Boca Chica, right on the border with Mexico, is a village few had ever heard of – that is until Elon Musk came along. Its world famous now because of Musk’s SpaceX operations and Boca Chica has been touted ‘the last town before Mars.’ Musk however has aspirations of renaming the area as ‘Starbase’ as per a tweet just two weeks ago. Whether that’s a good idea or not I couldn’t tell you nevertheless Boca Chica is the third name change for this Southern Texas village previously known as Kennedy Shores and Kopernick Shores. World fame came for the village in 2014 (although the reaction from its 26 residents has been somewhat mixed) when Musk finally choose the sparse but valuable wet grasslands that surround the village as the location for his new space venture.
You might think I’m going to write a comprehensive do on SpaceX. I would love to but alas I don’t think I have the qualities to do that even though I do follow SpaceX’s endeavours with considerable interest. What I am doing here however is to try something a little different and that’s a before and an after comparison – how the area looked before Musk arrived and how it looks now – with some sprinkling of detail about the various rockets and the site’s infrastructure. Be warned, there’s so much enthusiasm about SpaceX that news reportage is exceedingly good and every single possible thing that can be found out about the company’s operations and its build programme is known. SpaceX is after all, a very important project in terms of space because of its aspirations to be the first to send people to Mars. That alone in itself would be a huge step for humankind and no doubt the biggest since Neil Armstrong first stepped on the Moon. The Apollo programme was a huge draw for me as a youngster and I have kept an interest in progress on humanity’s endeavours to reach space. I briefly wrote about my experience of the live Apollo 11 transmissions from the Moon in 1969 here.
Boca Chica from the west, just a couple of buildings visible! April 2011. Compare with image below. Source: Google Streets
As for other aspects of space, I have written a number of posts on Kubrick’s 2001, as well as a feature on Star Tram a sort of space hyperloop/railgun thingy which although seriously proposed, never got off the ground. No doubt SpaceX is one of a string of attempts, and evidently the most successful so far, to try and get humans into space en masse and as cheaply as possible. Not cheap as in ‘cheap,’ but as viable as it can be made – because space travel is still exceedingly expensive. Its labour intensive too because building even rockets takes a lot of skill and manpower. We haven’t got to the stage yet where robots can build spaceships with ease – and that will in fact still be quite a way off. In terms of trying to get people into space for less cost, Star tram was of course one attempt at addressing the exorbitant cost of getting away from the Earth’s gravity, as were other ideas such as space elevators and planes that could become spacecraft once they reached orbit. So many problems with these other possible alternatives has ensured that rocket science remained the one and only viable proposition. Ironically the Space Shuttle was perhaps the only other successful commercial attempt but it was cumbersome and expensive too, and an idea that just couldn’t be sustained even though it tried to utilise rockets in a new and innovative way.
Boca Chica approach from west in 2019 with basic SpaceX facilities evident. Source: Google Streets
SpaceX in deference went back to the drawing board and its philosophy is to use existing rocket technology and improve greatly on that – which so far seems to be working very well. Returnable rockets have been an idea for decades, some of the earliest examples were in fact seen in science fiction films where anything goes, but actually getting these to work is a different matter because of the huge payloads. Nevertheless with SpaceX its reuse of rocket stages by returning them to Earth has alone cut the costs of getting people and equipment up there, but its still very early days – because to even get people/equipment just to the Moon, or even further such as to Mars, bigger space ships are still needed and that is where the problem lies even though the various rocket stages will of course be returned to Earth. In reality, rocket technology is the only option we have for now and for the foreseeable future. Huge space stations that form an intermediate transit point between Earth and Outer Space, whilst warp and plasma drives (including the Alcubierre drive), wormholes and the rest of it, all these are still a long way off into the future. Its possible thought that once we get equipment up there and bases established on the Moon and Mars, we may find it much easier to do research that could well bring these other technologies about much quicker than if the work was done on Earth.
Aerial view of Boca Chica and its surroundings. This was taken when construction work on the launch pad had barely begun The different elements that form the present space base can be seen. The Rio Grande (and part of Mexico) can be seen along the top. Source: Google Earth.
In terms of Boca Chica itself, one of the more significant elements that identifies the area where SpaceX is based is its where the Rio Grande river enters the Gulf of Mexico. This very spot can only be visited by foot but nevertheless it is quite an important site of natural interest – the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife refuge – with the US and Mexico either side of the river itself, just under three miles from SpaceX’s launch facility. More than 500 types of migratory bird finds their way here every year. The village itself consists of quite fortunate residents who could afford to live here, yet on the other hand the city of Brownsville just a few miles up the road is one of America’s poorest cities. Essentially SpaceX has brought prosperity to the area in terms of jobs and income. It can be said that Boca Chica is a strange mix of different elements, both artificial, natural, and economic, all coming together, and it remains to be seen whether the area’s most important elements in terms of of flying – migratory birds and rockets – can exist together in harmony.
Just inside the mouth of the Rio Grande accessible only on foot from Boca Chica at low tide. Mexico is on the opposite side. Source: Google Streets
The residents of Boca Chica first learnt of SpaceX’s plans in 2012. In fact the State of Texas had. as early as 2011, been trying to woo Musk to the area because the state knew such an opportunity would bring much needed prosperity to Brownsville, one of the US’ poorest cities. When SpaceX moved in, Boca Chica’s residents were given an opportunity to move out with a mouth watering offer to purchase their homes at three times the value of the properties. Quite a few took the offer and moved. There’s two who have stayed because of SpaceX and one of those is BocaChicaGal. Her job these days is to do write ups on the exploits of SpaceX and keep thousands of enthusiasts informed as to what goes on tin the area. Below is one of her social media pictures that illustrate the rather unusual mix of activities that can be experienced in the area.
Horse riding and space rockets in harmony at Boca Chica. This view was taken during the early stages of the launch pad’s construction. Source: Twitter
Here’s some more pictures that take a look at the various sites which are now part of SpaceX, how they looked in 2011 (which was the first time Google sent its cameras here), and how they looked in 2019, this being the second time Google sent its cameras to Boca Chica. There are some exceptions of course however these are individuals who have uploaded photographs to the Google Street servers. Some of the other pictures are from BocaChicaGal and RGV.
The SpaceX launch facility in early 2019. Source: Twitter
Space X launch facility in September 2019. The Star Hopper prototype remains on the launch pad a month after its successful flight. Source: Google Streets
SpaceX’s original Star Hopper prototype was originally placed on the launch pad area in readiness for its short hops, the first two of which only raised it a few feet off the ground. The third and final one, in August 2019, was a 150 metre (roughly 500 feet) hop from the launch pad to the landing pad. Its actually the prototype model for the Starship and is an important piece of history being the first to actually take off and land without a hitch. It can’t be used for anything other than short hops as there’s just a single Raptor engine that powers it – also the ship’s body isn’t large enough to accommodate further engines nor the necessary additional fuel tanks that would be needed for longer flights. Here’s a short video covering its historic but brief 57 second flight. The Star Hopper remains at Boca Chica as a symbol of the first work towards developing a mission for Mars.
The launch pad site in 2011. Source: Google Streets
The same perspective as the previous one! June 2019. Source: Google Streets
SN9 and SN10 on the launch pad site February 2021. This is the most recent view on Google Streets of the SpaceX facility. Compare with below, taken in 2011. Source: Google Streets
The launch site in 2011. This is not the same exact shot as the one with SN9 and SN10 which was taken off road, however the same two trees on the left can be seen in both shots. Source: Google Streets
SN10 is perhaps SpaceX’s most famed rocket to date. It undertook a very successful high altitude test before free falling back down to Earth and then doing a flip and landing back at Boca Chica. However it had a malfunction that ensued during the flight (some say it was the fact it flipped violently that caused a shift in the ship’s integral tanks and a tiny rupture occurred, the evidence of which can be seen as the rocket makes its descent.) SN10 touched down as expected, but not perfectly. At least three of its landing legs didn’t deploy properly and the ship actually had a hard landing. It landed on its fins and lower body shell rather and was left at an angle. The aforementioned rupture continued to burn and after eight minutes or so on the landing pad, the ship ‘relaunched’ itself and exploded in a mighty fireball. Despite the rather inglorious end the flight was seen as a success in terms of what the spacecraft achieved. Elon Musk explains why the rocket likely malfunctioned and then blew up. Here’s the broadcast video of the now famous flight from the moment SN10 takes off and then its landing. And this very short video shows SN10’s unexpected end. The testing programme has been cut short somewhat and the next rocket, SN11 will be the last near earth test flight. Musk wants to focus on the first proper orbital space flight to be undertaken by SN15. The rocket itself has very recently been completed although there is still work to be undertaken and its not known exactly when SN15 will perform its maiden flight. Its been said this will be July 2021 though some say its quite ambitious. Possibly it’ll be later in the summer or even the latter part of 2021.
Close up of the Star Hopper prototype rocket in June 2019. Source: Google Streets
Starship Hopper and Construction bay Sept 2019. Source: Google Streets
One might wonder why Musk choose Boca Chica. Apart from the obvious employment and economic advantages that would be a boon for the area, there was a more serious aspect to securing a site here. Its the southernmost tip of the USA, being the nearest on can get in that country to the equator. This follows the example of NASA’s space launch facilities being sited in Florida and again that is because of their nearness to the equator. Its simply a matter of rocket science, being that the nearer one gets to the equator, less effort is required to lift a rocket up into the skies. Another reason is again like Florida, that the sea is to the east of the launching sites, which ensures there is a body of water that a rocket would fall into should anything go wrong rather than it hitting land. Launches are more often than not towards the east and that is because the earth’s rotation does at least help to accelerate the rocket. Boca Chica is therefore an ideal location for rocket launches and one which is even more ideal, being much further south than NASA’s/Space Force’s own sites. Some of SpaceX’s flights have been launched from Vandenberg in California which might seem contrary to what the science says however that location is advantageous for having a wide expanse of sea south of the site. That site is used for satellites which might need to go in a different orbit. The other sites used by SpaceX too include the Canaveral and Kennedy space centres and these other three sites are used for commercial launches such as Starlink and other satellites. Boca Chica’s importance however is its currently the company’s experimental launch facility – which means one gets to see an amazing array of tests that are part of the ongoing work to perfect the Starship and other types of rocket – and that in a nutshell is why Boca Chica holds the world’s attention in terms of the developing of space flight. Of course when the time comes in maybe a year or two, SpaceX’s South Texas launch site will be used for commercial space flights.
SpaceX’s rocket construction facility in June 2020. At lower left is an array of solar panels used to help power the site. The number of facilities has grown enormously since this image was taken. Source: Twitter
The latest plans for the Boca Chica beach site February 2021. The current launch facility is the large ring near the centre of the plan. Source: Twitter
The Orbital Pad Launch Mount marked on the above plan is currently under construction (see image below.) As the name denotes, this will be that which launches rockets into actual orbit. Having two landing pads (the new one at the south west corner) will give SpaceX the ability to retrieve returning rocket stages en masse – necessary for when the company’s bigger rockets are launched. Two rocket stages could land at sea on the company’s ship and the other two stages could land here. The size of the site has been evident since 2013 when Musk’s company submitted its first plans although the layout is now changed and has taken up all the space approved for development. A highly detailed zoomable overlay on the current site can be seen at Easyzoom.
Recent picture from RGV showing the new orbital launch pad. The reason this launch pad has to be quite tall is to allow the necessary thrust below the rocket in order to lift it to orbit. What is interesting is how the site is taking shape here too as per the plans. Source: Twitter
Starship SN11 leaving its construction bay en route to the launch pad just four days after the spectacularly performing SN10 inadvertently exploded as a result of a malfunction. Source: Twitter
SN11 is the last of the experimental rockets. There was a rolling programme that included SN12, 13 and 14. Musk however has decided those wont be built and the company is going straight for SN15 instead, which should be the first product to do the work of orbiting rather than be merely a vehicle for near earth testing.
The building seen in the above and below pictures is the UTRGV – acronym for University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. This is an education facility on the Boca Chica site built to support SpaceX’s research. ‘The STARGATE facility will be a radio frequency technology park located adjacent to the SpaceX launch site command center. SpaceX will assemble and launch their signature advanced rockets and spacecraft, with launches every month at the Boca Chica Beach site. When not being used for launches, SpaceX facilities will be used by student and faculty researchers at STARGATE for training, scientific research and technology development.’ Source: University of Texas
The UTRGV building in early days this being 2019. The site has changed enormously in the two years since this view was taken. Source: Google Streets
The UTRGV site in April 2011. Source: Google Streets
If you’re wondering what’s in that big tent, its a Starship assembly facility. Pictures of the inside of this are somewhat rare however this is one from Elon Musk himself. The tent is from Tesla and the cone seen here is for SN1. Source: Twitter
I’ll try to do some other updates on occasion for SpaceX as well as a further post showing how the site looked before SpaceX arrived.
Useful SpaceX social media links: