We left Galveston intending to spend a couple weeks farther south…South Padre Island, to be exact. You cannot really get farther south without a Passport.
The drive was uneventful, broken by choice into two super-windy driving days. There was one point when the wind was 40+mph and we were driving straight into it – the bus could hardly manage 55mph (total headwind … 95mph and you may have noted that RV WHERE YET does not present a streamlined face to the wind). We came to learn that the promise of “no mosquitos” on South Padre Island (SPI) may or may not be true, but if there are any, they are quickly blown to Kansas or points farther away.
I had managed to find a spot at Isla Blanca County Park at the Southern Tip of This Southernmost Part of Texas, where the reservations clerk picked out a site on the end of a row she said we would like (she was TOTALLY right about that). The reviews were good – the kind we look for – “Unassuming,” “not fancy,” “no particular set of rules” (such as “no coaches older than 10 years” or “no hanging laundry at your campsite.”).
The park was generally populated by snowbirds of the non-Canadian variety…in all kinds of non-fancy RVs. One lack-of-rule we came to TOTALLY appreciate is that we could wash our bus as often as we wanted to…now ordinarily, that would be NEVER, but at SPI, the Salt air coats everything with a film of rust-enhancer. SO the idea that we could quickly spray RV WHERE YET and the TOAD every few days was a benefit.
And, speaking of benefits, the Island is VERY Bike-able…and it has a Brewery. And a Dairy Queen. AND A COUPLE OF GREAT BURRITO OPTIONS. We biked to all of the above, multiple times, and though the Island is skinny, there are a couple of residential streets to the east and west of the “Main Drag.”
So, we very much enjoyed our stay at SPI – so much so that we are considering booking there for next Winter. As we did in Galveston this year, we can book 3 or even 4 months, and then choose to leave early. We’ve learned this year that even if we stay south of I-10, travel can be seriously impacted by weather (More on that soon!), so this might be our new winter strategy.
There are a couple of other characteristics of SPI that we did not really plan for, but which SIGNIFICANTLY enhanced our enjoyment.
Did I mention More than excellent Burritos and Dairy Queen!? YES!!!
First, we knew that friends from our Town Club Days in Chicago, Carole and Jack Harriff, winter in Alamo, Tx., which is near SPI. Town Club, when we belonged before hitting the road, was known as a “Social Club with a (Ballroom) Dancing Problem.” The friends we made there have been the kind you can reconnect with once a year and pick up right where you left off.
And, so we did with Jack and Carole. Which leads to the next characteristic of SPI…
I knew that Elon Musk’s SpaceX facility in Boca Chica Texas was VERY close to SPI. In fact, it is just across the mouth of the Brownsville Ship Channel, about 5 miles from the Campground. When we pulled into SPI, you could CLEARLY see the Starship SN9 Prototype standing up on the pad, waiting to be launched for the next test flite. I knew it was there, and was HOPING when we booked a couple weeks at SPI that we’d be able to see the launch. A bit of a Space-Geek am I. Liz, not so much, but the rest of the amenities including the beach stand alone as reasons for her to put up with my Space-obsession.
As it turned out, SpaceX dominated our two weeks on SPI, and Jack and Carole’s time with us as well.
The first scheduled launch day was on the Monday, two days after we arrived at SPI. I called the Harriffs and asked if they wanted to come down to the park for an outdoor day of food, drink and rocket-watching – something that can be done safely and distantly outside.
The park gives campers TWO vehicle passes for entry, which is a HUGE benefit because the Day-rate is $12 (You’ll see the magnitude of the benefit as the SpaceX story progresses), so I met Jack at the gate to give him his pass and we proceeded to eat, drink and be merry while awaiting the launch.
Speaking of “Mary…”
This is where the nuances of the Launch scenario affected our ENTIRE STAY on SPI. Starship Launches are TESTS and of a PROTOTYPE. Practically speaking, what this means is that there is NEVER a “schedule” announced, nor the traditional T-10 countdown we all remember from Apollo, etc.. The ONLY warning that anyone not inside SpaceX gets of an impending launch is the announcements of Road and Beach Closures for Boca Chica. And, even those don’t tell you much – the week we were there, closures were announced for “Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday from 9AM to 6PM.”
SO, if you WANT to see a launch, you have to clear your schedule and be ready at ANY of those windows. ALL DAY. EACH DAY.
Not a big problem for us, because we were camping AT the place where we would be watching…we’d just have to take our chairs over to the park’s beach with a cocktail. For Jack and Carole, a little bit of a logistical issue, because they are staying about an hours’ drive away. They came on Monday, we hung out ALL DAY, with no launch.
I said, “You are coming back tomorrow, right?” They said, “Well we have SUCH a busy schedule (like us, they do NOT), are you sure its OK? We don’t want to impose…”
We all laughed, but Liz and I laughed the hardest – we said, “Impose?” “Ridiculous – how much of an imposition is it to carry 4 chairs down to the beach instead of 2 (and, BTW, you are carrying your OWN chairs!)?” “And, your park entry pass is good EVERY DAY for the duration of our stay, so you might as well come!”
So, they came back Tuesday. AGAIN no launch.
We did learn a little about the ways and clues you could use to figure out if (and when ) there might be a launch (other than the road closures). There is a group of Live Stream Rocket-Geeks at “NasaSpaceFLight.com” that seem to have developed an informal “Launch-imminence” based on external Cues that can be observed at the site. For example:
- Venting from the tanks mean the launch is about an hour away.
- Frost visible on the rocket means the fueling has been complete and the launch is about 30 minutes away.
- Venting from the middle of the rocket means 15 minutes.
- Venting from three places on the base means 2 minutes.
- Venting below the rocket means they are pre-chilling the engines and launch is a minute away.
We saw ALL OF THAT on Tuesday, but no launch!!!! Just a “Wet Rehearsal.”
The glacial pace of the bureaucracy just CANNOT keep up, is his point.
It seems Elon was having a hissy-fit with the FAA, who refused to give its approval for the Launch. Apparently, some boxes on a form were not ticked. Elon later tweeted that “the FAA’s procedures were designed for NASA, which launches a rocket every decade or so, and at this rate, Man will never go to Mars…” SpaceX wants to launch EVERY WEEK –or even more often.
We did learn the LAST clue about an impending launch, from the two cancellations… Boca Chica has a SMALL community of non-SpaceX residents. These folks (there are TWO LEFT, as near as we can tell) have to be evacuated if there is going to be an ACTUAL launch. One of them, “Mary” (I doubt that is her real name), Live Streams from her house on “NASASpaceFLight.com” Youtube Channel. She also has a Twitter Feed (@BocaChicaGal) where she let’s everyone know the FINAL status as follows: “FAA has ordered us to Evacuate” (Launch may happen) and “FAA Has Allowed Residents to Return” (No Launch Today).
This all happened (including the penultimate tweets from @BocaChicaGal) for THREE MORE DAYS. On two of them, the scrub was known soon enuf that the Harriffs did not turn up at our campsite. The whole scenario is so un-NASA-like that for Space-geeks like me that grew up watching Apollo launches, the strangeness is part of the appeal.
we saw what I can only describe as a “Redneck NASA” facility.
One of those cancellation-days, Liz and I drove over to take a closer look at SpaceX’s facility. It’s about 5 miles as the crow flies, but a 50-mile EACH WAY drive because the facility is out on a peninsula. When we got there, we saw what I can only describe as a “Redneck NASA” facility. There are all sorts of tanks and beat-up tanks lying around. The latter are fuel modules that SpaceX had tested to destruction; so, JUNK. There was a trailer park over on the side – albeit with nice new Airstream Trailers – where I assume the Rocket-scientists live.
The Rocket itself was standing on the pad not more than a few hundred yards from the road. REALLY CLOSE. You could drive essentially RIGHT THRU the facility to get to the Boca Chica Public beach. Imagine driving past the Space Shuttle on the way to going fishing off Cape Canaveral — that’s what this was!
Liz decided we had better leave before I actually succeeded in getting us arrested!!
You could stop and take pics, which I did. AT one point, a very polite (but firm) security guard asked me NOT to stop at that particular spot, but said just across the road (30ft further away) was FINE. There was another driveway along the road, leading to a building labelled “STARGATE.” I assumed this was the Café and T-Shirt shop!! It was NOT, and as soon as I pulled in, another Polite-but-firm (and well-armed) guard asked me to leave. (He did say T-Shirts were available online…).
During the period when SpaceX was having their tiff with the FAA, SpaceX rolled out the NEXT prototype, SN10. Far from standing still while waiting for the Bureaucracy to catch up
Video courtesy of Carole Harriff
Altogether, the Harriffs came over to “Our Place” FIVE separate times, and the FIFTH TIME was the charm. The FAA finally relented. The Tank Farm Vented. @BocaChicaGal Tweeted and THE STARSHIP LAUNCHED. It was ABSOLUTELY SPECTACULAR.
We have been to lots of places and seen lots of things over the years with high expectations and lavish reviews. Few measure up when actually experienced. The Taj Mahal. Iguassu Falls. Mount Rushmore (and Crazy Horse). Manaus (in Amazonia). And the SPACEX STARSHIP LAUNCH.
Just an aside, For the record… we visited the Harriff’s as well. They had us over one day to thank us for hosting them at our Rocket-viewing.
I suppose it was not a coincidence that Jack needed some help troubleshooting a Satellite TV issue and water pressure in his kitchen sink.
And, we needed to do laundry!
So it was a FULLY symbiotic visit, complete with Carole’s Kung Pao Cauliflower.
Back to SpaceX…I had the VERY DISTINCT impression that this is the place from which Humans will first leave for another planet. And, in an UN-NASA-LIKE few years hence. We watched Starship SN9 launch, but SN10 was already waiting on the adjacent pad, and SN11 is being assembled nearby. SpaceX will likely launch all three by the end of April!!
Of course, you may have seen video or read about the final moments of the flite, after a SUPREMELY SUCCESSFUL launch and maneuvering during flite (by most estimates, 99% successful, overall). The Starship failed to stick the landing, exploding in an anticlimactic fireball (not much fuel left on board, so not a conflagration by any means). More “Ka-Thump” than “Ka-Boom.” I have some photos and video of the whole event taken by Carole Harriff – I was too busy geeking-out to operate my camera.
One SpaceX engineer, in a moment of monumental understatement said,
“I guess we need to do a little more work on the landing…”
Watching the whole thing, including the 5-days buildup makes me want to be here to watch when SpaceX tests the “Superheavy Booster,” which will be the first stage of the Mars Rocket (the Starship is the second stage…the bit that actually goes to Mars). For reference, Starship has 3 Raptor Engines. The Superheavy has 29 Raptor engines. It will roar off the pad, and then come back to land just as Starship attempted, and by then will have perfected. CANNOT WAIT!!
A little later, we read the post-mortem of the flight and crash-landing. Apparently, the Starship needs to light 2 of three engines to softly and safely land. One failed to light. Later, in another fit of understatement, Elon Musk said,
“We are idiots!
We should have started all three engines IN CASE one failed.
We can always shut one down…”
All I could think was, “DUH.” And I wondered if SpaceX needed some more redneck (or Bluebird) Mechanics to help them make such PRACTICAL plans.
In case anyone at SpaceX is reading this blog, I AM AVAILABLE.