Perhaps the most watched place in the space industry, Starbase, is the home of SpaceX’s Starship development and testing. Ten of thousands have made the trek to the southern tip of Texas with one goal: seeing SpaceX’s massive Starship rocket in person from just a few feet away. However, even more have spent hours and days watching live-streams and looking at photos of Starbase dreaming of what it may be like there.
The purpose of this article, in companion to Everyday Astronaut’s video on YouTube, is to provide the most comprehensive rundown of Starbase; the “dos and don’ts”, the things that must be done, and tips and tricks on how to navigate Starbase safely and effectively. Here you will find all the information, but for those who prefer to read. It can also act as a quick reference when you arrive at Starbase one day.
Where And What Is Starbase?
Starbase, located very near to Boca Chica, can be found in the southern most part of the state of Texas, United States. Texas, which borders Mexico, is also home to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, but that is much further north.
Starbase is where SpaceX has done the development, testing, tweaking, and blowing up of their next rocket, Starship, the worlds largest and most powerful rocket. The town where Starbase is located was originally called Kennedy Shores. After a hurricane it was renamed Kopernik Shores, and most recently known as Boca Chica. Brownsville is the nearest city to Starbase at about 32 km (20 miles). Compared to the 187,000 people in Brownsville, only a few homes remain in Boca Chica on the barren wildlife refuge.
South Padre Island and Port Isabel are the closest inhabitable areas, but it would take nearly twice as long to get there than to Brownsville. This is because they are on barrier islands with limited access.
In 2014, SpaceX began purchasing land in the area for what was originally Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy testing. Despite some ground work, the next four years remained fairly uneventful. In 2018, a stainless steel water tower, or so people thought, emerged on the flat landscape. This water tower came to be Starhopper, a Raptor engine testing vehicle.
Since the first high altitude flights in late-2020 to mid-2021 which began with SN8, SpaceX has put an increased focus on booster and orbital ship development. Because of the increased cadence, more infrastructure such as bays and tents have seen the site grow exponentially.
The location and ease of access to the Starbase surrounding area has enabled close watch of nearly every move SpaceX makes as they develop Starship. While SpaceX does not want to block access to Boca Chica Beach, there’s no guarantee how long the largely open and public access will last in light of safety concerns related to launches and landings. It’s safe to say that waiting might not be the best option.
Tour Of Starbase
There are three main locations around Starbase where the activity happens; the production site, the launch site, and the structural test site (formerly Massey’s Gun Range). The production site is where both the ship and booster are manufactured and produced. The launch site, as the name implies, is where rockets are launched in addition to where engine tests and some other tests are performed. The structural test site is where other testing occurs, however there is not much to see at the structural test site from the available viewing areas.
As of publication, the production site has three distinguishable buildings that rise high above the rest. The Midbay, High Bay, and Mega Bay (Wide Bay), act as rocket houses. The High and Mega Bays both have cranes on the top that allow large pieces of the rockets to be lifted into place and stacked on top of one another. A new building is currently being built called “Starfactory”, which will replace the three temporary production tents.
Near to the Mega Bay is a group of rockets, either used and retired, or never flown. This area is commonly referred to as the “Rocket Garden”. The vehicles in the Rocket Garden change very frequently as they are retired, scrapped, or held until testing.
Also located in that area is an Air Separator Unit (ASU) that can generate oxygen, nitrogen, and argon. This is also where some large shipments are received and where some heavy lifting equipment lies. In front of all of this is the gigantic and iconic “S T A R B A S E” sign.
These approximately 2.5 m (8 ft) tall illuminated letters are the first thing visible from the side of the road. It is a very popular space to stop and take photos, especially at night when the sign is illuminated. You can easily park on the rocks in front of the sign to hop out and take a photo.
In addition to these are the buildings that have been there since the beginning. Originally built by the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Stargate, is now owned by SpaceX and acts as their launch control. The building is an office building with space for desks and computers, meeting rooms, and other spaces where an old Merlin and Raptor engine can be found.
Further down the road toward the ocean is the solar farm. Next to the solar farm are two tracking dishes that were purchased from NASA. Behind that is Boca Chica Village, which mostly includes houses owned by SpaceX to house employees.
On the corner, before the long road to the launch pad, is a private restaurant. The outside seating area is covered in flaps from the Mk 1 Starship prototype. Only employees are able to eat here and at the adjacent food trucks. Across the street is a large building known as the payload processing facility, which is currently used for Starlink, but could be used for other payloads in the future.
After traveling down the nearly three kilometer (two miles) barren stretch of road, the launch site quickly fills the landscape. The launch site consists of three launch pads, two suborbital pads and one orbital pad.
Before arriving at the launch site, pulling off the road before it curves gives the unique view of Suborbital Pad A, on the right, and Suborbital Pad B, on the left. The black and white tanks are the Suborbital Tank Farm and house the propellants for both pads.
Traveling further down the road leads to an up close view of Starhopper, the first vehicle to take flight in south Texas. It has now been repurposed to host radar equipment, cameras, and speakers to provide announcements at the pad. The main gate is shortly after that and provides a sometimes unobstructed view of the Orbital Launch Table. This is where nearly everything goes in and out of the launch site.
The Orbital Launch Pad is the table and the very large 120 m (400 ft) tall tower with chopstick arms on it. This is where fully assembled and stacked Starship/SuperHeavy rockets will launch from. Next to the Orbital Launch Pad are eight cylinders which together make the Orbital Tank Farm. Some of these house water, while others house the propellants, oxygen and methane.
Where And Where NOT To Go At Starbase
The number one rule comes as an obvious one: wherever there is a sign indicating SpaceX property, don’t go past it. Roads are public and the land just off the road is generally public too. SpaceX property is almost always clearly indicated.
To play it safe, anytime you’re stopping to look, always park on the opposite side of the road from SpaceX property. For example, at the production site, park on the south side of the road and do not cross the road by foot. It’s important to remember that Highway 4 is a highway and has fast moving cars, so be careful pulling off, merging, and navigating the side of the roadway.
Remedios Ave gives the closest access to any rockets. By parking on Highway 4 and walking down to the Rocket Garden, you can get very close to whatever rockets may be there. As of publication, Remedios is still a public road. However, this may not last long, so be sure to check any signs before proceeding.
Any parking on SpaceX property and around the restaurant are not for public parking and reserved for employees. At the launch site, there is also a parking lot, but again for employees only. Pulling off on the side of the road opposite SpaceX property (the north side) is allowed.
However, areas near the beach can become hazardous very quickly. The sand level and depth can change daily leaving dozens of cars stuck. Only drive down the beach if your vehicle has all-wheel drive and tires that can handle deep sand. Another option is to park on the side of the road before the beach and walk up and down the beach to get new angles of the launch site.
On launch day, there is a large area around the entirety of Boca Chica Beach, Starbase, and Highway 4 called the exclusion zone or “keep out zone”. Nobody from the general public is allowed in this area during alunch preparations and activities. There are also designated spots on the water in the channel for mariners to watch the launch from.
Rules, Tips, And What To Bring
In this case, it could be helpful to think of Starbase as a desert with very little to no amenities around. There are no public restrooms or gas stations to fill up on snacks and water. Before leaving for Starbase, take the time to stop at a gas station and get everything listed below.
- Bug spray
- Lots of water and food
- Hat, Sunglasses
Hydration is key, but that does not mean just drinking water while at Starbase. Before heading out the day before, ensure you drink plenty of water to maintain hydration.
While some rules may sound like common sense, others may come as a surprise. It’s important to follow these rules closely to stay out of trouble and make it so others can get this close to the worlds biggest and most powerful rocket too.
- Don’t litter
- No drones
- No crossing the river into Mexico. Matamoros is dangerous.
Overall a simple list to follow, but serious consequences can result otherwise. Starbase can be a fun place when safety and health are put first. The rockets do not need sunscreen.
Watching A Launch
Unlike Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Starbase has only been around in recent history and has never seen an orbital launch. This means that the infrastructure for the public to watch launches from Starbase is largely non-existent. An important note is that Highway 4 is completely closed on the day of a launch, so no members of the public will be able to travel down on launch day.
The only exception to this is Rocket Ranch. Rocket Ranch has a ranch where guests can stay in little Airstreams or their own RVs. They have an outpost further down Highway 4 that provides the closest viewing possible, however they are currently sold out of these tickets for the first Orbital Flight Test.
The next closest place is Isla Blanca Park on the southern tip of South Padre Island. To enter, they charge $12 cash, exact change not necessary. This can and will get very crowded on launch day, so it’s best to arrive a little early. Only a certain number of cars are allowed per day, but there is public parking at the Visitors Center and other spots further north.
Port Isabel is another spot to watch from. It is located before crossing the bridge on South Padre Island. The bridge itself is NOT a viewing location. There are very few direct views of the pad from Port Isabel due to the private residences in gated communities.
However, on Highway 48, which is the road to Port Isabel/South Padre Island, there are a few pull off spots like the Jamie J Zapata boat ramp. A reminder, Mexico is not an option due to the dangerous nature of Matamoros.
What To Bring
In general, it’s smart to envision any of these viewing locations just like Starbase. It will be just as hot and humid and the same precautions still exist. Sunscreen is a must and an umbrella may be beneficial to provide shade will be beneficial. Bathrooms will generally be closer, but due to the number of people trying to see a launch, the lines can be long and you may be at risk of losing your viewing spot.
A camera with a telephoto lens or binoculars are also good items to help with viewing. Starship/SuperHeavy will not leave a contrail, so it will mainly be visible as a large silver tube flying through the sky. While binoculars are not necessary, they could help enhance your viewing experiance.
How To Get To Starbase
This section will discuss how to get to Starbase by ground. Flying is covered in the next section and can be more complicated than driving. The best, and nearly only, way to get to Starbase is in a personal vehicle, either a rental car or your own car. Utilization of a GPS would be helpful here; just typing in “Starbase”, “Boca Chica Beach”, or “Boca Chica” should result in the same path as there is only one way to get there.
A specific address would be 1 LBJ Blvd, Brownsville, TX 78521, which is the restaurant. Although it’s not open to the public, it is an address to navigate to. It is possible to use a rideshare option like Uber or Lyft, but drivers are scarce and, once out there, getting between the launch site and production site is difficult. Additionally, the cost of the long drive might end up costing more than renting a car.
While trekking out to Starbase, shortly after leaving Brownsville city limits, is a border check point. Although there is no border crossing at the checkpoint, due to the proximity to the border and the shallow depth of the Rio Grande near the beach, the United States Border Patrol keeps a station there.
Going out to Starbase, a stop will not be necessary. However, when returning to Brownsville from Starbase every vehicle will be stopped and questioned. The questions are generally very simple, “Are you a U.S. citizen?” and “Is there anyone else in the vehicle?” Answer these honestly and you will be sent on your way without problem. If there is a shift change at Starbase, the line will get very backed up. So in the morning and afternoon, keep this in mind.
For U.S. citizens, a drivers license will act as a form of ID. International travelers should have travel documents and their passport. The border patrol officers do not always ask for documentation, but will on occasion.
Flying To Starbase
There are three main airports that all provide good options for flying into south Texas and then driving to Brownsville. Some are easier and cheaper to get to than others, but may be further away.
BRO, or Brownsville, is the closest option and is relatively near to Starbase given it’s location on the outskirts of Brownsville. As of publication, you must either first fly to Dallas or Houston and get a connecting flight to Brownsville. In May of 2023, Avelo Airlines will offer direct flights to Brownsville from Orlando and Los Angeles.
HRL, or Valley International Airport in Harlingen, Texas, is also a good option, but requires a bit more of a drive, about an hour to Starbase. Depending on demand, HRL can be cheaper and have more rental car options.
MFE, or McAllen International Airport in McAllen, Texas, is about to an hour and a half from Starbase. Generally, MFE shares similar options and availability to HRL, but it’s an option nonetheless.
Flying from oversees might mean spending more time in Texas. In this case, it may be possible to save money and drive from a city like Austin, San Antonio, or Houston. Houston, of course, is where Johnson Space Center is located. Visitors can spend a day at Space Center Houston, which has interactive activities and a great museum.
Do not rely on rental cars being available at Brownsville or some of the airports in the Rio Grande Valley, so check carefully, especially around times of peak travel.
Where To Stay
There are numerous options for places to stay depending on the type of traveler you are. Some types include campers, luxury, adventure seekers, budget, and families. During times of peak travel and lots of activity, some options may be more available than others.
South Padre Island/Port Isabel
South Padre Island, or SPI, has a host of good options for those who want to see rockets, but also make a vacation in south Texas. SPI is host to a variety of restaurants, hotel options, and adventure experiences like dolphin tours. The dolphin tours are a good way to see the launch site from a unique perspective.
Margaritaville, formerly known as “The Pearl”, is a good option to have a pool, beach access, and a potential view of the rocket. The rooms are spacious and can accommodate a family easily. In order to have a good view of launch, getting a room on the south side about five floors up or higher is best. This is where Tim Dodd, the Everyday Astronaut, livestreamed SN8 and SN9 from!
Holiday Inn is a similar option to Margaritaville in terms of rooms and amenities, but does not offer balconies to view the pad from. Its proximity to the bridge enables easy access to the mainland and avoids a lot of the northern island congestion.
Hilton Garden Inn is located much further up north on the island and also does not have a good view of the launch pad. However, it offers great amenities and was recently renovated.
Lighthouse Cafe and Hotel in downtown Port Isabel is also a good option. It avoids the bridge, which means less traffic. The hotel also offers gelato and snacks and is within good walking distance from local and chain restaurants.
Casa Rosa Inn is another option in the Port Isabel area. Alternatives to this are AirBnBs and other spots for rent, so keep looking if these hotel options don’t suit you perfectly.
Those who enjoy camping can try and secure a spot at Isla Blanca Park on the southern tip of SPI.
Brownsville is home to most major hotel brands, but a lot of them are located on the highway and too far to walk to restaurants. They are, however, closer to Starbase by about 20 to 30 minutes. Generally, these hotels are cheaper than what can be found on SPI.
Rocket Ranch is about as close as possible for anyone from the public to stay. There are small campers for individuals and they also offer spots for people with RVs to park and stay. Above all, the community at Rocket Ranch is full of more rocket loving people and will be a great welcome to south Texas. So far, they have hosted thousands of people and even more have booked stays.
In addition to a place to stay, they also offer bus tours to Starbase. These tours have been operating for a while, and will provide rich knowledge and history of Starbase.
When To Book Your Trip
Timing is everything and timing with a rocket test program is nearly impossible. Even SpaceX sometimes does not know when they will launch until just a week before. Generally, trying to book as close to a launch as possible is best.
Sometimes, booking less than five days in advance will yield the best results, but sometimes that is not possible. Oftentimes these launches will see many delays before actually flying, so it might be best to book for a week and be prepared to stay longer if that’s possible.
There is no exact answer for when to book, but it’s best to wait until as late as possible and be prepared to change dates. Read hotel and flight cancellation policies closely before booking.
Indicators of a launch could be FAA and FCC Licensing, road closures, beach closures, Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs), maritime notices, and of course, an official statement from SpaceX. All of the latest can be found in Everyday Astronaut’s live updates article.
Where To Eat
South Padre Island/Port Isabel
South Padre Island and Port Isable have a variety of eating options from fresh sea food, to vegetarian, to acai, and even Starbase themed resturants. Each recommendation below is linked to their site which has more information.
- Ceviche Ceviche
- Mahi Nic
- Russo’s Pizza
- Berry Divine on SPI and Beach Bowls on Port Isabel
- Hopper Haus
The proximity to Mexico means that there is an abundance of tacos. There are many local restaurants in Brownsville that sell local taco styles, like street tacos. Additionally, like SPI, there are nmerous types of resturants with different price points. There are also typical fast food chains on every corner, so if you are looking for something familiar, it is there.
What Else Besides Starbase?
Before Starbase, South Padre Island was a popular vacation spot. The beach that runs along the island is great for typical beach activities, especially surfing. For surfing lessons, South Padre Surf Company has a local staff that are great instructors. Different parts of the island have different severity of waves, which makes it appealing to all skill levels.
Additionally, there are dolphin tours on both SPI and Port Isabel that will venture out into the channel and ocean to see dolphins leap from the water.
Also on the island is Gravity Park, an amusement part that features Go-Karts and other rides. Fishing and bird watch tours and boats are very common and leave from Port Isabel/SPI.
STARSociety hosts many stargazing events and STEM events for kids.
Located in Brownsville is Gladys Porter Zoo, which has bike trails and coffee.
Overall, this article gives the most comprehensive overview of Starbase, how to visit, how to get there, and what to do there. Bookmark this tab so you can reference it when you make it down there! If you have any questions, leave them in the comments or email the author.