Oct. 13--BOCA CHICA -- Little has changed at this remote South Texas beach over the past six decades since it was a finalist to become what Cape Canaveral, Fla., became: the launch site for the U.S. space program.
Unlike neighboring South Padre Island, 5 miles away over the water, Boca Chica has no high-rises, no marinas and no condos. Texas 4 is a two-lane blacktop that runs east from Brownsville and dead-ends where the sun rises over the sand dunes and wetlands. The beach is surrounded by a patchwork of private lots, a state park and a federal wildlife refuge.
It is here that California billionaire Elon Musk is considering building a site to launch rockets carrying payloads to space. "A commercial Cape Canaveral" is how Musk described it to state lawmakers this spring when he identified Texas as "probably" the leading candidate for the launch site.
It would be the first commercial orbital launch site in the world.
First, Boca Chica must beat out competitors in Georgia, Puerto Rico and, once again, Cape Canaveral, where government cutbacks in the space program could open more launch space for Musk's company, SpaceX -- the first private firm to ferry cargo to and from the International Space Station.
Musk, 42, is a serial entrepreneur who co-founded PayPal, Tesla Motors and, in 2002, SpaceX. His inventiveness has made him wealthy -- he's ranked 61st on Forbes' list of the 400 richest Americans.
When he isn't designing rockets and electric cars, Musk is imagining a hyperloop tube system that would whisk passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 35 minutes. He has been likened to everyone from Thomas Edison to Tony Stark, the fictional billionaire in the "Iron Man" movies.
Musk came calling on Texas lawmakers in March.
The Legislature responded by approving $15 million in incentives and passing legislation allowing the beach to be closed once a month for rocket launches and limiting the company's legal liability for making noise.
"We are in a competition to revitalize our space industry," said state Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, a co-author of the legislation. "The job creation, the economic development, the spinoff is absolutely incredible."
The Federal Aviation Administration has given preliminary approval for a permit after its initial review of the environmental impact, but hasn't delivered its final verdict. Meanwhile, local officials in South Texas are in negotiations with SpaceX officials for more incentives. And Gov. Rick Perry and state leaders could try to close the deal by tapping the Texas Enterprise Fund.