Mars or Bust: Watching the SpaceX Starship Launch from South Padre Island

Last Updated on February 20, 2021

Interested in watching a SpaceX Starship launch? Check out my Tips for Watching a SpaceX Starship Launch on South Padre Island section at the bottom of the page.

During our visit to South Padre Island in November-December 2020, Daniel and I learned that SpaceX owns a facility in nearby Boca Chica. The South Texas launch site in Cameron County is designed to conduct test flights of prototype starships. Located just across the Brazos Santiago Pass straight, Isla Blanca Park on South Padre Island is the perfect location from which to watch SpaceX launch rockets into space.

After a little investigation, we learned that SpaceX was about to conduct a test flight of Starship serial number 8 (SN8) at the South Texas facility. SpaceX’s next-generation launch vehicle, the Starship is designed to “carry both crew and cargo on long-duration, interplanetary flights and help humanity return to the Moon, and travel to Mars and beyond” (SpaceX: Starship page).

The SN8 Starship on the launch pad at the SpaceX Boca Chica site as viewed from Isla Blanca Park on South Padre Island
Close-up photo of the SN8 Starship on its launch pad. Photo by Daniel.

This upcoming rocket launch was no ordinary test flight. This was designed to be the very first high-altitude flight test of a Starship prototype from SpaceX’s facility in Cameron County.

We couldn’t believe our luck. Daniel and I had no idea that SpaceX owned a facility in the area, let alone planned a high-altitude Starship test flight during our stay there. We couldn’t wait to see it.

Scouting out Isla Blanca Park

Daniel and I first headed to Isla Blanca Park on November 29, 2020. Located on the southernmost tip of South Padre Island, Isla Blanca Park is managed by Cameron County and has lots of great beach access and beach facilities. It is also home to a large RV park (which looked nicer and also cheaper than the KOA located just up the street). If we hadn’t already booked an AirBnB, we would have considered camping there.

The primary purpose of our visit, however, was reconnaissance. The rocket was supposed to launch in a couple of days and we wanted to find the best viewing spot. After paying the park’s entrance fee, we realized that there was no shortage of great viewing locations. The rocket was clearly visible from the beach along the entire south side of the park.

We ultimately chose a location near the boat ramp because it has a parking area with oversized spots that could easily accommodate our RV. So we decided to come back to this area on the appointed day.

El Cristo de los Pescadores (Christ of the fishermen) memorial on Isla Blanca Park
The SN8 rocket is clearly visible from the shoreline at Isla Blanca Park. I took this photo with my cell phone.
The Isla Blanca Park boat ramp
Daniel and I stroll along the sandy beaches at Isla Blanca Park
Isla Blanca Park is very popular with fishermen

SpaceX Starship launch viewing attempt #1: Failure

On Monday, December 7, Daniel and I headed over to Isla Blanca Park in the early afternoon. We heard through unofficial sources that the SN8 rocket could possibly launch as early as that afternoon. In an attempt to avoid the crowds, we got there early and paid the entrance fee. The park was deserted except for a few fishermen and beachgoers. We found a nice spot, set up the tripod, and settled in to wait.

As the afternoon wore on, we eventually heard that the launch was possibly delayed. Sure enough, we waited and waited and nothing happened. Daniel and I aren’t space enthusiasts per se and didn’t know the best sources for up-to-date launch information. The fact that the park was deserted should have been our first clue.

Oh well. Since we were there anyway, we stayed around for the sunset and got some awesome pictures of pelicans and other marine life. We also saw a few dolphins swim by in the Brazos Santiago Pass. Unfortunately we didn’t get any photos of those but it was quite exciting.

Daniel sets up his tripod at Isla Blanca Park to watch the SN8 Starship Launch
Isla Blanca park is a great place to watch herons
I’ve never seen so many pelicans before. They are everywhere.
Just two adorable pelicans perched on the same signpost.
Sunset at Isla Blanca Park

SpaceX Starship launch viewing attempt #2: Countdown to zero

On Monday evening, I discovered that SpaceX had finally posted some official information about the SN8 rocket launch on their web site. The launch was now planned for the next day on Tuesday, December 8. The web site included a link to a video feed which was supposed to go live at 8:00 am. That seemed encouraging.

Daniel and I arrived back at Isla Blanca park bright and early at 7:00 am the following morning. This time, the park was buzzing with people. We set up the tripod along the shoreline in the same location and waited. Other space enthusiasts lined the beach, but there was still plenty of room to spread out in a socially distanced manner.

After an hour or so, we heard that the launch had been scrapped. Another viewer down the beach was a SpaceX employee. She had the day off because it was launch day and had brought a group of friends to view the event. Now that the launch was postponed, however, she had to go back into work.

We weren’t sure what to do at that point. Was the launch cancelled for the entire day? Should we try again tomorrow?

Another space enthusiast, who had been quietly sitting to our left, revealed that he was also a SpaceX employee. According to his intel, the launch may still happen later in the day. He was heading back to his car to take a nap and would be back later. He worked the night shift and had driven straight over to witness the launch.

So we decided to stick it out. Daniel and I returned to our RV and waited. As the afternoon wore on, the park got increasingly crowded. Swarms of people lined every possible inch of shoreline. We heard from several people that Elon Musk himself had been spotted in the crowd.

Eventually, we learned that the launch was back on again. Daniel and I headed back to the beach, only to find that our previous spot was taken. All the good locations were crowded with people who weren’t even attempting to maintain 6 feet of social distancing.

We eventually found a less optimum location and settled in. I tuned into the live video feed and listened with excitement to the launch countdown.

The countdown went all the way to zero and then, at the very last minute, the launch was cancelled. Blarg!

The SN8 rocket is visible in the distance to the left of the fishing boat
An enormous ship goes by, momentarily blocking our view of the starship

Daniel and I walked over to Dirty Al’s for lunch. They were swamped with customers and had no idea that the SpaceX launch was happening.

Lots of SpaceX enthusiasts were in attendance at the SN8 launch
Right before the launch was scheduled to happen, a NASA plane flew overhead to give the all-clear

SpaceX Starship Launch Viewing Attempt #3: Success!

After the failed SN8 launch on Tuesday, SpaceX planned to try again the following day. This time, Daniel and I decided that we’d had enough of viewing the launch from Isla Blanca Park. We were tired of being around so many people, especially during a pandemic. Plus, we were pretty sure we would be able to see the launch from the beach in front of our condo a few miles away. There was no guarantee the rocket would launch that day anyway, so we figured we may as well be comfortable.

As our luck would have it, the SN8 Starship launch finally took place on Wednesday, December 9 at 4:45 pm. Daniel and I successfully watched the test flight from the beach with our mouths agape. The flight was especially interesting because SpaceX planned to land the rocket at the end of the test.

After the Starship launched into space, it gained an altitude of 10 kilometers before reorienting itself for reentry. The landing didn’t exactly go as planned and the Starship crashed in a fiery explosion at the launch pad. The view wasn’t as good as it would have been at Isla Blanca Park, but it was still pretty amazing.

SpaceX has since conducted another high-altitude Starship flight test of the SN9 ship on February 2, 2021. You can read more details about that test on the SpaceX Starship page.

Daniel’s tripod is set up for watching the SN8 Starship launch from the beach in front of our condo
There she goes! Photo by Daniel.
The SN8 rocket continues its ascent. Photo by Daniel.
The SN8 rocket begins its descent. Photo by Daniel.
The SN8 rocket continues its descent. Photo by Daniel.
The SN8 rocket prepares for landing. Photo by Daniel.
The SN8 rocket crashes in a fiery explosion. Our view of the explosion is somewhat blocked. Photo by Daniel.

Video of the SN8 SpaceX Starship Launch

While Daniel took photos of the launch with his telephoto lens, I captured the entire event on video. It’s not the greatest video but it gives you an idea of our experience. I’ve also included the official SN8 launch video below if you’d like a better view.

My video of the SpaceX SN8 test flight

The official video of the SpaceX SN8 test flight:

Tips for Watching a SpaceX Starship Launch on South Padre Island

  1. The best place to watch the SpaceX Starship Launch on South Padre Island is on Isla Blanca Park. There’s lots of room at the park but be sure to get there early as it can get crowded.
  2. Be flexible. Expect delays and postponements. We had to wait for 3 days until we finally saw the SN8 rocket launch.
  3. Don’t pay the daily park entrance fee. I don’t recall the exact price but it was around $8/day to enter the park. If the launch is delayed, you may have to enter the park on multiple days. It will probably be cheaper to pay the monthly or annual entrance fee in the long run.
  4. Bring food, water, shade, chairs, and everything else you may need to stay comfortable for an entire day.
  5. If you have an RV and are coming from out of town, consider camping at the Isla Blanca RV Park. You’ll have a front row seat and can easily escape the crowds in your vehicle should there be any delays.
  6. Subscribe to SpaceX’s official Twitter feed to get the latest information about launch timing.

Where are we now?

(Ok technically we were in South Padre Island over a month ago)

We are at Isla Blanca Park on South Padre Island!

Dates: November 7-9, 2020
Great American Road Trip Status: Days 156-8
Location: South Padre Island, Texas
Total Trip Mileage: 9073.4

For more details on our Great America (Socially Distanced) Road Trip, see my previous posts:

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9 thoughts

  1. Ahh, what a unique experience! I truthfully forget that you can watch this in other states besides Florida! Seems like a really cool experience!

  2. Everyone at work gets very excited when there’s a SpaceX launch, so this was a cool post to read! I never considered getting out to see the launches in person before.

  3. This seems like such an amazing experience! Not many people get to witness a Spacex launch, especially in the beautiful location of South Padre Island… thanks for sharing!

  4. That sounds like a really cool experience to be able to watch the launch. That’s a bummer that it took several attempts. I don’t think I would have enough patience to wait so long, haha!

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