BY STEVE CLARK
On Dec. 9, 2020, for the first time in history people in Brownsville and other Lower Rio Grande Valley communities were able to look up into the sky and see a rocket, SpaceX’s SN8 Starship prototype, which launched from Boca Chica Beach at 4:45 p.m.
The Brownsville Herald spoke to a few who witnessed it live and/or via YouTube feed, about their impressions of the event, which entailed a successful launch and descent followed by a less-than-successful landing. Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez was among the viewers. He climbed up on the roof of his law office to watch the spectacle.
“ I saw it go up,” Mendez said. “I got a photo of it in the air. I didn’t see it come down though. I guess I thought it was going to go higher from my perspective, but it went pretty darn high. It was a sight to see. It was so cool.”
He called it “a groundbreaking moment for our city and just another positive story” despite the “tough landing” that resulted in a fiery explosion. Mendez said the experience was surreal in a way because of the retro look of the rocket, which was illuminated by the sunlight glinting off its stainless-steel cladding while in flight.
“ It looks almost like it’s not real, but that thing sure got up there, and it was great to see because I know that there were a lot of local people that had a part in that,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of local employees that are out there, a lot of local folks that helped put it together in a way. It was good to see because I know there were a lot of people who were excited, and it just gives hope to younger generations.”
Mark Perez, owner of Toddle Inn, was on his boat in South Bay with his wife, daughter and friends to watch the launch. He said it was a little scary when the rocket seemed to be veering toward north-northwest — toward South Bay — but deemed it an amazing and thrilling experience nonetheless.
“ We were all in awe of the whole event,” Perez said. “To witness that personally was really cool with my daughter and my wife.”
While he’s proud that rockets are being launched near his hometown, SpaceX carries pros and cons, he said. Perez said he’s grateful for the jobs and economic boost to the area, for instance, but at the same time regrets that Boca Chica Beach is being closed to the public so often for prolonged periods during testing. He also worries about the impact on the environment.
“ I just pray it doesn’t affect the fisheries of South Bay and the Lower Laguna Madre — South Bay particularly, because it’s right on top of it,” Perez said.
Joe Vega, Cameron County Parks and Recreation director, attempted to see the launch live. He was at Isla Blanca Park on Dec. 8, when the SN8 launch was aborted with just 1.3 seconds left in the countdown. Vega had commitments the following day, so he had to settle for the YouTube feed, staying in constant communication with park management and staff to make sure everything went smoothly, he said.
Isla Blanca, which offers a premium view of SpaceX launches, was at about 50 percent capacity, Vega estimated.
“ We had quite a bit of people,” he said. “When I was there I had the opportunity to meet people from all over the country that drove down to see the launch. There was a couple from St. Louis. I think they said it was a 16- to 18-hour drive that they drove straight to be there for the launch. There was a couple from Florida as well that came to watch the launch, as well as people from all over the Valley.”
The atmosphere was festive, Vega said.
“ Everybody was so excited,” he said. “You had a lot of young kids too. The thing is, with the flight happening later in the afternoon, we had a lot of kids that were coming out of school and the parents were bringing them to get to witness this historical moment. You had a lot of families out there.”
Vega called the launch “an exciting moment” and predicted that the Isla Blanca crowds will only grow once word gets out that SpaceX is doing serious launches.
“ I never thought that I would see a rocket launch down here in South Texas,” he said.
Dr. Beverly Zavaleta, hospitalist and physician adviser for Valley Baptist Medical Center Brownsville, was with her husband and his father and nephew at a friend’s vacation home in Port Isabel’s Long Island Village to see the launch. The porch afforded a view of the SpaceX site and launch area, and it was a beautiful day, she said.
“ I’ll tell you, I was not expecting to be as impressed as I was,” Zavaleta said. “I was impressed by the sound, by the vibration. It still felt like you were far away, because the rocket looks like a tiny little pencil eraser or something. But once the sound hits you it’s pretty impressive. You can feel the vibration and the porch was shaking a little bit. I remember thinking to myself, oh, so this is why people go and watch rocket launches. It’s completely different in person.”
Watching the rocket climb and thinking of it as “the fruits of so many people working together and not giving up,” she got a little choked up, she admitted.
“ I actually got tears in my eyes,” Zavaleta said. “I’m a complete, like, sappy optimist. But I did. I got tears in my eyes and I remember thinking we really need something hopeful right now in 2020. It made me feel kind of hopeful, that something good is going to happen, like that there’s a future for humankind maybe.”
Seeing the SN8 go horizontal for the skydiver-like descent, then swing its tail toward the pad for the “landing” was like something out of a science-fiction movie, she said.
“ It almost was unbelievable,” Zavaleta said. “To see it in real life, it was mind-blowing. I know a lot of people are making a big deal about the fact that it crashed, but to me the fact that it did all those maneuvers, I think it did so much better than even the engineers were expecting.”