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SpaceX is having growing pains on the lower Texas coast. Elon Musk's commercial space transportation company built a rocket factory and testing ground on a fragile wetlands surrounded by skittish wildlife. As SpaceX sets its sights on the moon and beyond, environmentalists are protesting its plans for growth. Here's NPR's John Burnett.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: What Elon Musk has built out here on the mudflats, where the Gulf of Mexico laps at the tip of Texas, is quite a sight - gantries and silos and fuel storage tanks and a silver rocket straight out of "Buck Rogers," all fronted by neon letters that spell out Starbase. But can Elon Musk's rocket city co-exist with the original feathered inhabitants?
STEPHANIE BILODEAU: It's 24/7. The lights are really bright out here at night. It's just constant sound and presence of people. And I wouldn't want to be nesting near any of this if I were a bird.
BURNETT: Stephanie Bilodeau is the 29-year-old conservation biologist who brings her spotting scope out here every week to look for plovers and red knots. In recent years, she says, these migratory shorebirds that fly across the continent to nest here have all but disappeared.
BILODEAU: It doesn't look like much, these vast mudflats, but it's insanely important for shorebirds. The best habitat is right here along Highway 4. And the more expansion there is, the less likely they're going to be able to nest in the areas that they want to nest.
BURNETT: When Musk broke ground down here seven years ago, the fact that he was sandwiched between the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge and a small colony of sunburned retirees didn't cause much alarm, but now it has. His original plans were to test and launch the slimmer Falcon 9 rocket a dozen times a year, to loft satellites into orbit. But his plans have enlarged - not surprising for the hard-charging Musk, who also owns the electric car company Tesla. Today, he's building and testing the Starship Super Heavy vehicle, designed to reach the moon or even Mars. In April, NASA awarded SpaceX a nearly $3 billion contract to build a starship to take astronauts to the moon, although it's now on hold.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: T-Plus 33 seconds. Starship test vehicle No. 11 ascending over Starbase in South Texas.
BURNETT: But experimental rockets mean things blow up, and that's what happened during a test flight on March 30.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: As you can see from the frozen camera view, we lost the clock at T-plus 5 minutes, 49 seconds. Looks like we've had another exciting test of Starship No. 11.
BURNETT: The explosion showered debris for five miles, including onto the wildlife refuge. David Newstead is a director of the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries program.
DAVID NEWSTEAD: These rockets, these ships are more massive and create that much more thrust than the rockets that were originally proposed to be launched there.
BURNETT: But what chaps locals is that SpaceX has been closing off access to popular Boca Chica Beach much more often than the company originally proposed. Earlier this month, the local district attorney threatened legal action against SpaceX for unauthorized road closures and for its private security officers chasing people off without authority. SpaceX activities are overseen by the FAA, which declined to comment for this report, and by the county of Cameron. County Judge Eddie Trevino says they should both be more vigilant at the private space company.
EDDIE TREVINO: We probably weren't doing what we should have been. So I understand their concern, and we're trying to do a better job going forward. By the same token, we need them and want them to succeed.
BURNETT: Starbase employs nearly 1,700 people with a payroll of more than $80 million. For a historically poor county, where the best and brightest often felt they had to leave the Rio Grande Valley, SpaceX has been a godsend. Musk can be generous when the moment calls for it. Within minutes of the Starship 11 explosion, with rocket parts still smoldering on the ground, he tweeted he would give $30 million to local governments for schools and downtown revitalization.
Tony Martinez was mayor of Brownsville when Musk chose South Texas for his launch compound over Georgia, Florida and Puerto Rico.
TONY MARTINEZ: He told me, Mr. Mayor, one day you're going to read the history books that a man left Brownsville and went to Mars. Any time you have progress, there's nothing that doesn't come with some downside.
BURNETT: Musk envisions Starbase as his company town. He continues to buy up land. He expects the launch complex to grow by thousands more workers. And he recently asked for his own post office. Earlier this year, SpaceX applied to the federal government for permission to fill in 17 acres of wetland to expand its launch facility. The EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with national conservation groups, say the expansion plans in their current form are incompatible with the wildlife refuge. SpaceX, headquartered in Hawthorne, Calif., did not respond to requests for comment, but few believe that Musk will be deterred. Jim Chapman is with the local environmental group, Save RGV.
JIM CHAPMAN: Elon Musk is used to getting his way. He didn't get his way in California, so he just, you know, left. So now he wants to get his way here. And so far, nobody's really calling him on it.
BURNETT: Most of those retirees who live next to SpaceX have sold out and moved away. A few unhappy holdouts remain. And then there's Homer Pompa, a 71-year-old Vietnam vet, psychedelic blues singer and hermit who lives three miles away in a trailer with an assortment of cats, dogs and goats.
HOMER POMPA: Welcome to heaven, I told him.
BURNETT: His prayer tower offers a commanding view of SpaceX on one side and the rippling Rio Grande on the other. Pompa says he and his friends have made peace with his aerospace neighbors.
POMPA: I've got badger friends, rattlesnake friends, skunk friends, opossum friends. I got a lot of friends out of here, man.
BURNETT: The rockets aren't scaring them off?
POMPA: No. They ain't scaring [expletive].
BURNETT: Nevertheless, the FAA has told SpaceX it needs to draw up a new environmental assessment as part of its license to launch the Starship. John Burnett, NPR News, Brownsville.
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