SpaceX Fans Who Moved to Starbase
Published: September 14, 2022
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
"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.
"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."
Source: Re-posted and Summarized from Loren Grush at the verge.
My Take: Now those are hardcore fans.