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The Road to Mars Passes Through Boca Chica

Robin Seemangal
Pauline Acalin
October 2, 201912:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)

Boca Chica, Texas exists in some nexus between the United States, Mexico, and now, Mars. It’s the kind of place where you'll have to choose between Tex-Mex and Tex-Mex for just about every meal. Everything is 30 minutes away from everything else. Your connecting flight (on a small rickety jet from Dallas or Houston) will land at an airport the size of a Target.

A few miles away, a new kind of port is being built. This one for space travel. And at the site, a newly-assembled SpaceX Starship prototype is being prepared for its first mission, a test launch that could begin paving a road to other worlds.

Founded with the singular vision of settling on Mars, SpaceX put down roots in Boca Chica five years ago with nothing more than a few piles of dirt. No stranger to Texas, the company moved into the sleepy town of McGregor, Texas years before―a town famous for being next door to Waco, famous for hosting cult leader David Koresh. McGregor is so small its mayor serves double duty as a lawyer in Waco.

Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX needed somewhere remote to test its hardware. Especially its massive Falcon 9 rocket boosters.

Boca Chica feels a little more lively with seasonal tourism spikes―spring breakers chasing the surf and those crossing the border into Mexico. That border is visible just a few dozen yards from the long road to SpaceX’s build site. As you drive further from civilization (the nearest Whataburger) you begin to notice something shiny appearing on the horizon: Starship. In its current state of construction, the looming structure resembles a massive grain silo.

You’ll know you’re heading in the right direction when the road starts to become dirt or grass and to your left, a rail yard and port that looks blanketed in rust appears. You’ll see what looks like the skeletal remains of large but unrecognizable architecture and a massive oil rig platform braced up against the coast. From this far, it looks like an industrial ghost town. You’ll notice something even more strange when approaching SpaceX’s facility––a border checkpoint on the parallel road that heads back in the other direction. And yes, you’ll be stopped.

As you drive away from the guards your cell provider will ping your phone, welcoming you to Mexico ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. As far as anyone knows, SpaceX’s Starship facility is technically on American soil.

I was joined by spaceflight photographer Pauline Acalin and space reporter Chris Gebhardt for a handful of joy rides to SpaceX's Boca Chica facility during our weekend trip. You’d usually find us at Cape Canaveral, where another Starship is also taking shape. Pauline took the photos of Chris and I seen here.

It was a little after sundown on Friday, September 27th when we first arrived to see the larger-than-life Starship, its fully stainless steel hull reflecting the beams used to light the bustling construction area. Crews around the towering vehicle have been working hard to complete the fuselage assembly before SpaceX CEO Elon Musk would properly introduce it to the world. Musk has been planning to give an update on how Starship would eventually be used to carry human passengers to the moon, Mars, and beyond. He picked Saturday night September 28th to do so, the anniversary of SpaceX reaching orbit for the first time with its Falcon 1 back in 2008. That vehicle, tiny in comparison, is just a few feet away from Starship, covered in tarp and ready to be placed next to Starship for the presentation.

The fully reusable, multi-purpose Starship in its conceptualized final form will represent an amalgam of the reusable technologies that SpaceX has been developing over the past few years with return flights of Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and the Dragon. SpaceX will launch its first NASA astronauts early next year aboard Dragon 2––delicate missions that need to be proven before humans can even board Starship.

After the Friday evening visit we returned just before sunrise on Saturday to see Starship in all its glory before workers arrived. There’s nothing to compare Starship to other than the pages of Tin Tin or children’s programming broadcasts from the 1950s. Its oddly both familiar and otherworldly. Elon Musk is obsessed with stainless steel and it certainly shows. He’s banking on the old-but-new-again manufacturing material being robust enough to withstand the extreme heat associated with space travel and be tough enough for reuse without refurbishment. But will it fly? And then return home? Musk would have to convince us later that night.

Down the road rests another vehicle (if you want to call it that) fenced-in but seemingly unguarded, the SpaceX's somehow-flown Starhopper. It’s basically a water tower with a single (now removed) engine that could easily be painted as R2-D2 for halloween. Yet, it somehow flew gloriously across SpaceX’s sprawling facility for a smooth touchdown.

The question is whether its successor, the Starship, will have the same luck when it flies in a couple of months. Join us on the Supercluster podcast as CNN Space Reporter Jackie Wattles, Chris Gebhardt, and myself discuss what occurred during this fateful weekend in Boca Chica, Texas.

Robin Seemangal
Pauline Acalin
October 2, 201912:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)