived a few weeks later. “When SpaceX first identified Cameron County as a potential spaceport location, we did not anticipate that local residents would experience significant disruption from our presence,” the note read. “However, it has become clear that expansion of spaceflight activities as well as compliance with Federal Aviation Administration and other public safety regulations will make it increasingly more challenging to minimize disruption to residents of the Village.” (The FAA is in charge of approving SpaceX’s launch activities in Boca Chica.) The letters came with contracts, offering homeowners a deal to buy their home. Those who sold, SpaceX promised, were welcome to return for private, “VIP” launch-viewing events of Starship.
The village residents had suspected that SpaceX would want them out someday. But some were still shocked by the letters, especially after they read what was inside.
SpaceX had commissioned an appraisal of their properties, without their knowledge, and was now offering them three times the resulting market value. The process would be handled by JLL, a commercial real-estate company. SpaceX gave the residents two weeks to respond.
Some signed the contracts, but many didn’t want to leave. A sale at triple a property’s worth certainly sounds generous. But the appraisers SpaceX hired hadn’t even stepped inside their homes, the residents said, to see the new plumbing and air-conditioning systems they had installed, or the fresh tiling and gleaming backsplashes. JLL conducted a second assessment, and this time appraisers took pictures of the interiors. But when residents saw the new evaluations, some were insulted—the comparable homes the appraisers had listed included foreclosed houses and properties with foundation issues. (SpaceX declined to comment on property negotiations.)
SpaceX still tried to be neighborly, in a way. The company invited residents to Musk’s Starship presentation days after the letters came. Those who RSVP’d rode in a sleek black van to the control center, where Musk showed off the latest Starship prototype. Afterward, the residents were herded into a room stocked with soft drinks and snacks, while elsewhere Musk took questions from reporters—including about buying out the village. When he was done, he joined them for about half an hour and, with the help of a SpaceX lawyer, tried to reassure them about the buyout process. Musk told the residents that they could stay in Boca Chica as long as they were willing to put up with the “inconveniences” of living next door to a spaceship construction site, McConnaughey said. He warned them there would be more.
A week before Thanksgiving, Celia Garcia Johnson got on the phone with Elizabeth Clampitt, a senior vice president at JLL and the residents’ point of contact for the buyouts. Garcia Johnson has loved Boca Chica Beach since she was a little girl growing up in nearby Brownsville, and bought two homes in the village, one in 1991 and the other in 2004, with the hope that someday her two sons would inherit them. Like some of her neighbors, she found and paid an appraiser to conduct another review, which came up with higher values. JLL rejected the appraisal. So Garcia Johnson told Clampitt that she wasn’t taking SpaceX’s offer. Clampitt said SpaceX wouldn’t come back with another.
Garcia Johnson described the conversation: Clampitt told her, “Well, I’m going to talk to you like I would talk to my mother or my aunt, someone that’s close to me. If you don’t sell at our prices, we’re going to close the books on you, and the houses are going to the county.” (SpaceX declined to comment on this conversation, and Clampitt did not respond to a request for comment.)
SpaceX can’t force the residents to leave, but the county can. In 2013, county commissioners established a corporation “to assist in the promotion and development of a spaceport project” in Cameron County. Under Texas law, the corporation has the authority to exercise the same right that lets governments take over private property and compensate its owners. When we met, Treviño, the county judge, told me that while he sympathizes with the residents, the use of eminent domain in Boca Chica Village is “probably a distinct possibility.” The law is on SpaceX’s side. A 2005 Supreme Court ruling expanded the definition of public use, the legal justification for eminent domain, to include economic development, and since then, states have taken advantage of that leeway: Texas, for instance, claimed dozens of homes to make room for a new stadium for the Dallas Cowboys. “That is something, unfortunately, that happens way more than it should,” Renée Flaherty, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm in Washington, D.C., told me.
Flaherty first heard about Boca Chica in the fall. “Those people were already there and [SpaceX] brought a nuisance to them, and now it’s escalated to the point where the nuisance is so severe that they’re telling them that they have to leave their own property,” said Flaherty, a Texas native herself. If the county moves ahead with legal proceedings, she believes that the remaining residents would have a case for eminent-domain abuse.
“We’re watching the situation very closely,” Flaherty said. (She has been in touch with several residents. She doesn’t represent them, but is considering making a trip to Boca Chica.) “I don’t like to make threats, and I never do make threats, but we are watching. I think it’s probably a very good thing if they know that someone has an eye on them.”
Today, Boca Chica is busier than ever: As Musk put it recently, SpaceX is “going max hardcore” on production of the new Starship prototype. Fresh cracks have appeared in the asphalt of State Highway 4, and this month, SpaceX asked federal regulators for permission to launch the newest Starship vehicle almost halfway to the edge of space sometime in 2020. Musk wants to put people on board this year too.
In the village, residents see SpaceX workers moving around the homes the company now owns, lugging in furniture and paint and carrying out old carpeting. And judging by the cars that stay parked in the driveways overnight (including Teslas, another product in the Elon Musk firmament) residents suspect that the employees have begun sleeping there. At one property, a chain-link fence has been replaced with a wooden one, and someone strung up small twinkle lights—the kind that might illuminate a cozy outdoor party—over the yard. As some residents are packing up to leave, SpaceX is settling in.
For McConnaughey, watching her neighbors trickle away has been difficult. She felt a twinge of sadness when she saw SpaceX workers trimming the grassy median on her street. “It’s just something that we’ve always done,” she said.
Cameron County is a far cry from Cape Canaveral, but the infrastructure to support a departure gate from Earth is slowly emerging. The county has spent millions of dollars to spruce up a park at the southern end of South Padre Island as a prime viewing spot for future launches, installing an amphitheater, event center, pavilion, and boardwalks. SpaceX has begun inviting people to Stargate, the control center in Boca Chica, to meet and interview with recruiters. Last month, the company also held a business fair in Brownsville so that the company could “learn about select products and services available from Rio Grande Valley vendors.” Gore attended, hoping, he said half-jokingly, to become SpaceX’s official surfing instructor.
Like others who visit the SpaceX facilities regularly, Gore and Barnard, the space-eyed college student, know some of the residents, including McConnaughey, whom they consider a friend. They know what the homeowners are going through, and they feel bad for them. But Barnard sees their situation through a more cosmic lens. A common argument for space travel, especially Musk’s version of it, is that it is inevitable. Of course people will someday leave Earth and build homes on other planets, and Musk is the one who can get them there. Humankind is poised to become a spacefaring civilization—to find not only survival beyond Earth, but a happy life—and for Barnard, Boca Chica might be the cradle. “It sucks,” he said. “But the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Star Trek.”
As SpaceX plants roots in Cameron County, the company seems to be growing impatient about the people—about 20—who don’t want to leave. In mid-January, David Finlay, SpaceX’s senior director of finance, came to town and stopped into the homes of residents who haven’t sold. “He sat in my living room and he apologized because they’re making us leave,” but he said SpaceX needed them out soon, Garcia Johnson told me. When she asked about eminent domain, Finlay said he could tell Texas officials that SpaceX might leave if it can’t maintain operations here, which could prompt the county to start eminent-domain proceedings. Garcia Johnson hasn’t changed her mind.
SpaceX declined to discuss the specifics of its negotiations with residents in Boca Chica and the possibility of eminent domain, and emphasized its commitment to its Texas locations. “Every single SpaceX rocket and spacecraft is tested in Texas before flying to space and back again,” said Gleeson, the SpaceX spokesperson. “South Texas will play an increasingly important role in our efforts to help make humanity multi-planetary.”
Like Garcia Johnson, McConnaughey never wants to give up her home in Boca Chica, but she would do it for what she feels is a fair price, enough to find a similar home with the views and the quiet she has enjoyed in the village for years. But she can’t imagine being anywhere else, especially now. She loves documenting what SpaceX is doing, even though she knows the company wants her to leave.
McConnaughey recognizes that her desires might seem difficult to reconcile, but she doesn’t feel conflicted about her hobby, which she said feels like an addiction. She doesn’t do it for the love of SpaceX. (She doesn’t see the appeal of going to Mars either—“isn’t it –80 degrees there?”—though she understands why others do.) She does it for the nasaspaceflight.com community, who encouraged her to post more pictures when she first started, and for other space fans who don’t have the view that she does. Her photos, alongside pieces by Barnard and Gore, are now on display at the Brownsville Museum of Fine Art, as part of an exhibit chronicling SpaceX’s transformation of Boca Chica. Last month, all three mingled alongside company reps at a black-tie gala to celebrate its opening.
The week I visited Boca Chica, about a month before the small explosion in November, SpaceX workers had removed the nose cone and the fins of the Starship prototype, giving it the appearance of an uncapped lipstick. It was a warm, cloudless day, and the ground seemed to sizzle in the heat of the sun. Workers in hard hats and reflective vests arrived in pickup trucks. A security guard drove over and asked me to step away from the fence. If something were to fall from the crane, he said, we’d both be in trouble.
The air-conditioned houses in the village were blissfully cool in comparison, and residents showed me around their homes and backyards, pointing out their seashell collections and where they drank their coffee each morning with views of the nearby bay. McConnaughey brought out a stack of notices about public hearings and launch activities she had received over the years, a paper trail documenting the residents’ rocky coexistence with SpaceX, culminating with a glossy booklet, prepared by JLL, telling them how much their homes are worth. “Nice little wooden shack,” McConnaughey said, referring to one of the properties used for comparison. “It looks lovely.”
The next day was windy and 20 degrees cooler. Heavy rain had passed through overnight, scattering palm fronds on roadways, and the bay had swelled and risen, flooding State Highway 4 just a few miles out from the village. There was no getting out, or in, until the water subsided hours later. At a hotel in Brownsville, where SpaceX puts up employees who come to work from out of town, a few technicians from the company’s facilities in California sat in the lobby. They had driven over to Boca Chica in the morning but were told to leave as the water crept up onto the highway. One of them told me they had come up so quickly on the flooding that they almost lost control of the car.
I asked them what they were going to do for the afternoon. They shrugged. “Rest,” one said. Another pointed to a brightly colored liquid in a plastic cup in front of him. “Drink.”
For a few hours that day, Boca Chica Village was cut off from the rest of the world. Residents said they’d never seen the bay flood this badly before, but they didn’t seem to mind. They could pretend that the village was theirs again, even as they prepared to face the reality of giving it up. McConnaughey, Garcia Johnson, Workman, and others said they’ll stick it out for as long as they can, but they know that Boca Chica has become something else, something harder to recognize. It is a strange existence, to move through the familiar routines of their days without knowing how many are left in their shifting paradise. A security guard near the big antennae told me that some of the residents wave to him during their daily walks, and he knows some of them by name. I asked him whether he knew that SpaceX was trying to buy their homes. “I thought the county made a decision for them already,” he said.