Technology

Encounters with SpaceX fans who uprooted their lives and moved to Starbase

The first time Anthony Gomez saw one of SpaceX’s Starship prototypes take flight, he watched it on a projector. He was far away from the humid Texas coast, where the actual launch was taking place. Instead, he was sitting in his house in Florida with his girlfriend.

On the wall of his home, Anthony admired the Starship rocket as it careened through the sky. All three of the Raptor engines cut off when the spaceship reached an altitude of roughly 41,000 feet, and the massive steel vessel began to plummet back to Earth, pitched over on its side, looking like a grain silo in free fall. Just before reaching the landing pad, its engines reignited, and the vehicle rapidly turned upright again as it prepared to touch down. But the spacecraft came down too fast, hitting the ground hard and bursting apart in a massive explosion. Afterward, only a charred patch of Earth remained where Starship once stood — a disappointment.

To Anthony, the explosion wasn’t the real tragedy. The real tragedy was that he’d witnessed a historic moment on YouTube, along with everyone else. Not being there in person was like missing it entirely. At least the Starship didn’t land successfully, though — he still had another chance.

“It was so close to landing that it was just like a ‘pit in my belly’ feeling,” Anthony told me. “And I had to come see it.”

A few weeks later, he and his friends went on vacation, traveling through the southwestern United States to Horseshoe Bend, Zion, and the Four Corners. But rather than soaking in the vistas of gaping canyons and jagged cliffs carved out by the Colorado River, Anthony found himself staring at his phone, looking up the times for road closures near SpaceX’s Texas launch site. Road closures were a surefire sign that another test launch was imminent.

Why am I thinking about this place? Anthony wondered.

The place that he couldn’t get out of his mind was Boca Chica, a small patch of land on the very southern tip of Texas where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf Coast. There, SpaceX had developed an entire construction and launch facility that would become known as Starbase. It was the primary site where the company had started building and testing prototypes of Starship, the company’s most ambitious rocket yet. Shaped like a giant silver bullet, it is SpaceX’s next-generation vehicle, geared toward launching cargo — and, one day, people — to distant worlds. It is meant to be fully reusable, capable of landing upright on other planetary surfaces. The first stop is the Moon. Then, it’ll be on to Mars.

“Why am I thinking about this place?”

Starship has yet to go to space, though. To prepare for its first trip to orbit, SpaceX began launching prototypes to high altitudes and then trying to land them again in one piece, somewhat mimicking how the rockets will need to land when they travel to alien planets. 

Not long after the first explosive test launch that Anthony saw in December of 2020, SpaceX tried again in February. This time, he made sure to be in southern Texas. The target date kept moving as SpaceX tried to get permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to launch, but Anthony was undeterred. He made the trip back and forth, finally finding himself in nearby Port Isabel before the test was approved.

The launch was nothing short of spectacular to Anthony — though the rocket didn’t stick the landing that time, either. It came down at a roughly 60-degree angle, triggering another massive explosion. Still, he had caught the bug.

“I was like, ‘Well, now I gotta see it land, you know?’” he said.

A month later, SpaceX tried again with another Starship prototype. Anthony was back in Texas. Before the launch took place, a friend that he had met during his last trip invited him to come see some art he was showing off at a place called “Rocket Ranch.” It was an isolated area of land in Boca Chica near the Starbase launch site, where enthusiasts had been gathering to watch the tests from afar.

Anthony’s brief visit to Rocket Ranch turned into an overnight stay, then a couple of days, then a full week. It was long enough to convince him that he wanted to make the situation permanent. “I had fallen in love with the place,” Anthony said. “So I just kind of asked if there was a way that I could absorb myself into it somehow.”

He was committed to packing up his life and moving to Boca Chica full time.

Meanwhile, that March, SpaceX successfully launched another Starship prototype, sending the spacecraft into the upper atmosphere once again. That time, the vehicle came down slowly with one engine lit, landing upright on one of the company’s landing pads. SpaceX employees and enthusiasts watching near the launch site cheered the first successful landing of the booster. A few minutes later, the Starship exploded.

SpaceX’s launch facility sits at the southern-most tip of Texas.

To detail his ambitions to send people to Mars, Elon Musk put on his first presentation in Guadalajara, Mexico, at the International Astronautical Congress in 2016. I was there, and it felt more like covering a rock concert than a spaceflight presentation. His talk was held inside a large auditorium with thousands of reporters, conference attendees, and fans. I was among a small group that was let in early, and I raced to grab a seat next to the microphone. When the rest of the doors opened, the remaining crowd sprinted into the theater, shrieking with delight as they trampled across the carpeted floor toward the stage.

Following the presentation, Musk took audience questions. One man, who yelled, “This guy inspires the shit out of us,” wanted to give him a comic book he made as a gift; another woman asked if she could give him a good luck kiss on “behalf of all the ladies.”

People run for a place in the conference given by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

People run for a place in the conference given by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.
HECTOR GUERRERO/AFP via Getty Images

This was just a small taste of the fervor that surrounds SpaceX and Elon Musk. And having covered space for nearly a decade now, I’ve watched the fandom only grow more… passionate. It can be difficult to grapple with at times. Any perceived doubt or criticism of either SpaceX or Musk is met with extreme vitriol, and I’ve actually become frightened seeing some of the replies to my tweets or even an article that’s seen as too pessimistic. Being a woman adds another layer to the whole thing. Oftentimes, it’s a lot of men yelling at me online, calling me a bitch. I’ve mostly brushed it off as online behavior. But it’s enough to make me hesitate when I meet a SpaceX believer in real life.

The fandom is a vital part of the company’s success, though — space flight doesn’t happen without collective enthusiasm and imagination of some kind. And as someone with the job title of “space reporter,” I obviously have a lot of passion for it, having covered it professionally for my whole career and having followed it for the 34 years I’ve been on Earth. But I wanted to understand the people who were even more obsessive than me — the fans who decided that what was happening in Texas would be worth upending their entire lives for.

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Credit: Alex Parkin; Caption: Starbase launch facility across from State Highway 4

Pulling into Rocket Ranch at first requires a leap of faith. The entrance begins with a nondescript gravel turnoff from State Highway 4 — the lone road that connects Starbase to the nearby Texas border town of Brownsville. The road is surrounded by flat land, dotted with a few trees and shrubbery. It seems to stretch out in front of you for miles.

Rocket Ranch isn’t particularly ostentatious. The main feature is a dark blue single-story building with an open-air carport and a large wooden deck and stairs leading down to a dock in the nearby Rio Grande river, so close to Mexico that it is easily reachable if one feels inclined to take a short swim. Though the house is the primary building on the site, a series of airstreams and weathered trailers line the riverbank, providing accommodations for wandering travelers. Just a few yards away sits a stage and covered pavilion with a bar, a potential spot for concerts. A hammock swings between two trees, and a retrofuturistic Tesla supercharging station sits along the road to the entrance. Stray cats wander around the property, staring at newcomers with curiosity.

Inside the main building, a mannequin is dressed in a space suit; in the kitchen, robots have been welded out of pieces of scrap metal. Pictures of Mars and SpaceX’s various rockets adorn the bright orange walls. There’s a puzzle of a Mars colony that guests can piece together. At one point, I spotted a prayer candle with Elon Musk on it, holding the Shiba Inu “Doge.”

It was hard not to enjoy it. Typically, when you think of a ranch, you think of antlers on the wall, lots of wood paneling, and animal hide rugs. But this place was a SpaceX fan’s dream, and I felt a little at home as someone who understood all the references and paraphernalia.

Anthony Gomez poses in Rocket Ranch’s clubhouse.

Anthony Gomez in Rocket Ranch’s clubhouse.

I was fully prepared for an otherworldly experience here at Rocket Ranch when I met Anthony Gomez, who was co-managing the property at that point. The vibe was communal. Guests who were staying in the nearby airstreams would come in and out of the main building if they needed something from the kitchen. Some were in town, as I was, for Elon Musk’s latest Starship event; others were living full time at Rocket Ranch for the foreseeable future. People were buzzing in anticipation of Musk’s update. It was going to be his first talk about Starship in more than two years, since before the pandemic.

The presentation itself was fairly tame and light on actual updates. Standing in front of the Starship prototype spacecraft, stacked on top of the massive Super Heavy booster that is supposed to take it into space, Musk waxed poetic about the need to preserve the human race. To him, the idea that Earth could be destroyed one day, taking all of humanity with it, is an outcome we need to prepare for. And that’s why we must explore living on other planets. His familiar refrain is that the window to reach Mars is open now: we have the technology and the know-how to make a Martian settlement happen. But that window could be short, or it could be long. Therefore, we need to work as hard as possible to go as soon as possible. Musk has said this a lot.

When I returned to Rocket Ranch after the presentation, I found Anthony and dozens of other SpaceX enthusiasts glowing, all hyped from watching the presentation. They had just come from a viewing party, and now they were back at the ranch to celebrate with whiskey and beer around a bonfire.

I spent the rest of the night talking to them all and hearing their stories. And I was struck by their commitment to Elon Musk’s pursuits. The thing they had in common was that they all loved SpaceX — and they had uprooted their lives to get closer to it.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk provides an update on the development of the Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk provides an update on the development of the Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket.
Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images

In a previous life, Anthony worked for the Kennedys. As an employee of one of their nonprofits, he helped children with disabilities, developing friendships and setting them up for competitive employment. It wasn’t a lifelong thing, though. There were years he worked in marketing, broadcasting, and IT. Eventually, he stumbled into the Burning Man community. He became a builder and event coordinator, traveling out to various festivals to set up installations and stages. 

That came to an end about a year and a half ago, when the pandemic was getting into full swing. At that time, he was living between Miami and Jacksonville, restoring his car while building a mobile wedding bar for a friend. He also started working with 3D modeling to make Dungeons and Dragons-themed silicone sex toys.

“It was my way of bringing joy to people during the pandemic,” he said. “It was the best I could do.”

Now, Anthony’s days look very different. His life is consumed with the upkeep of Rocket Ranch. The property is 10 acres of wildlife preserve, and it requires a lot of maintenance. He is often outdoors, either cutting the grass after a hard rain or taking the trash to the Brownsville dump. “Nature is constantly trying to assert its dominance over us,” Anthony joked. Just getting the mail is a three-mile drive away.

“If you look at the 50,000-foot view of my life, I can see how I ended up here,” he said. He’s had to install stages and art installations in the grueling desert, for instance, with dust caked onto his clothing. And he’s had experience working in tight-knit communities.

“We’re kind of outcasts in our other circles.”

The nearby Starbase facility has something of a Burning Man vibe, just quieter. Part of the appeal of the SpaceX facility is that there’s very little separating you from the actual rockets themselves. Next to the production site, where the prototypes are built, stands the “rocket garden,” something of an outdoor museum and ode to Starships past. The one that SpaceX landed is there, as well as others that quickly became obsolete when they were built because SpaceX iterated faster than it tested them.

Just two miles down the road from the production site sits the launch complex, from which the rockets are meant to launch. There, SpaceX’s daunting launch pad and tower stand tall, exposed for anyone who wants to visit. The complex is also just a stone’s throw from the Gulf of Mexico and a nearby public beach, only reachable by State Highway 4. The road serves as an homage to SpaceX’s expansion in Boca Chica, littered with cracks and potholes, likely from shouldering massive rockets and vehicle parts that have no other way to travel through the area. And when SpaceX conducts tests, launches, or rocket relocations, the road must be closed, preventing access to the beach for locals.

(SpaceX did not respond to request for comment.)

Rocket Ranch at sunrise

Rocket Ranch has become a basecamp for visiting SpaceX superfans.

Apart from a small collection of homes called Boca Chica village, Rocket Ranch is one of the closest places one can stay near this Willy Wonka-like Starbase facility. Anthony envisions Rocket Ranch as part artistic hub and part refuge for SpaceX fans, likening the place to the land of misfit toys. “We’re kind of outcasts in our other circles,” he said. “These are nerds and dorks and people that were made fun of for liking this stuff. And so, finally, we have a place where we can come together and share it.”

Some people were there who were between jobs, and they offered to help out with the day-to-day tasks. Others were there to document what SpaceX was doing. Some just wanted to be around like-minded individuals. “I love that this is an orphanage, for those people who don’t have a family nearby, they can go. They don’t have any friends. We’re their friends,” Anthony said.

One of Rocket Ranch’s many visitors was Nic Ansuini, a photographer for NASASpaceflight.com, which has no affiliation with NASA. The website had gone all in on Starbase, setting up various 24-hour livestreams in Boca Chica, with cameras trained on the launch complex and production site. If a big test happened, NASASpaceflight.com was live, capturing it.

Like Anthony, Nic was inspired by a launch — the first Falcon Heavy launch in 2019. Before moving to Boca Chica full time, he had studied to be an accountant before abandoning that and going independent, recording podcasts and filming reviews of commercial tech products. Now, Nic was out at Starbase every day, often from sunrise to sunset. 

“I thought I was just going to be down here for a little bit,” Nic said. “And I was just enamored by the scale of it all and the 24/7 activity. It was addicting, and I couldn’t leave.” Nic wound up camping on the beach directly in front of the launch complex for a week. The sight of new parts coming through the area and rockets being assembled before his eyes was life-changing. In just the short time he was there, SpaceX managed to assemble a full stack of the Starship prototype rocket on the Super Heavy. “I had never felt like I needed to drop everything I was doing and go pursue something to its fullest extent,” Nic said. “And SpaceX did that for me.”

For the first couple of months as a Texas resident, he lived in his car on the beach, where he had camped during his first stay. All he did was document Starbase activity. “I made a trip into Brownsville about once a day for a bathroom break and to grab some food and come back out. But I really tried to keep my trips to town at a minimum,” he said. “I didn’t want to go anywhere else.”

Nic Ansuini looks at Starbase launch facility in the distance.

Nic Ansuini moved to Boca Chica because he was so enthralled by Elon Musk’s vision for Starbase.

He claims he lost 100 pounds because he wasn’t eating — he kept forgetting to. “I remember one day I was eating a PB&J that I had made, and I was like, ‘When was the last time I ate? Was it yesterday? No, it wasn’t yesterday. It was Monday. No, it wasn’t Monday because Sunday evening was the last time I ate,’” he recalled, laughing.

While he was snapping photos, I asked Nic if it ever got redundant. From day to day, the site looks relatively the same as it did the day before. He is always looking for new angles. A bird might fly past at a certain height, a unique moment that he’s never seen before. Or it could have rained the night before, creating puddles where he can shoot moody reflections of the rockets. 

But the downtime is worth it to him because he feels like he’s documenting history. “I think it’s once in a generation where you have the opportunity to do something so grand and so great.” He was talking about Mars and how we might get there. “The window of opportunity to get to Mars is so narrow. People don’t realize how narrow it is,” he said, repeating an Elon Musk talking point. “If we don’t try right now, and we don’t give it our all at this moment, we might never make it to Mars.”

It’s not all diehard SpaceX fans out here, though. For some people like Louis Balderas, it’s an operation that helped to change the course of his financial future. Louis is better known by his YouTube handle, LabPadre. Unlike Anthony and Nic, Louis has been in the area for the last 20 years, and he’s seen two very different types of Boca Chicas in that time.

“If I’m not sleeping, I’m working. SpaceX has taken every nook and cranny of my life.”

“This used to be a wasteland,” he said. “There was nothing out here at all. I mean, you’d be lucky if you see one car drive once an hour, maybe.”

Long obsessed with cameras and consumer technology, Louis owns an IT company, taking care of the majority of that work on South Padre and nearby Port Isabel. When SpaceX’s site activity dramatically increased in 2019, it changed his life. He’d had some experience with livestream cameras, having set them up during spring break to film concerts and crowds in the area. His YouTube channel barely got much traction before. Then he decided to move his camera near Boca Chica. “I didn’t advertise,” he said. “I literally pointed the camera in this direction, and the following day, I had thousands of people watching.”

Since then, his subscriber count has grown to more than 200,000, and his experiment at Starbase turned into a full-time job. Now he has six different cameras; some are mounted on the ground on nearby property he’s acquired, while others are mounted on cars to provide better mobility. Everything works off solar power, but Louis is constantly driving around the area to clean the cameras, check on the batteries, and fix malfunctioning technology. He’s committed to keeping his streams operational all the time, so if someone contacts him late into the night that one of his videos is down, he’ll hop in his car and go fix it. And it’s a 45-minute drive from South Padre.

Louis Balderas points a camera at Starbase.

Livestreaming Starbase has become Louis Balderas’ full-time job.

“If I’m not sleeping, I’m working,” he said. “SpaceX has taken every nook and cranny of my life.”

And if SpaceX were to leave, it would upend this new life he’s created for himself. “I’d probably vomit,” he said. “You know, it’d be a little sad, but I’d go back to what we were doing before — all the IT work.”

But things have slowed in the last year. From December 2020 to May 2021, there was plenty of action here at Starbase. SpaceX conducted five high-altitude test launches of its Starship prototypes, drawing travelers and large crowds to the area. Nearly all of those test launches ended in some kind of explosion — one even sent debris scattered throughout the nearby wildlife refuge.

The last one in May made it all worthwhile. SpaceX launched an upgraded version of its Starship prototype to an altitude of nearly 33,000 feet before bringing it back down to Earth, flipping it upright, and gently lowering it down onto a landing pad. For a few brief moments, plumes of exhaust from the rocket obscured the sight, leaving viewers in limbo if the rocket had survived. But then the clouds cleared, and Starship stood tall — and intact.

It was a picture-perfect way to cap off that particular testing campaign. But since then, the area has been much quieter. Now, SpaceX is squarely focused on proving it can send Starship to orbit. Plenty of obstacles have stood in the way. For one, SpaceX isn’t really ready yet. Though Musk has continued to give optimistic launch dates, months will go by, and the company still hasn’t finished the testing it needs to achieve ahead of a launch attempt.

That lull hasn’t been great for Anthony’s business. Fewer test launches means fewer people coming to stay at Rocket Ranch. To help make ends meet, he organizes tours of Starbase, taking guests through the area on an old school bus with a Mars landscape painted on its exterior. The visitors are mostly retirees, so-called “winter Texans” who come to the state when the weather is cooler.

Another big hurdle was the Federal Aviation Administration. Since 2020, the FAA has been conducting a lengthy environmental assessment on Starbase to determine the facility’s potential impact on the community and the surrounding environment. The outcome of that assessment would have a major effect on Starbase’s future and could delay the company’s ability to launch into orbit.

So for a while now, everyone has been in standby mode, waiting for some kind of definitive outcome.

“Everything here is hanging on by a thread,” Anthony said. “It’s like, man, if they fail, we’re all done.”

Starbase facility sits behind sandy dunes.

The Starbase facility is surrounded on all sides by by wildlife refuge areas.

“See the adult over there, right in the road there?” Stephanie Bilodeau asked as I looked through binoculars. “She’s doing a broken wing display. She’s trying to lure us away from her nest.”

After scanning the ground for a few minutes, I finally spotted the tiny white bird. She was planted in the muddy ground, frantically waving her wings, feigning injury. It was a common diversionary tactic. I was standing perilously close to her nest of spotted eggs, and she thought I was a predator, an interloper.

Through the binoculars, I also spotted a neon band wrapped around one of her legs. Stephanie had tagged the bird. A coastal conservation biologist, Stephanie’s been coming to this area for years to study the nesting habits of plovers — specifically Wilson’s plovers and snowy plovers. They’re a special kind of shorebird that like to nest on the ground, oftentimes in mudflats close to the beach. It’s a very specific habitat, and there isn’t much of it. The plover population has been in decline in recent years.

“It’s due to a lot of things, but it’s mainly habitat loss due to development,” Stephanie, who works for a Texas nonprofit called the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program, said. “Things like SpaceX taking over areas where they would normally nest where they winter or stop during migration.”

While there are plenty of people in the area happy that SpaceX has set up shop in Boca Chica, there are others who see the company’s presence as an intrusion. When SpaceX first broke ground on the site here in 2014, its vision for the area was much less grand. It intended to create a private spaceport to launch its much smaller Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, with roughly 12 launches planned from the area each year. The company even told nearby residents they wouldn’t need hearing protection.

Everything changed in 2019. That year, SpaceX began building its first prototype vehicle for the Starship program. The quirky little vehicle, which would eventually become known as Starhopper, was used to test out the company’s new powerful Raptor engine. SpaceX repeatedly launched the odd robot-looking machine a few hundred feet into the air before setting it back down again — little hops — to show they could perform a controlled launch and landing. That was just the beginning. Ever since then, SpaceX has moved full steam ahead at Boca Chica, expanding the company’s facility, creating multiple tents and construction facilities, hiring thousands of employees, and churning out Starship prototypes.

Stephanie had a front-row seat to the transformation. She’s been coming out to Boca Chica since 2016 to study the plovers. The area surrounding Starbase is a federally protected wildlife refuge, filled with sparkling wetlands and home to at least 520 different types of bird species. In fact, Boca Chica is a particularly great area for the plovers, Stephanie said, because the mudflats where the birds nest stay dry long enough for them to lay their eggs and raise their chicks. She’d always loved it.

“It was definitely my favorite place to work just because there was nobody out here,” she said.

Stephanie Bilodeau looks for nesting shorebirds.

Stephanie Bilodeau studies a population of little birds called plovers that nest around Starbase.

Stephanie Bilodeau walks in front of the SpaceX launch facility.

Stephanie has managed to work around the development as much as possible, but it’s been tough. State Highway 4 is frequently closed due to SpaceX testing, which prevents her from accessing the beach and surrounding mudflats. At one point, she started tracking the frequency of the road closures, logging them in a calendar that she gave me. Nearly every day up until May is filled with a red or yellow square. Yellow is for “temporary or intermittent” closures, while red is for testing closures. The calendar is mostly red.

Not only has it made Stephanie’s life more difficult, but she’s noticed a decline in the nearby plover population. The Fish and Wildlife Service, which partners with Stephanie’s nonprofit, backed up her claim. In a letter to the FAA, gathered as part of the environmental assessment, FWS argued that the decline of a similar shorebird, the piping plover, was correlated with increased SpaceX activity in the Boca Chica area. Stephanie said it’s possible that the loud noises from Starbase are disturbing the birds, causing them to leave. And it doesn’t help when the test launches lead to explosions that spew debris over the refuge.

“I don’t have anything against space travel, space exploration,” Stephanie said. “I just wish it wasn’t happening here.”

Stephanie’s nonprofit submitted its concerns about SpaceX to the FAA during a public comment period held between September and early November. As part of its environmental assessment, the FAA invited members of the public to voice their opinions about Starbase either online or during two virtual forums. The Zoom calls got contentious quick. Both ardent SpaceX critics and fans came out in force, with some admonishing the FAA for not doing enough to stop SpaceX’s growth and others admonishing the FAA for not giving SpaceX a launch license fast enough. The FAA received roughly 17,000 comments in total.

It isn’t just the surrounding wildlife population that might be pushed out. There are people who have left as well. The saga of Boca Chica Village — the small collection of homes situated next to the Starbase production site — is now somewhat famous for those who have been following the company’s expansion over the years. Before SpaceX arrived, the community, made up of roughly 40 homes, was something of a remote paradise for retired residents. But as SpaceX moved in next door and expanded, their lives became dominated by what seemed like constant construction noise, bright lights that shined late into the evening, and test launches that sometimes ended in bone-crunching explosions just a few miles from their homes.

A prototype of SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft is pictured behind a home in Boca Chica Village on September 28, 2019

A prototype of SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft is pictured behind a home in Boca Chica Village on September 28, 2019.
Loren Elliott/Getty Images

Eventually, SpaceX realized that having this community next door wasn’t exactly feasible for its grandiose operation, and the company offered to buy out people’s properties. At first, many of the residents were adamant they wouldn’t leave. But one by one, they relented. There are still a few holdouts, but Boca Chica Village now looks very different than it once did. The mostly brown and beige brick homes have been given makeovers, painted white and black in the signature SpaceX style. Employees and executives have moved in. Even Elon Musk lives in one of the houses when he’s at Starbase to oversee operations.

During our time exploring Starbase, Boca Chica Village felt like this dark cloud hanging over every conversation but one we just weren’t supposed to acknowledge. When we wrapped up filming with Nic one night, he turned to us and suddenly got very serious. “One word of advice: don’t film in the village,” he said. He didn’t really explain why. He just kept shaking his head, warning us not to go.

One of the first people I had spoken to before coming to Starbase was a woman by the name of Cheryl Stevens, a former resident of Boca Chica Village, who wound up selling her home to SpaceX in the end, an outcome that still upsets her.

“I don’t even know if I can put it into words,” she told me. “It’s just unbelievable. Like it’s kind of nightmarish. And you keep thinking, ‘I hope I’m going to wake up from this nightmare,’ and no, it just kept getting worse.”

Her entire childhood is wrapped up in this area. She was born in nearby Brownsville and lived there as a young child. After a brief stint living overseas, her family moved back when she was a teen. Her parents wound up building a house on Boca Chica Boulevard, which turns into State Highway 4, and the beach off of Highway 4 was her go-to. She loved the area so much that she bought a ’70s-era house in Boca Chica Village in 2005.

Originally, I had hoped to take her back to her old house in Boca Chica Village and interview her there to see how it felt for her to return. But the morning of the interview, she called me and told me she didn’t want to do it. It was clear she was nervous about going back. Instead, she offered to talk to me far away from Starbase, where it would be less painful.

Cheryl has also seen two very different Boca Chicas. There was the original Boca Chica, isolated and remote. “Even just listening to the wind was fun because the wind would be noisier than like any kind of people-noise,” she said. While she owned the house, Cheryl only lived in it part time. When she wasn’t there, she’d list it for short-term rentals. She saw the place as a source of income, as well as the place where she’d eventually retire. 

“Like it’s kind of nightmarish. And you keep thinking, ‘I hope I’m going to wake up from this nightmare,’ and no, it just kept getting worse.”

Of course, that dream vanished when SpaceX moved in next door. The residents of Boca Chica Village were first notified of SpaceX’s intentions to move into the area in 2011, which was unbelievable to Cheryl at the time. The company and Cameron County promised an influx of jobs to the area. One of the first public meetings held about the plan felt like a pep rally, she said.

Ultimately, SpaceX moving in wasn’t much of an issue until testing and production ramped up in 2019. Cheryl watched as the company seemed to get away with everything. It started closing off access to the beach more and more frequently to perform work and tests. SpaceX started setting up temporary checkpoints on Highway 4, badgering the short-term renters who were staying in her house. Fliers started showing up at Cheryl’s house, sometimes asking her to vacate her property for test flights.

“I got a knock at the door at 10 o’clock at night, which is already kind of shocking if you’re not expecting someone,” she said. “And there’s the sheriff at my door handing me a notice that they’re going to be testing between 3 and 4AM. And so basically it says, ‘It’s recommended that you, and if you have any pets, shouldn’t stay here.’”

And sometimes, she wouldn’t get a warning at all — she would just hear an explosion, and suddenly, her home would start shaking as if there was an earthquake.

After months of dealing with this new normal, the SpaceX letters came. The company offered to buy the Boca Chica Village homes from the residents, finally acknowledging that the disruptions had become untenable. SpaceX offered a price based on the most recent tax appraised values, multiplied by three. Cheryl claimed the price was low because it was an undervalued area. But residents had never wanted to fight the appraisals, to keep property taxes low.

At first, everyone was unified that they wouldn’t sell. Eventually, they relented. Cheryl finally went back to SpaceX with her rental income and receipts, and they upped the price. She parted ways with her dream retirement home. 

Cheryl thinks it’s hard for people to put themselves in her shoes because they point to the fact that she ultimately cashed out and left. “If you try to say anything on social media, you know, you’re going to get attacked,” she said. “The kind of people that absolutely don’t have any idea what it was like will come back and comment.”

During our conversation, I asked Cheryl if she happened to watch any of the test launches since she was so close. She told me she saw one in August of 2019, when SpaceX launched its odd Starhopper contraption.

“You know, I have to say, when you can remove yourself from all of the other things about it, I mean, yeah, it was neat to see that,” she said.

After speaking with Cheryl, I still wanted to go see her old house. Along with The Verge’s production team, I drove down the familiar State Highway 4 once again, making the turn into Boca Chica Village. It felt as if we were entering some forbidden forest. We all spoke in hushed tones, as if talking loudly would summon SpaceX security even faster.

On our way into the village, we spotted Nic by his truck, but we didn’t think much of it. We stopped in front of Cheryl’s old home and started shooting video, mostly trying to show how close she used to be to SpaceX infrastructure. We also had permission to film at another house, but we were trying to be quick and discreet. As one of our videographers, Alex, grabbed footage, he saw Nic’s truck approaching. He parked a few feet from Alex and popped out the driver-side window. 

“I thought I told you it was not a good idea to film in the village,” Nic said angrily. Then he sped away, burning rubber. 

Nic wasn’t done. He immediately called my producer to admonish her for not heeding his warning. He got real quiet and mentioned there had been a lot of security issues lately with the village. The phone call ended abruptly without resolution.

The whole thing was bizarre, mostly because Nic doesn’t work for SpaceX. Later, he did call to apologize, telling us again he got concerned because he thought we were getting too close to Elon Musk’s house. We really had no interest in shooting there, but that’s not really the point. It was aggressive behavior from a person who, up until that point, we’d only had polite interactions with.

“I thought I told you it was not a good idea to film in the village.”

If I was being honest, though, it wasn’t that surprising. I’ve seen this fandom for nearly a decade now. The biggest ones are all very protective of SpaceX, its mission, and its billionaire founder. That energy manifests itself in various ways. Sometimes, it can be a little frightening.

“I’m sure you guys have interviewed everybody that’s down here has come off super culty or some form of like, ‘He is the future,’ you know, like that kind of shit,” Anthony told me. “But when everybody feels that way, you know, who cares if they’re rallying around something that’s very positive and that inspires them to do great things?”

You can’t deny that SpaceX has accomplished some amazing feats of rocketry. Landing rockets after launch, once considered something of a novelty, is now something it does routinely. SpaceX also became the first private company to send astronauts into orbit, beating out legacy aerospace company Boeing for the title. And SpaceX is now making these human spaceflight missions routine, making the company a critical partner for NASA.

But with any great success, there are adverse side effects. Apart from the issues that people have with Starbase, there are claims of a strong burnout culture at SpaceX, as well as allegations of systemic sexual harassment, handled poorly by HR. These issues, to Musk’s fans, are sometimes written off as a distraction from the greater mission: to send humans to Mars. Nothing else could be more urgent.

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Credit: Vjeran Pavic; Caption: Aerial view of SpaceX’s Starbase production facility and launch pad

While we were in Boca Chica, Anthony took me to another place associated with Rocket Ranch called “The Outpost.” It was another property he managed — a viewing location, just on the outside of the exclusion zone, to watch future launches. To get there, we got on his boat and traversed the Rio Grande. The sun was low in the sky, the pink and purple hues of the south Texas sky glimmering off the water.

I asked Anthony about the criticisms from researchers and environmentalists. He expressed his desire to talk to those people and have an open dialogue. In the end, he believed that two things could be possible: that we could preserve this planet while SpaceX continues with its pursuits of the next one.

“I love this place. It’s beautiful. I don’t want concrete everywhere,” Anthony said. “I came here because I grew up in the city. This place is fantastic. Why would I want to destroy this? I want to preserve it.” Then he added: “But I certainly don’t want to be trapped in a place that I can’t leave, you know, ever.”

“You feel trapped on Earth?” I asked.

Sort of. He clarified. “I think we’ve grown to feel accustomed to the fact that we’re trapped on Earth,” he said. “You know, I think that we’ve all been told there’s, like, maybe 20 people who will be able to do this. ‘You’re not smart enough to do it, so can’t do it. Sorry. You’re never going to leave Earth. Forget about it.’ And that’s not true anymore.”

I’d always thought that one of the biggest disconnects between critics of SpaceX and the quest to start a settlement on Mars has been the concept that Elon Musk is trying to save humanity. Musk believes the ultimate tragedy is that human beings might be completely wiped out one day, perhaps by an asteroid or a dying Sun. That is why we must put our resources into this endeavor now, before the window to get to Mars closes. 

“But I certainly don’t want to be trapped in a place that I can’t leave, you know, ever.”

But those who reject that argument point to the fact that there are plenty of things threatening humanity’s longevity right now, notably climate change. And a Mars settlement is probably not going to function on its own without help from Earth, at least.

Again, Anthony and the others at Starbase I talked to believe we should simply do both. We can fix climate change while racing to get to Mars. 

“It’s not like Mars is the answer,” he said, admitting that living there would suck. For Anthony, it wasn’t about being on Mars; it was about figuring out how to live on other worlds so that we could potentially inhabit the next Earth someday. That way, we could have hope that humanity — the descendants of our friends and family — would continue. Until then, though, Anthony surrounded himself with other people who wanted to be on Mars.

I asked if he thought Starbase gave people meaning.

“Yes,” Anthony said. “A lot of the folks that have become stars of this community were forgotten themselves. And a lot of people that I’ve seen that are becoming important were nobody before this thing got here.”

I think it can feel easy to judge or not understand, especially if you’re not into space. But then I take a look at my own life. I am a space reporter, and it’s my job to report critically on the space industry. But really, I would consider myself something of a fan of space travel. Otherwise, why would I dedicate my career to it in the first place? Last year, I moved to Austin amid the pandemic. For the most part, I wanted to escape the claustrophobia of New York and finally have a house with more square footage. But I’d be lying if I said a small part of me didn’t think about the fact that I’d be closer to Starbase.

After I left, the FAA made its decision: SpaceX had to make some changes to its plans, but ultimately, the facility wouldn’t have an outsized impact on the surrounding environment. That meant Starbase would continue. Rocket Ranch would continue, and its community of oddballs, all unified by the worship of a far-fetched idea that was feeling closer by the day — that would continue, too.

Maybe inhabiting Mars will happen in our lifetimes. Maybe it won’t. Maybe it will never happen at all. In the end, you just have to have a little faith. And in this dry, flat patch of Texas, you’ll find no shortage of that.

The Starbase facility lit up at night.

Reporter: Loren Grush
Features editor: Kevin Nguyen
Lead producer: Mariya Abdulkaf
Director: Alex Parkin

Cinematographers: Alex Parkin, Vjeran Pavic
Executive producer: Eleanor Donovan 
Story editor: William Poor

Audio recording: Mariya Abdulkaf, Victoria Barrios 
Sounds design and mixing: Andrew Marino
Producer: Victoria Barrios
Editorial engineer: Graham MacAree

Science editor: Mary Beth Griggs
Engagement: Denise Cervantes
Editorial coordinator: Sarah Smithers
Project manager: Kara Verlaney  
Legal and business affairs: Jamillah Varias

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