Surreal. Dozens, seemingly hundreds of cars – so many Teslas—but no visible people, save a guard in semi-military uniform.  (His response to our request: “We don’t give tours.”)

A long line of cars and pickup trucks, parked alongside a lonely, nearly deserted road, heading to a lonely beach,Boca Chica, Texas. (Boca Chica means “small mouth” of a river—in this case,  the end of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo River, as it empties into the Gulf of Mexico.) 

Inside the guarded, fenced enclosure, as seen during my drive, there were lights, buildings, hangers, and again, those Teslas. Along the roadside, on the other side of the fence, battered hulls of “Space Ships?”–at least the cones. Cruising along the straight, smooth, but isolated road, a feeling, somewhat akin to an imagined UFO landing. 

And natural questions: Has COVID stopped the work? Where is the fabled Musk home (where he, allegedly, was to spend six months a year)? Is it “underwater?” Is it “on a ship at sea?” What if “it doesn’t exist?” Then, more serious questions: Has he sold Texas a bill of goods? Is the disruption of the small community of Boca Chica worth the risk? 

Once again—four years after groundbreaking – is it a case of Texas “bidnes,” to borrow a phrase from the late Molly Ivins. What is there to show for millions of taxpayers’ money granted to an eccentric, private billionaire—with some spreading around to local firms and businessmen? One may acknowledge Musk’s (autism related?) genius and disruptive nature, yet still see him as a modern-day Columbus, aiming for distant, new worlds.

Perhaps SpaceX is more about hoping to mine Helium 3 from the moon and from asteroids, than about imminent space travel. That, indeed, is the competition: at least eight such projects exist, at various stages of development (Jeff Bezos, of Amazon, with thousands of acres in west Texas). One does not see the disruption to the lives of retired folks, to the resident fishermen and others of Boca Chica.

I could not have known, but should have expected, accounts of the glaring lights, the booms rattling windows, the offers of buy-outs, then, more recently, the threats of eminent domain to remove helpless residents. As of now, many of those remaining can watch any future space venture—explosions and all—from their back yards. This has been the case since groundbreaking in 2014. But, what’s next?

Elon Musk, inventor of the Tesla, owner of SpaceX, sees (or saw) “South Texas As a Gateway to Other Planets” (Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 22 Sep 14). The Chancellor of the UT System of Higher Education, Francisco Cigarroa, also lauded the venture upon its inauguration: “The planets are absolutely aligned.” Elites gathered ‘round.

Then Governor Perry helped oil the quest for planets and profit with millions from Texas Emergency Technological Funds. And few, before now, would have questioned the value offered, at first, to engineering students of UTRGV. But my interviews indicate there is currently no relationship between the university and SpaceX. It occupies the futuristic building, formerly belonging to UTRGV, with its logo: Stargate. 

The town-gown angle was part of the bribe to get local cooperation. And/or was it a way to get media and others to ignore questions about the venture? Why the split? Was the split amicable? Did the university get the lesser hand of a deal? And what other value for the Valley and for society?

On one hand, it is useful, like Elon, to think big. But, the full value of thinking outside the box may lie in the future. A former colleague from UTRGV, sees the matter in more negative terms: “Musk is degrading the environment on Earth” [Note: SpaceX is in the middle of a national Wildlife Preserve—the FAA supposedly gave permission.] More wildfires, caused by the explosions, are a recurring threat.

That same professor, a social science researcher, further denounces the project:  “Musk will clutter up space with more space junk; space ventures should be nationalized again.” (George W. Bush privatized space in 2006.) It does give an onlooker pause, when Musk at first referred to his “next generation spacecraft” as the BFR, or “Big F . . . g Rocket.” That was later changed to “Experimental Test Program.” Musk’s previous outrageous episodes (getting stoned with Joe Rogan; the $20 million fine by the SEC; calling the hero cave diver in Thailand a “pedo guy”) have not helped. Neither has his apparent lack of empathy for Boca Chica residents (Marina Koren, “SpaceX Taking Over Tiny Village of Boca Chica,” Atlantic, 11 Feb 20). 

Koren noted the Musk prototype—“164 feet of gleaming stainless steel,” had become a “battered, arch-typical, old-movie-like spaceship,” not guaranteed to impress. That’s what you can see if you drive along Texas Highway 4, from Boca Chica to (literally) the end of the road, halting at the beach. Even with the waves and the dunes, the trip can be less than inspiring. 

But Musk still claims Boca Chica, Rio Grande Valley, south Texas, is the “gateway to Mars” (Evelyn Arevalo, Tasmanian, 7 Jun 20). Will hype and bravado be enough? Musk, at one time, envisioned a “fleet of one thousand Starships, heading to the Red Planet” (Andrea Leinfelda, “Boca Chica Residents Take Elon Musk’s Money,” Houston Chronicle, 18 Mar 20). Musk predicted working space cargo shuttles by 2023.  

Will anything like normal work continue? Already, BCV (“Before CoronaVirus”), things were difficult. One former employee laments: “It was utter hell working for a visionary,” (Kevin Murphy, RTE, 25 Nov 19). Musk is not exactly Steve Jobs, not as “openly abusive,” but visionary people, being so passionate, are often “unpredictable.” And Rachel Monroe, in Esquire (27 Feb 20), attributes Musk’s treatment of residents to his “lack of empathy,” as he “dismantles Boca Chica one house at a time.” Local government, especially the Sheriff’s Department, has helped mainly the big boys. 

And the big boys, government or private, sure do like Musk. Why? In 2018 he shared his very Texan, very capitalistic attitude: “We’ve got a lot of land with nobody around, so if it blows up, it’s cool.” But his goal, to “make life multi-planetary,” may rest, more than he knows, upon treating life on this planet, here and now, more humanely. His quest to win the Google Lunar X Prize surely cannot be the only factor to be considered. Or can it? 

And Musk does have tech opponents. Theoretical physicist, Frank Close (Oxford), among others, has disparaged his goal as “Moonshine.” Who is right? This time, will Mother Nature (CV) interfere with visionary goals? The fierce winds, dust, shifting sands and invading ocean waters of coastal south Texas have not (yet) been enough to derail SpaceX. But, is visionary thinking enough? Will the human spirit of adventure plus the capitalist system’s ability to squeeze money from its citizens, overcome great odds?

If we’re not lost in space and time of the moment, at least we’re disquieted. Mass deaths in the U.S. and Texas don’t seem to incite the masses to rebel against political forces who ignored the virus. Why? That the oppressed don’t rise up against oppressors is one of life’s greatest mysteries, according to Jean Jacques Rousseau (and other philosophers). So, what chance does despoilization of the environment have to create rebellion? A possible chance–perhaps a chance to begin at Boca Chica, the “little mouth” of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo?    

Editor’s Note: The above op-ed was penned by writer, academic and Rio Grande Guardian columnist Gary Joe Mounce. Mounce can be reached at [email protected].

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows Maria Pointer, a Boca Chica resident whose home is next to SpaceX Boca Chica location, waiting for the SpaceX’s Starship vehicle prototype to be stacked next to her camera on Friday, Sept. 27, 2019. (Photo: Marie D. De Jesús, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer)

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