SpaceX launches rockets from one of America’s poorest areas


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    Nick Fouriezos  |  Open Campus

    BROWNSVILLE, Texas – Just a few miles from the sand dunes Elon Musk now calls home, a whirling festival of lights is emerging beneath the full moon. Teenagers sing Mexican folk tunes and dance in folklorico dresses, all under palm trees bearing piñatas shaped like stars.

    The cosmos has been on the minds of many in the Rio Grande Valley lately. In fact, it’s been difficult for people to focus on anything but space since the world’s richest man arrived two years ago, promising his interstellar dreams could be a rocket ship to prosperity for his neighbors too.

    Musk chose to base his SpaceX South Texas Launch Site here in 2014, with plans to launch its rockets to Mars from nearby Boca Chica beach – although mounting regulatory pressure could move its Starship launches to Kennedy Space Center in Florida instead. 

    Either way, the spaceport Musk calls “Starbase” is likely to remain as a key research and development site. It would be a major investment anywhere, but it’s an especially dramatic one in South Texas, a remote, mostly Hispanic region, without other high-tech industries or top-tier universities. Its largest population centers regularly rank among the poorest U.S. cities.

    Space enthusiasts look at a prototype of SpaceX's Starship spacecraft at the company's Texas launch facility in 2019 in Boca Chica near Brownsville, Texas. The Starship spacecraft is a massive vehicle meant to take people to the Moon, Mars and beyond.

    “It would change what it means to be from Brownsville,” one local astrophysics professor said before Musk chose the launch site.

    Musk’s arrival has reverberated through the lives of residents: The principal and the school superintendent, working to create an education pipeline to the opportunities the billionaire has promised. The astrophysics Ph.D. student who stayed close to home, wondering if faith in space could keep others believing in the Valley too.

    Each of them is asking some version of the same two questions. 

    What, really, will change? And at what cost?

    Brownsville an ideal location for SpaceX?

    The Rio Grande Valley has become Musk’s ticket to reaching Mars. It wasn’t just that SpaceX received a decadelong county tax break – and more than $15 million in state and local economic incentives. Nor simply that Musk had a history in Texas, having purchased the company’s first test site in McGregor in 2003, shortly after founding SpaceX.

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    The location is attractive to Musk in other ways too. It is ideal geographically: close to the equator, shortening the distance to orbit, and with a gulf to its east, so rockets can ride the Earth’s rotation without endangering more populated regions. Socioeconomically, the region offers lower costs, lower wages, a ready manufacturing base, and a clear supply chain to Mexico.

    The billionaire is so bullish on the Valley’s potential that he sold his seven houses and most of his physical belongings to spend much of his time in a tiny house on Boca Chica, which locals have long called “the poor people’s beach.”

    In this photo taken in 2020, Tesla CEO Elon Musk arrives to visit a future Tesla manufacturing site near Berlin. Musk later moved Tesla's headquarters from California to Austin, Texas, and he has focused SpaceX's research and development future on Boca Chica.

    Within months of Musk’s arrival, Brownsville educators and students started feeling SpaceX’s presence – and not just in the series of launches that shook their homes from miles away.

    Officials said the Boca Chica site would bring $100 million in investment and 600 direct jobs, plus hundreds of indirect ones. Those jobs represent new education pathways for Brownsville schools Superintendent Rene Gutierrez. In his Valley district, more than 9 of 10 students qualify for the federal free lunch program. Many of their parents never finished high school. In the Rio Grande Valley, fewer than 1 in 5 of those 25 or older have a bachelor’s degree, compared with about 1 in 3 nationwide.

    Gutierrez was even more optimistic after Musk tweeted last March: “Am donating $20M to Cameron County schools & $10M to City of Brownsville for downtown revitalization. Details to follow next week.”

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    Just a sliver of Musk’s net worth, now estimated at $222 billion, the donation was a rare relief after a pandemic that hamstrung budgets and exposed the city’s notoriously bad internet.

    The city of Brownsville, Texas, paid a California artist $20,000 of Musk Foundation money to paint this “BTX” mural mimicking the “ATX” ad campaigns in gentrified Austin.

    Within a month, the Musk Foundation approved a Brownsville wish list that included new STEM labs and equipment for studying rocket prototypes, robotics, solar energy hardware and more. While on a tour of the SpaceX facility at Boca Chica, Brownsville educators saw how much aluminum welding and KUKA robotics engineering played a role at the company – and immediately added funding for certifications in both areas to their proposal. 

    “If I don’t see school buses coming in here all the time, then we will have failed to stay in contact with the community around us,” one engineer told the superintendent.

    Gutierrez didn’t hesitate: “We’ll roll them in.”

    Elon Musk’s vision met with hope and fear

    The automotive shop at Porter Early College High School is eagerly awaiting a new $250,000 SpaceX-funded setup to train students to service electric vehicles – such as Teslas, another Musk company, of course. From a nearby classroom, student leaders listen to a recent Valley college grad now working with Google and other Fortune 500 companies. “He’s only 23 years old and making over $150,000,” a teacher tells the principal, Mary Solis, who gasps.

    The sum seems unreal to Solis. In the Valley, many students feel like they only…