Something to see: Boca Chica rockets draw curious

Steve Clark, The Brownsville Herald, Texas
·5 min read

Apr. 14—Even on a weekday, even an hour before the county's scheduled closure of Boca Chica Beach and S.H. 4 near the launch site, SpaceX proved a draw for at least a few sightseers, some of them from far away places.

A big shiny rocket is hard to resist, as legions of space tourists have shown, and as of Tuesday visitors to Boca Chica were able to feast their eyes on the spectacle of one such object — Starship SN15 — upright on the launch pad and undergoing preparations for an attempted high-altitude flight in the near future.

Meanwhile, construction activity is bustling, both in the launch area and at SpaceX's Starship production complex 1.5 miles west, where more Starship prototypes and the first gargantuan Super Heavy booster rockets are being built. Heavy trucks bearing various types of equipment and supplies rumble up and down this tortured stretch of highway, itself under construction near the build yard.

Ed and Lauran Persson, Oregon residents traveling through Arizona and Texas with their four little girls, had pulled their SUV off the highway just west of where SN15 stood in the semi-haze to shoot photos of the finned, stainless-steel-clad rocket a stone's throw away. While SpaceX's Boca Chica operation wasn't the only thing that brought them to the Lower Rio Grande Valley — they wanted to check out South Padre Island too — it was a chief attraction nonetheless.

Ed, newly retired, said he and his wife are "big fans of SpaceX," have been keeping an eye on Boca Chica ever since SpaceX's September 2014 groundbreaking and have watched livesteam video of every launch. They have a son who's attending Oregon State University and wants to go into aerospace.

Of SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk's rocket building, Ed said, "I'm glad he's doing it because the government's not."

Added Lauran: "I think it's amazing. He's an incredibly creative, intelligent person, and hardworking. Our son has told me all about him and I've watched a lot of his videos and stuff. He's incredible. He's a genius. And I love his reaching for the stars, you know?"

It was the Perssons' first trip to the Valley. They were headed to Corpus Christi the following day and then onto Killeen to visit friends. Although the explosion of the SN11 prototype during an unsuccessful landing sequence on March 30 rained rocket parts far and wide, with piles of fragments still visible on the tidal flats across highway from where SN15 awaits launch, the Perssons said they hadn't found anything.

"We saw some guys in a Gator on the beach," Ed said. "I figure they probably work for SpaceX. They had a piece in the back."

Another reason for the Perssons' journey through the Southwest was to size up potential post-retirement locales. Whether they end up in the Valley long term, this won't be their last trip down here to check up on SpaceX, Lauran insisted.

"We're going to buy an RV and come back," she said. "You better believe it."

SN11 was the fourth full-size Starship prototype to explode. The first two, SN8 and SN9, performed successful test flights but blew up on landing after coming in two fast. SN10's March 3 test flight ended in a successful landing, though the craft exploded several minutes afterward.

Musk in an April 5 tweet blamed SN11's midair explosion on a methane leak that affected the ship's landing burn, but tweeted that the problem is "getting fixed 6 ways to Sunday" in subsequent prototypes, including presumably SN15, which was rolled out to the launch pad four days after the SN11 flight.

On the beach, past a deeply tanned woman perched on a small dune just across from the launch pad and aiming expensive camera equipment at SN15, four friends piled out of a minivan and made the short walk to the beach to survey the rocket from there. Among the four San Antonio area residents were Joel and Helen Eckland.

Coming into Boca Chica, they drove past the production complex, with giant rocket components scattered everywhere, and thought that was as close as they'd get to SpaceX, but then were shocked to see a rocket on the launch pad at the end of the road, Joel said.

"Actually we came down to bird this weekend, and we decided to come over and see this," he said. "We thought we'd be miles away from it. We're very pleased with what we've seen. It's been great. The amazing thing to us about seeing this thing is how close we can get to it. I think it's wonderful to be able to get this close."

Joel said he was also surprised by how much the craft "looks like something out of'50s television, like 'Buck Rogers.'"

Musk is developing Starship to ultimately carry humans and cargo to the Moon and Mars someday. Traveling with the Ecklands were Tom and Jacque Pickens. Jacque said she knows not everyone is thrilled with SpaceX's operations at Boca Chica, largely due to the explosions, and ventured that finding volunteers to fly aboard Starships could be difficult until they stop blowing up.

Still, she was glad to be there, soaking it all in on a fairly decent beach day.

"We're so glad we came," Jacque said, while her husband, Tom, pronounced all of it amazing.

"The access to it is amazing," he said. "The concept is amazing. The fact that it's here at Boca Chica is amazing. Forty years ago we came down here and parked in a Winnebago and enjoyed the beach, and now there's this."

Of course, getting to Boca Chica is trickier than it used to be thanks to the frequent closures of the highway and beach by Cameron County for rocket testing and related activities. County Judge Eddie Trevino Jr. on Tuesday afternoon issued a closure order for Boca Chica Beach and S.H. 4 from the beach to F.M. 1419/Oklahoma Avenue today (April 14) from noon to 8 p.m.

Trevino announced backup closures dates of April 15 from noon to 8 p.m., and/or April 16 from 7 a.m. to noon.

Anyone who finds rocket debris is asked to call (866) 623-0234 or email recovery@spacex.com.

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com