Why did SpaceX buy an entire village?

Boca Chica is a small community of retirees in Cameron County, Texas. The nearest city is Brownsville. 

Boca Chica is unincorporated. It’s not a village, town, or city. There are no police precinct, post office, court, schools, shops, gas stations, or any local governance except what is provided by Cameron County. They don’t even have water, gas, or public sewer connection. Each month the county trucks water to this community.

So, why did SpaceX buy this entire village? It’s because Boca Chica is the future launch and landing site for Starship. This site is near the Gulf of Mexico and the equator. It’s the perfect place for a rocket launch. SpaceX is currently developing and testing Starship 1.8 miles away from the village. For the safety of Boca Chica residents, SpaceX bought the community. Moreover, SpaceX wants to build a luxury space resort at Boca Chica. From this place, they will launch future astronauts and tourists to the Moon, Mars, and Beyond.

Let’s elaborate.

In the above picture, the red rectangle shows where the Boca Chica village is situated. The three orange arrows indicate SpaceX’s launch center, Tracking Station, and SpaceX Launch Facility.

Perfect Starship launch site:

When SpaceX first came in 2014 to Boca Chica, there were around 30 homes. Among those 30 residents, only a few were permanent residents of Boca Chica. Other dwellings were vacation homes.

Residents chose this place because of the shore, good weather, quietness, seclusion, and low property tax.

County records1 shows SpaceX is buying up property in Boca Chica since 2014. Either SpaceX or Dogleg Park LLC — a subsidiary of SpaceX — owns those newly purchased properties. Records show that until 2017, they bought more than 100 vacant parcels and six homes.

Until 2018, there was not enough rocket activity. However, after the successful Falcon Heavy and crew dragon launch, Elon Musk decided to develop the Starship program at full speed.

SpaceX already has three launch sites. At Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and at Vandenberg Air Force Base. However, SpaceX shares those launch sites with other rocket launch providers such as United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin. Therefore, SpaceX has to workaround other launches at those sites.

Elon wanted an exclusive SpaceX launch site. So, they looked at several potential sites and finalized the Boca Chica in 2014.

However, there’s another reason for the choice of Boca Chica. This village is near the equator. If SpaceX launches from this place, its rockets would get an extra boost due to the earth’s rotation and can reach orbit with less fuel. Less fuel means more payload or more savings. It’s why SpaceX chose Boca Chica.

Safety of Residents:

In 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) conducted an environmental report on the potential impact of SpaceX launch from this place. At that time, the FAA said that though the Boca Chica village is only 1.8 miles away from a possible rocket launch site, it’s not a severe hazard to that community.

However, in 2019, during a Starship test, a brush fire broke out. After that incident, the FAA asked SpaceX to raise their liability insurance for Starship from $3 million to $100 million. When Starships starts flying from this location, it’s predictable that the FAA would ask SpaceX to increase this liability insurance coverage even more. 

Moreover, if accidents happen and someone in that community gets hurt at a future date, it’s not only a PR nightmare for SpaceX but also a legal issue. So, it’s best for SpaceX to minimize this risk. It’s another reason why they want to buy this tiny village.

SpaceX is planning to launch and land the Starship rocket at Boca Chica. When completed, the Starship will be the biggest rocket in terms of size and payload carrying capacity on earth.

Thousands of things can go wrong on a rocket launch. A small community that is 1.8 miles away from the launch pad is at high risk in a hazardous area. Therefore, it’s best for the Boca Chica community and SpaceX to not have civilian habitat there.

For example, At the John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Florida, the Launch Complex 39 Press Site is 3 miles away from the nearest launch pad. On the other hand, the Boca Chica community is 1.8 miles away. Therefore, this community is at greater risk of a potential accident.

During several initial tests, shock waves have broken residents’ windows. If a tiny Starship prototype can cause this damage, imagine how much damage a full-fledged Starship rocket would cause.  

Space Resort:

SpaceX’s latest plan is to use Boca Chica as a Mars launch and landing pad. It’s the place from where they would send astronauts and tourists to the Moon and Mars. Therefore, they decided to build a luxury space resort here. SpaceX astronauts and tourists would train, rest, and prepare for their flights at this space resort. Though SpaceX already bought enough homes and vacant parcels, it’s still not enough for their future project. It’s why they decided to purchase houses in the Boca Chica community.

Why the controversy?

In 2019, SpaceX sent out home-buying offers to remaining Boca Chica residents, offering them a 3x of their homes appraised price. However, SpaceX didn’t consult with the resident before this offer, hired a 3rd party appraiser who didn’t visit their houses; SpaceX gave only 14 days to accept or reject the offer and said the proposal is non-negotiable.

We love SpaceX. But think about the situation. SpaceX comes to you and says they want to buy your house. The corporation set the buying price, which is non-negotiable. They didn’t discuss with you, did not come inside your home, and gave you 14 days to respond. Else, they will take your house by other means. It’s a sleazy practice.

Moreover, SpaceX could give more money to those buyers but didn’t because Elon Musk wanted to bargain with those residents and gave them an offer that SpaceX thought was fair. 

The offer was lucrative for some residents. That’s why they took the offer and moved on, but other residents resisted SpaceX. 

The remaining Boca Chica argued that the amount of money SpaceX offered is not enough to buy a house with a similar view. Moreover, the residents living there are retirees. They have a fixed pension income. If they move to another location, living expenses and property tax would be higher than in Boca Chica. It will be hard for them to live with increased costs.

Alternative buying approach:

Though SpaceX threatened to take an alternative approach to buyout those remaining houses, they never did.  

The alternative is the eminent domain law. According to this law, a city, county, or state can forcefully buy a house at fair market value for the greater good of the population.

Cameron County, where Boca Chica is situated, is one of the poorest counties in the US. If SpaceX starts operating in this county, it will create thousands of high paying jobs. With this, the residents of this county will enjoy tremendous benefits. But, if the dozens of Boca Chica residents refuse to leave, SpaceX may leave the area. As a result, for a few people, thousands of people will lose potential future benefits. 

Therefore, for the greater good of Cameron County residents, officials can force the remaining residents of Boca Chica to sell the house to the county. And later, the county will sell those houses to SpaceX. It’s legal. However, it will create a PR nightmare for SpaceX and Elon Musk. SpaceX does not want to face this nightmare. That’s why instead of using the eminent domain law, they bought the village. 

“The amount of money SpaceX offered is not enough to buy a house with a similar view. Moreover, the residents living there are retirees. They have a fixed pension income. If they move to another location, living expenses and property tax would be higher than Boca Chica.”

Happy Ending:

However, in the end, after numerous offers and counteroffers, all the residents finally accepted SpaceX offers, sold their house to SpaceX, and moved out of Boca Chica.