Brownsville has become increasingly thick with SpaceX employees in recent days as the company races toward the biggest launch event so far at its Boca Chica production and test site, which SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has dubbed “Starbase.”
Hotels report being full and restaurants busy with the sudden spike in arrivals as the company moves quickly to conduct the first orbital flight of a Starship prototype, employing its Super Heavy booster to achieve orbit. SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell said in June that the company was shooting for a July launch, a window that’s about to close, leaving August a likelier target.
SpaceX just finished stacking a 440-foot orbital tower at Boca Chica that will be used for attaching the 160-foot Starship to the top of the 230-foot Super Heavy, launching the resulting 400-foot-tall vehicle and catching boosters on their way down.
“Congrats SpaceX tower team & supporting contractors!” Musk tweeted on June 28.
He’s described the tower as “basically Mechazilla” once the booster-grabbing arms are attached. The Federal Aviation Administration warned SpaceX earlier this month that it may not approve the tower as part of its ongoing review of the company’s intentions for the Boca Chica site.
SpaceX’s first completely successful high-altitude Starship launch and landing took place with the three-engine SN15 on May 5. NASASpaceflight reported in March that the inaugural orbital flight will use the Starship SN20 prototype. On July 19 SpaceX conducted a static-fire test of the BN3 Super Heavy prototype, outfitted with three Raptor engines, though it is not expected to use BN3 for the first orbital flight but rather the substantially redesigned BN4.
For its first orbital flight Starship will not return to Boca Chica but rather will head through the Straits of Florida for a soft water-landing more than 60 miles off the northwest coast of Kauai, Hawaii, according to a document SpaceX filed with the Federal Communications Commission in May. For this flight, the Super Heavy will separate from Starship a little over two minutes after blasting off from Boca Chica and splash down in the Gulf about 20 miles offshore, according to the document.
Musk has apparently summoned SpaceX employees from the company’s other sites, including its Hawthorne, Calif., headquarters, to make all this happen sooner rather than later. Rachel Patel, owner of the 44-room America’s Best Value Inn, the hotel closest to Boca Chica, said she couldn’t be happier.
The Port of Brownsville once accounted for most of Patel’s business, but that changed a few years ago when activity at SpaceX started to pick up, she said.
“When they announced they were going to open up SpaceX, at that time we used to get a lot of calls that SpaceX will need maybe 100, 300 rooms, and they wanted to know how many rooms we had at our property,” Patel said. “I believe it was four years ago when they were inquiring how many rooms each and every hotel had in Brownsville.”
But just in the last week reservations have really poured in, she said.
“We had a lot of reservations, but we didn’t know they were from SpaceX until the customers started checking in,” Patel said.
The few rooms she usually has available each day are going fast these days, and Thursday morning she was full up — unusual for a weekday, she said.
“On the east side of the town on the weekends we are full because we’re so close to the Island, but weekdays getting full is not normal,” Patel said.
Some of the new arrivals who call from Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport to check in don’t actually make it to the hotel until much later, she said, wondering whether the city’s taxi and Uber service is insufficient to handle the surge.
At least some restaurants are feeling the effects as well. Sasi’s Thai Restaurant reported being deluged with orders from SpaceX employees midday Thursday. Other lodgings are bursting at the seams. An employee who answered the phone at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites on Thursday said there were no rooms left. Someone answering the phone at Quality Inn, the second closest hotel to Boca Chica by about 1,000 feet, declined to comment.
As for Patel, she has no idea how long the long the current boom will last but hopes to ride it for a while.
“We’re super excited,” she said, “I hope it goes on for a long time.