Why Elon Musk sees Brownsville, Texas as his gateway to the universe

No one has bet on Brownsville since the 1930s.
No one has bet on Brownsville since the 1930s.
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
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Before Portland and San Francisco became appealing to hipsters and business investors, the first was considered the filthiest city in the northern states, and the latter was lawless and wild. But then the Gold Rush and Lewis and Clark changed their fate. Growing up in the south of Texas, I wondered whether similar fortune would ever come our way.

Unlike other border towns, Brownsville, Texas, never reached its full “border potential.” It currently stands as an underdeveloped town with a poverty rate of 36%, compared to the country’s overall figure of 15.9%. However, similar to San Diego, Brownsville has a vast land of 147.5 square miles, a year-round subtropical climate, and is only 30 miles away from the beach. So perhaps it didn’t come as much of a surprise when Elon Musk decided to open its launch complex for orbital missions on Boca Chica beach in Brownsville. Not for an innovator like him at least. His two other options were Florida and Puerto Rico. Unlike these two tropical areas, Brownsville offers international access and resources, with the Mexican border only a few steps away.

“The commercial rocket launches will be a critical step toward one day establishing a human presence on Mars,” said Musk during the corporation’s groundbreaking ceremony back in September. And it’s no small project either; the main goal will be to allow people to live on other planets.

So much for keeping them out of Brownsville.

There have been some protests against Musk’s development in Brownsville, suggesting it could affect wildlife refuge and tourism industry. However, the benefits in return seem incomparable. Aside from the direct profits of bringing about 600 direct jobs—and growth—to the local university, it will also attract a new wave of tourists in the long run. Think Cape Canaveral in Florida.

I never stayed in Brownsville long enough to call it my only home—as I grew up, I moved to cities like Monterrey, Mexico, and Austin, Texas. Staying permanently never seemed like an option anyway because my parents never thought the schools were good enough. And so my dad, a doctor, stayed behind while my mom, three brothers, sister, and I moved frequently between Monterrey and Brownsville (attending high school in the first and university in the latter). We never stayed away from either place for too long, and would make short trips during weekends or holidays.

But now things might change. The University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB) is looking to work closely with SpaceX by offering new science programs and initiatives that will contribute to both their growth. It will rebrand itself as UTRGV, and combine its resources and assets with UT Pan American in Edinburgh, Texas; and will become the home of a school of medicine. “Kids will have the opportunity to start kindergarten and go all the way through UTRGV,” says Guy Bailey, the university’s current president, in an interview.

The university plans a bigger physics program, preparing students to essentially work for SpaceX. “With one of the biggest physics programs in the region, we want to diversify the discipline of physics through our current diverse student body,” says Bailey. And that might change who wants to cross the border, he says: “We want to produce more physicists and engineers who are Latinos and admit new students from Latin America, specifically Mexico.”

The last time someone banked on Brownsville to this extent was back in the 1930s. Back then, American investors decided to deliver mail by air rather than rail. Charles Lindbergh made the first successful non-stop flight between Mexico City and the US,  with reporters from around the world and Amelia Earhart there as witness.

Musk is known for his foresight. Brownsville’s geography has been a curse and a blessing, much of its business rooted in being a border town and trade with Mexico—but also making it a place to pass through on the way to somewhere better. Musk, I suspect, sees the town’s impact not only on the region, but also on the whole state of Texas, expanding into Mexico and the rest of Latin America. As controversial as the border may be, people and products have always needed to move back and forth.

In simpler terms, we might soon see my Mexican friends and family working in the launching of America’s rockets.

Over the last decade, the University of Texas at Brownsville has grown significantly and become an independent four- year university. It grew from 47 to 450 acres and added 75 new degree programs. There’s a new gym, an auditorium, nicer dorms.

Additionally, the UT System proposed Stargate, a radio frequency technology program, creating the partnership between SpaceX and UT Brownsville’s Center for Advanced Radio Astronomy, and opening facilities adjacent to the SpaceX Boca Chica complex. These facilities will allow students and faculty researchers to train, produce scientific research and assist in technology development during times when launches aren’t taking place—with a prediction of 12 launches per year. The official Brownsville website is prepping: “Coming soon. Witness spectacular rocket launches as Brownsville blasts off to a new frontier.”

This will allow Rio Grande Valley citizens to strive for more, and receive better options for educational programs, without having to move anywhere for better opportunities.

A lot of money is at stake: Governor Rick Perry announced a $4.4 million grant from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund to UT Brownsville, to test and commercialize Stargate. The university will receive a $1.2 million award from the US Department of Commerce for a high-tech business incubation facility. SpaceX is expected to create 300 jobs and add $85 million in capital investment into the local economy, according to AP reports.

Maybe I had to move because I figured my hometown could only offer so much, but now Rio Grande Valley natives might have a chance. The gold rush has come, not by looking east or west, but straight up into the heavens.