In Texas, SpaceX's Rocket Facility is Blocking Public Beach Access

A proposed land trade would hand over even more of Boca Chica to SpaceX.

Joseph Bullington

An egret forages in the marshes near Boca Chica Beach and SpaceX’s Starbase facility in March. “Essentially you have one of the best shorebird habitats in North America being gradually decimated,” says a local environmentalist. Photo by Joseph Bullington

BOCA CHICA BEACH, TEXAS — I’m loafing outside my tent, waiting for the coffee to boil, contemplating a morning swim. My pitbull, Shiner, is thrashing in the sand with a look of crazed joy twisting his face. Brown pelicans are cruising low over the roiling gray-green Gulf waters.

That’s when a Cameron County sheriff’s deputy drives up and tells us to leave. Boca Chica Beach is now closed so Elon Musk’s company SpaceX can conduct rocket tests at its nearby launchpad, which towers over the dunes just north of our camp. 

Such beach closures have become frequent since SpaceX started building its Starbase facility about six years ago. When I visited in early March, a county judge had authorized the closure of the road to the beach on five of the prior seven days. 

Here, SpaceX is developing a massive, reusable rocket called Starship, designed, in theory, to one day carry crews to colonies on the Moon and Mars — far beyond such mundane earthly joys as pitbulls and pelicans — and fulfill the company’s stated purpose to make humans a multi-planetary species.” 

For enthusiasts, Starbase is a beacon of promise, transforming unused tidal wastes into a Gateway to Mars,” as a sign around the launchpad puts it. Many locals, though — for whom this place is not a gateway” but their longtime home — are increasingly sick of SpaceX and angry at government officials they see as handing their hometown beach over to a private company. 

“SpaceX has been turning those families away. [They’re] turning it into their own private resort.”

Families have been going to Boca Chica Beach for generations,” says Bekah Hinojosa, a community organizer for the South Texas Environmental Justice Network who lives in nearby Brownsville. SpaceX has been turning those families away. [They’re] turning it into their own private resort.”

To get to the next closest beach, residents of Brownsville — a poor, largely Latino city that lies across the Rio Grande from Matamoros, Mexico — must drive up to South Padre Island. There, if you’re not staying in one of the oceanfront high rises or vacation homes, signs instruct you to pay a $12 daily beach fee. Boca Chica Beach, by contrast, is free, and locals know it as poor man’s beach.”

Cameron County Sheriff deputies block the road to Boca Chica Beach so SpaceX can conduct rocket tests on March 7. Photo by Joseph Bullington

In 2022, the Carrizo/​Comecrudo Nation, a tribe with longtime ties to the Boca Chica area, joined the Sierra Club and a group called Save Rio Grande Valley (SaveRGV) to sue Texas and Cameron County over the beach closures. The Texas Open Beaches Act of 1959 and the state’s constitution enshrine the public’s right to access public beaches, says Marisa Perales, an attorney representing the groups. But in 2013, while the state was courting SpaceX, the legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill making an exception for space flight activities.” The lawsuit, which aims to block future beach closures, is waiting in Cameron County District Court.

Now, local groups are fighting a proposed land trade that would hand over more of Boca Chica to SpaceX. The company has proposed to buy 477 acres of land adjacent to the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, 10 miles to the north, then exchange it with the state for 43 acres of Boca Chica State Park, near the rocket facility, to expand Starbase. 

A monthly roundup of our best stories

A representative for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department told In These Times the agency sees it as a good trade that would protect sensitive habitats and increase public recreation opportunities. Environmental groups, however, see it differently.

“Essentially you have one of the best shorebird habitats in North America being gradually decimated."

SpaceX activities are already harming wildlife and habitats at Boca Chica, says Jim Chapman, a Save RGV board member. He describes the area’s sprawling tidal flats as an internationally recognized” habitat for shorebirds, including the piping plover, a species threatened by extinction from habitat loss. Besides Starbase’s footprint itself, Chapman points to the violent impact of the launches, which, he says, will pretty much fry anything within 0.3 miles. 

Essentially you have one of the best shorebird habitats in North America being gradually decimated,” Chapman says. The swap could allow the company to build a second launch tower and launch more rockets, which he worries would drastically increase its environmental impact.

SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment.

On March 4, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission voted to authorize land exchange negotiations with SpaceX, despite vehement opposition from some Brownsville locals who made the 350-mile drive to Austin to give public comment.

Texas Parks and Wildlife is paving the way for SpaceX to take over more of Boca Chica Beach,” says Hinojosa. She doesn’t want to see any more of the Texas coast sacrificed for industry. 

Indeed, the coastal plain around Boca Chica — where 10-foot yuccas hoist clusters of cream-white blooms above thickets of Tamaulipan thornscrub and wading birds forage across wide tidal flats — stands out for its intactness on a coast fractured by refineries, oil pipelines and gas terminals.

A sign near Boca Chica Beach discourages SpaceX tourists from driving on the dunes. The area stands out for its ecological intactness on a coast fractured by oil and gas infrastructure. Photo by Joseph Bullington

Three-quarters of the Texas coast has been sacrificed to the fossil fuel industry,” says Hinojosa. Our little piece right here is the last piece that doesn’t have massive fossil fuel refineries.”

SpaceX isn’t the only threat. A few miles north, along the Brownsville shipping canal, bulldozers have cleared land for a several-thousand-acre complex of liquified natural gas (LNG) plants and export terminals that, if built, will spew pollutants into nearby communities and wildlife refuges and transform the Port of Brownsville into one of the largest LNG facilities in the country. Hinojosa, Chapman and others have been fighting the project for nearly 10 years, but it’s not looking good for stopping it,” says Chapman. It will be an industrial hellscape.”

In some ways, of course, SpaceX is itself a response to this same sense of impending doom.

In some ways, of course, SpaceX is itself a response to this same sense of impending doom. Why Starship? Why Mars? Why multiplanetary species”? Because a decent future on Earth has become increasingly hard to imagine, and a drive along the present-day Gulf Coast does nothing to make it easier. A banner on the SpaceX website quotes Musk: You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great — and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about.”

Our current ecological collapse, argues the French thinker Bruno Latour in his book Down to Earth, is the existential crisis of modernity: It reveals that the Earth is simply not big enough to hold modernity’s promise of endless growth, wealth, development.” To go on like this, Latour writes, they would need several planets; they have only one.” 

Some people respond to this truth by looking for more planets. Others dig into their territory and go to battle against the industries plundering it. Some, no doubt, can picture themselves aboard Starship, leaving. Others know our lives and futures are bound to this spiny, sweltering, blooming, suffering, pelican-full planet.

SpaceX claims it’s part of the future, says Hinojosa, but to her it looks like the latest form of colonization — and not of some far-away planet. Big companies come in, they exploit, the politicians act as real estate agents,” she says. We’re going to keep calling this shit out. … We live here.”

Help In These Times Celebrate & Have Your Gift Matched!

In These Times is proud to share that we were recently awarded the 16th Annual Izzy Award from the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. The Izzy Award goes to an independent outlet, journalist or producer for contributions to culture, politics or journalism created outside traditional corporate structures.

Fellow 2024 Izzy awardees include Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Sarah Conway for their joint investigative series “Missing In Chicago," and journalists Mohammed El-Kurd and Lynzy Billing. The Izzy judges also gave special recognition to Democracy Now! for coverage that documented the destruction wreaked in Gaza and raised Palestinian voices to public awareness.

In These Times is proud to stand alongside our fellow awardees in accepting the 2024 Izzy Award. To help us continue producing award-winning journalism a generous donor has pledged to match any donation, dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,000.

Will you help In These Times celebrate and have your gift matched today? Make a tax-deductible contribution to support independent media.

Joseph Bullington grew up in the Smith River watershed near White Sulphur Springs, Montana. He is the editor of Rural America In These Times.

The War on Protest Cover
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.