SpaceX rocket now complete at Boca Chica

A motorcyclist rides off in his Harley Davidson Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019, across from SpaceX prototype Starship hopper at Boca Chica Beach. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald via AP)

BROWNSVILLE — It’s not the first time the world has heard of Boca Chica Beach, Texas.

The sleepy seaside spot 24 miles east of Brownsville came to the attention of space geeks the world round in 2011 when Hawthorne, California-based Space Exploration Technologies announced it was a contender, along with Florida and Puerto Rico, for the world’s first commercial rocket launch site.

The spotlight grew in intensity when Texas beat out the competition and especially on Sept. 22, 2014, when Elon Musk, SpaceX’s visionary CEO and chief designer, showed up for a ceremonial groundbreaking at the site alongside then-Gov. Rick Perry.

Suddenly, Boca Chica has become the most interesting place in the world for space watchers as a gleaming, silver rocket towers above the scrub after being assembled on an accelerated timeline in full view of the public right off State Highway 4.

The stainless-steel-clad vehicle, with a decidedly retro look, is an experimental prototype for SpaceX’s “Starship” (formerly Big Falcon Spaceship), which the company plans to fly around the moon and eventually to Mars with humans aboard.

Until about six weeks ago, the Boca Chica site contained a temporary hangar, fuel tanks, tracking antennas and a solar array — but no rockets in evidence. On Dec. 23, Musk began tweeting photos of the prototype pre-assembly, then on Jan. 5 tweeted that the company was shooting for the first “hopper” test flight in four weeks, though eight weeks was probably more like it “due to unforeseen issues.”

On Jan. 10, Musk tweeted photos of the finished prototype, dubbed “Starship Hopper,” and noted that it will be used for non-orbital vertical takeoff and landing tests similar to SpaceX’s Grasshopper VTOL program, which took place in 2012 and 2013 at the company’s McGregor test facility. Hopper tests entail launching the rocket to an altitude of hundreds of thousands of feet, then, ideally, landing it again intact.

Musk also tweeted that the first orbital version, which will be taller and with a thicker skin and smoother nose curve, should be completed “around June.”

The Starship Hopper to be tested at Boca Chica is powered by three liquid-oxygen/methane powered Raptor engines developed by SpaceX. The actual Starship will be pushed into orbit by 31 Raptor engines making up the Super Heavy booster (formerly Big Falcon Rocket). The Starship and Super Heavy together will be 387 feet tall, about the height of a 31-story building, and both stages will be reusable.

SpaceX plans to send unmanned Starships to Mars as soon as 2022 and manned ships to the Red Planet possibly by 2024. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has already booked passage aboard a Starship for a trip around the Moon in 2024.

Starship Hopper isn’t 387 feet tall, but it’s still huge, and makes for an astonishing sight pointed skyward a stone’s throw from the Gulf of Mexico, waiting for someone to light the match.

“It needed to be made real,” Musk tweeted on Jan. 11, while noting that future versions of the ship “must be more pointy.”

Gil Salinas, former executive vice president of the now-defunct Brownsville Economic Development Council, first met with Elon Musk and the SpaceX team in 2011, and was part of negotiations to bring the company to the Rio Grande Valley. At the time, it was still in “startup mode” and had launched only two or three rockets successfully, Salinas said.

“Nobody at the time saw what SpaceX would be today — one of the greatest innovators of our time,” he said.

Salinas said that during multiple meetings with Musk he observed how well SpaceX’s chief communicated his vision and led his team despite considerable challenges to the project at the time. The fact that it’s resulted in a spaceship prototype — a cool-looking one at that — at Boca Chica he described as “amazing and incredible.”

“This is a big win for Texas and the Rio Grande Valley,” Salinas said. “To know that Brownsville will be a part of making history in this era of ‘new space,’ that I had the opportunity to work on the project from its inception in my community and my Boca Chica Beach, is something I will hold close to my heart for a long, long time.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to clarify the prototype’s specs.