The secret to surviving the brutal winters in Minnesota is to leave – by taking a warm weather trip to thaw out. This year my high-school-age son and I flew to Houston and then drove to Space-X’s Starbase in Boca Chica, TX during the first week of January. He’s an aerospace enthusiast and wants to pursue a similar career path. I grew up in the age of the Mercury, Gemini & Apollo missions and have enjoyed a lifelong interest in space exploration, so there was no controversy when we chose our winter trip’s destination this year.
If you aren’t familiar with Starbase or Boca Chica, it’s the Texas version of Kennedy Space Center, but it’s a privately owned facility versus a government operation. That means different rules apply, which worked to our advantage. Both of us had been to Kennedy Space Center several times. It’s a secure facility with a visitors’ center and gift shops. Starbase is quite the opposite. Space-X’s security is very porous, and the nearest bathroom is 30 minutes away. This makes it a great opportunity for adventure and photography. We drove to Starbase twice on two consecutive days because the weather was less hazy on the second day, and we decided to get a bit closer for better photos.
Starbase is located on Texas Highway 4, a desolate two-lane public highway that leads from Brownsville to Boca Chica State Park on the gulf coast. Space-X has bought the whole town of Boca Chica on the Mexican border to house their employees. There were a couple of holdouts during the buy-out, but now even Elon Musk has a small house in Boca Chica. Two Space-X facilities are located near each other on Highway 4; the manufacturing & assembly buildings, and the launch facility. Both are visible from miles away because of their high structures (assembly bays and launch pad). The level of access to these sites is unlike anything else in the world. All the government launch facilities in the US are high security, and any tours are extremely scripted. In Boca Chica we parked across the road from the launch pad and hiked within 100 meters of the Starship and the launch pad with no fence between us. Amazing!!
The analog cameras I used for this trip were a Mamiya 7 (43mm f4 lens) and a new-to-me Hasselblad Xpan (45mm + Nikon 35mm PC adapted lens). I also brought a Bessa R2 with my standard 28mm lens – but it didn’t see much action. My son used a Fuji X-Pro2 digital camera with the cheap-but-capable 50-230mm lens.
The first photo in this series was the most difficult to take. I have never seen brighter, whiter gravel than in front of the Starbase sign. It was blinding under the Texas sun. I decided to meter the blue sky so I didn’t underexpose the image. I took several shots so I could experiment with the composition and vanishing point. Taking this photo from a closer position was more dramatic, but also makes the letters difficult to read, so I stepped back and framed the shot to include the assembly bays in the background. I later discovered this sign lights up at night and there is a blue line of LED lights along the top and bottom of the wall. I wish I knew about that earlier and planned a sunrise photo.
We drove a few kilometers down the road to the launch facility and immediately started taking photos. There was a sense of urgency because Space-X closes the road with very little notice to move rocket sections between the two operations. We didn’t want to get shut out after traveling all the way from Minnesota. After walking along the road for a couple of minutes we noticed a gentleman perched on the cab of a pickup truck across the road from the launch pad. After talking to him for a while we learned that Calvin lived in Galveston, TX – but spent most of his time sleeping in his truck and taking photos and time-lapse videos for YouTube. He was a wealth of Space-X knowledge and an all-around nice guy.
Most people stop briefly on the highway and snap a few photos of the “orbital launch pad”, but on the second day we decided to hike around the dunes that surrounded the launch site. Space-X was only able to buy two small plots of land that are surrounded by a state park. There was a lot of activity that day because the engineers were stress-testing the hold-down clamps on the launch pad to make sure they could support a fully fueled spaceship. We timidly climbed up the dunes and took photos every few meters, thinking we would need to turn around soon because we would be met with a security fence. On top of the dunes, there are amazing vistas that include both the launch site and Starbase in the distance.
As we sat on a log on the dunes and enjoyed the warm sun, we realized the future of space travel was sitting right in front of us. This huge launch pad was designed with “chopstick” arms to lift and eventually catch rockets as they land. These new technologies had never been attempted before. We felt like we were in a science fiction movie. A few moments later we met another YouTuber who asked if we had been down to the flats in front of the launch pad yet. We joined him as he walked about 10 minutes to within a chip-shot of the launch pad. The only visible security was a line of wooden stakes in the sand marked “Space-X Property”. No fences. Once again, we stood there in awe of what we were looking at and how close we were. I predict security will be much tighter once they begin launching rockets from Starbase. That should happen in the next few months if you believe Elon Musk’s schedule.
After spending a couple of hours at the launch site, we drove back down the road to Starbase. Our new friend Calvin told us there was an unsecured road that leads to the “rocket garden”. This is a cluster of old boosters and Starships that were used for testing and are now out of service. This is the rocket boneyard. We drove down the short road and parked within a few meters of the nearest Starship, amazed at how close we were to a piece of space exploration history. Yes – there were lots of Private Property signs nearby, so we stayed on the correct side of the signs (just like the stakes in the dunes). I took photos furiously because we thought we were going to get tossed out by security at any moment – but again, that never happened. A few other curious folks drove down the road for a quick snapshot, so we began to feel more comfortable.
Across the road from the rocket garden were the huge assembly bays. In front of the closest building, there is a strange collection of Airstream recreational vehicles parked on a lawn of astroturf. These housed the Starbase staff that were required to be on-site. The sight was a bit surreal – building rockets and living in mobile homes. Science fiction meets reality in 2023.
Going back to Starbase a second time provided me with an opportunity to pre-visualize some photographs that I missed on our first day. It also helped with lens and film stock selection. I shot mostly color film, but also shot one roll of Ilford HP5+ and a roll of the reissued Lomo Turquoise as an experiment.
The second day at Starbase was warm and clear. A great day for taking photos of the future of space travel with 30-year-old analog cameras. If I had brought my Hasselblad 500 C/M the paradox would be complete. The week after we visited Starbase they stacked the Starship and booster and began to prepare for a launch in February or March. We left Texas with some amazing memories and lots of great analog (and digital) photographs. It was the perfect warm-weather trip for a couple of space guys with cameras. And as a bonus – we managed to stay out of jail.
All film was developed and DSLR scanned at home.
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