Tesla Motors’ Musk makes enemies fast in Texas town hosting SpaceX launches

AUSTIN, Texas — People who live in Boca Chica Village, all 26 of them, knew Elon Musk’s SpaceX company would put the South Texas town on the map after it was selected last year as the world’s first commercial rocket-launch site. Now, many want SpaceX gone and their obscurity back.

The residents say SpaceX representatives told them recently they would be required to register with the county, wear badges and pass through checkpoints on launch days, which will occur about once a month beginning as soon as next year. During a 15- hour launch time frame, their movement around the village could be restricted. If they happen to be picking up groceries past a designated “point of no return,” forget about going home.

SpaceX’s proposed methods to enforce the safety rules — sweeping the beach with drones and video surveillance — aren’t helping matters. While the rules still might change, all this makes residents wish SpaceX would go away, with some even talking about acts of civil disobedience or maybe a lawsuit.

“I’m like, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ ” said Cheryl Stevens, 55, who settled in Boca Chica Village a decade ago in search of quiet, rustic beauty. “It’s like Nazi Germany.”

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SpaceX spokesman John Taylor declined to comment.

The town’s not-in-my-backyard eruption isn’t what Texas officials had in mind when they wooed SpaceX, or Space Exploration Technologies Corp., with about $15 million worth of economic incentives, beating out Florida and Georgia. A local economic-development agency kicked in another $5 million.

SpaceX and other private companies have been using government-owned facilities to launch rockets.

Last September, Musk journeyed to the sleepy beach town, shovel in hand, to stand alongside former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, R, for the SpaceX groundbreaking. The company began snapping up more land in the area, renaming roads, such as Rocket Road and Mars Crossing. Then last spring, it bought a house on Weems Street, the heart of the village with two lanes and crumbling asphalt.

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Residents grew suspicious — why would a billionaire want to own a $37,000 home with no running water, bars on the windows and a rusty horseshoe hanging over the front door? Although SpaceX has used the house, now equipped with security cameras, for public meetings, neighbors remain on edge.

“When we first moved here, I just felt closer to the Lord,” said Bonnie Heaton, a retired hairdresser, who worries that one day SpaceX will somehow seize her beloved home on Weems Street. “Well, that peace has kind of gone out the window.”

Boca Chica Village, in one of the state’s poorest counties, sits on a dusty fleck of land between wind-swept sand dunes, emerald marshes and a desolate white beach. It’s officially called Kopernik Shores, after the famous Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, which now seems a small irony. The community of about three dozen houses, filled with mainly seasonal blue-collar workers and retirees, originally was built by a Chicago real-estate developer in the 1960s.

Experts say the safety issues are real. David Kanipe, an associate professor in the aerospace-engineering department at Texas A&M University and retired NASA engineer, said that during Cape Canaveral shuttle launches, viewers typically were required to be at least three miles away from the site. Boca Chica Village is less than two miles away. Residents could be exposed to dangerous chemicals used during launches, such as hydrazine, and falling debris in the event of an explosion, he said.

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In June, an unmanned SpaceX rocket burst into flames minutes after it left Cape Canaveral. In the following days, beachgoers were warned to stay away from any toxic rocket debris that washed ashore.

“I’m not sure I’d be comfortable living that close to it,” Kanipe said.

Even some die-hard SpaceX supporters are questioning the sacrifices they’re being asked to make, including the possibility of being asked to evacuate their homes on certain launch days. Frank Kawalski, who moved to Boca Chica from Key West, Florida, a decade ago, unfurled a giant “Welcome SpaceX” sign on his house when he heard the company was coming to town. Today?

“I’ve never left my house for hurricanes or anything,” said Kawalski, who owns three homes in Boca Chica and lives with his son, 4 dogs, 7 cats, 12 macaws and a pet rattlesnake named Low Rider.

Outside Boca Chica, space fans are giddy over SpaceX’s plans to send a man to Mars and debate how best to view the launches. On a message board called NASASpaceFlight.com, one person said he made an offer on a home in Boca Chica Village listed for $55,000 with hopes of hosting lavish launch parties.

“Anybody know how to build an elevated, air-conditioned observation deck with a tiki bar?” asked the person, who goes by Nomadd on the site.

Residents aren’t amused. Cheryl Stevens says she’s consulted with attorneys about the legality of closing down the public beach, which she argues is protected by the Texas Open Beaches Act enshrined in the state constitution. She says she’s thinking about ways to register her opposition, such as a sit-in on the beach during launch day.

“They just want us to move out of the way,” she said. “We’re not going to go quietly into the night.”