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Liftoff in Brownsville

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Liftoff in Brownsville

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is putting an impoverished South Texas community on the map. Spring 2021
Technology and Innovation
Texas
Economy, finance, and budgets

It doesn’t feel as though the road out of Brownsville, Texas, will take you anywhere special. As you leave one of America’s poorest cities, drive-throughs and sprawl give way to run-down ranch homes and scrubland. Eventually, the landscape empties—flat, green, unremarkable. Maybe the only notable thing about the drive east on State Highway 4 is the border-patrol checkpoint, a reminder that the two-lane road runs parallel to the U.S.–Mexico border. But then a collection of boxes and cylinders appears on the horizon.

As you get closer, the geometric shapes fill with detail: pitch-roofed hangars, a 20-story rectangular structure, satellite dishes, giant cone-shaped hunks of shiny metal, smaller buildings, trailers, shipping containers. The temporary structures suggest rapid expansion, and the site is a hive of activity, with security guards, construction workers, and other official-looking men at work. The accumulated effect suggests a Bond villain’s lair—and Ian Fleming could certainly have dreamed up the eccentric billionaire behind it all.

Elon Musk is the maverick entrepreneur, who, depending on Tesla’s stock price when you read this, may or may not be the world’s richest person. While other high-profile Silicon Valley whizzes have made their fortune reconfiguring how we communicate with one another online, Musk is more interested in the physical world. Ever since PayPal, the online payment system that he helped build, was sold to eBay in 2002, he has focused on revolutionary real-world technology: solar panels, electric cars and the batteries that power them, hyper-loops, and space travel.

That last interest—better described as an obsession—is what led Musk to found SpaceX, his rocketry and space-travel company, almost 20 years ago, and it explains the activity on this dribble of land at Texas’s southernmost tip. Musk has his sights set on Mars, and that ambition is already having an impact closer to home, promising to transform the fortunes of this neglected corner of the state. What happens in Boca Chica will go some way to predicting what the future holds for all of us: Are we stuck in a period of technological and economic stagnation, as some suggest, or are we about to make astonishing new breakthroughs?

A few years ago, Boca Chica was a forgettable little village at the point where the United States, Mexico, and the ocean all meet: several dozen modest holiday homes without water mains on an otherwise unspoiled strip of barrier beach a few miles north of the mouth of the Rio Grande. Today, it has the attention of everyone with the faintest interest in space travel. With the exception of a few stubborn holdouts, almost all the homeowners have been bought out. The village is now home to the world’s only private spaceport and the most ambitious project of maybe the most ambitious private company on the planet.

If Musk’s ambitions are realized, Boca Chica won’t be an unknown beach spot outside Brownsville for much longer—it’ll be the gateway to Mars, the link between this planet and its most habitable neighbor. Musk sees that link as the only way to ensure the long-term survival of mankind. These are heady goals. For now, Boca Chica remains a test site, where SpaceX builds, launches, and tries to land prototypes of its Starship—the vessel that the company hopes will transport people to the moon and to Mars and that could get you from New York to Shanghai in 40 minutes.

When I visited, Starship SN8 (the eighth prototype) glistened in the Texas sun on a launchpad a few hundred yards from the ocean. The 160-foot rocket has the simple silhouette that you might expect from a child’s drawing of a spaceship. The patchwork of stainless steel looks too flimsy to be shot skyward. And yet, a few weeks after my visit, SN8 propelled nearly eight miles into the sky before performing a first-of-its-kind midair flip—which SpaceX calls the “bellyflop”—and attempting a return to the launch site. Everything worked, except for the landing. SN8 came in too quickly and exploded in a giant ball of flames. It was a success of sorts, according to Musk. “Mars, here we come!” he tweeted that evening. Two months and another big explosion later, SN10 succeeded where its predecessors had failed, landing back in Boca Chica—before going up in flames moments later.

Whether or not SpaceX ever reaches Mars, this quiet corner of South Texas is a place where space exploration technology is taking big, loud, expensive leaps forward. Locally, though, there’s a more prosaic question: What does the presence of a centi-billionaire with a dream to put a man on Mars mean for one of America’s poorest communities?

It’s hard to find statistics that flatter Brownsville. In the zip code that includes SpaceX’s launch site, 36 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line, compared with 10.5 percent nationally. Median household income is $30,100, half the national figure. Forty-three percent of residents have no high school diploma. The small proportion of residents who do graduate college have little reason to stay in the region.

Brownsville has always been at the periphery, appearing as a footnote in American history. The area saw the first engagement of the Mexican–American War (the Battle of Palo Alto, 1846) and the last of the Civil War—the Battle of Palmito Ranch, 1865, which took place more than a month after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Today, Brownsville is largely defined by its proximity to the border. The overwhelming majority of locals are Mexican-American, and Spanish is the lingua franca. Downtown Brownsville could hardly be described as a thriving hub. Before SpaceX, the city rarely made headlines, and when it did, it was for the wrong reasons.

The deepwater Port of Brownsville (“the port that works”) serves the offshore oil and gas industry. Nearby South Padre Island, a kitschy beach town, offers some tourism business. Signs of any recent economic progress in Brownsville are modest. “An Olive Garden opened up a few years ago,” said one local, when I asked about change in the area’s fortunes.

“Those bullish about a SpaceX-led tourism boom point to Cape Canaveral, where an unmanned launch attracts 40,000 visitors.”

Early signs suggest, however, that SpaceX is making an impact. The company says that it employs 3,000 people at the South Texas site. Inevitably, given the specialized nature of the work, only some of those hires are local. But the company website lists more than 100 job vacancies there, from avionics engineers and launchpad technicians to drivers and baristas. Hotels in South Padre, a few miles to the north, now do a steady trade in space tourism, with SpaceX devotees armed with long-lens cameras crowding balconies on launch days. Those bullish about a SpaceX-led tourism boom point to Cape Canaveral, where an unmanned launch attracts 40,000 visitors, on average.

Local leaders hope that SpaceX will inaugurate a space-industry cluster. The goal is to become America’s third space city, after Houston and Cape Canaveral, and perhaps one day overtake them in importance. Josh Mejia, the executive director of the Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation, says that the area is “primed for growth,” with plenty of new land ready for development, opportunity zones, and the recent arrival of new housing and light manufacturing. (Musk recently announced plans to donate $20 million to the area’s schools and $10 million to downtown revitalization in Brownsville.)

“I still think we are in the early stages of attracting the larger businesses in the space industry,” says Mejia, who points to the presence of United Launch Alliance, a SpaceX competitor, in neighboring Harlingen as a sign of space-related activity. Other green shoots include the arrival of a fintech firm that offers crowdfunding for space ventures. SpaceX has teamed up with the astrophysics department at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, while Expanding Frontiers, a nonprofit startup accelerator, was recently established to help local entrepreneurs capitalize on SpaceX’s presence.

For now, however, many of these opportunities remain unrealized. It has been seven years since SpaceX broke ground on the Boca Chica site, but for a while, little happened. Only in the last few years have some breakthroughs put Brownsville on the map. The successful launch and, crucially, landing of the space hopper—a soda-can-shaped precursor to the current Starship prototypes—in August 2019 was an important milestone. The following month, to much fanfare, Musk unveiled the first starship rocket prototype.

The company is ramping up operations, with as many as half a dozen prototypes under construction at any one time and more frequent rocket launches. The firm recently bought two former oil rigs, which it will convert into offshore launchpads in Brownsville’s port. It plans to drill for natural gas next door to the Boca Chica launchpad to create its own supply of rocket fuel and power. Its launch site is expanding rapidly, and the company has listed a vacancy for a “resort development manager” to help turn Boca Chica into a “21st-century spaceport” and develop “SpaceX’s first resort from inception to development.” As SpaceX achieves breakthroughs at its Boca Chica site, it’s hard to see how the effects won’t be felt in the local economy. “However you look at it,” says Mejia, “10, 15, or 20 years from now, it seems that Brownsville is poised to be the capital of private space exploration.”

Still, there’s risk in a hard-up community pinning its hopes on the far-fetched work of Musk and his engineers in South Texas. Musk’s public persona doesn’t help. Worshiped as a real-world Tony Stark by diehard fans, he nevertheless inserts himself into some of the more dubious elements of Internet culture: smoking pot with podcaster Joe Rogan, cheering the Reddit day traders during the recent GameStop stock surge, naming his child with pop-star girlfriend Grimes “X Æ A-Xii.” His social media accounts suggest a trollish, even unserious, man.

But all that is a distraction from his track record of technologically brilliant, socially useful, innovation. Tesla, his biggest success, is the world’s most valuable car company, a distinction earned largely by its unsurpassed battery technology. SpaceX, meanwhile, is a lot more than a plutocrat’s plaything. Last year, Morgan Stanley doubled its expected valuation of the firm to $100 billion. SpaceX’s Starship testing in South Texas is only the most speculative of a range of activities. Engineers in Boca Chica burn through cash by blowing up expensive prototypes; elsewhere, the firm benefits from the advantage that it has developed in rocketry. Its Falcon rockets can deliver a bigger payload more cheaply than any of its competitors, making SpaceX the go-to firm for government, military, and private-sector launches. Last year, the company completed a record 26 missions, including two that sent astronauts to the International Space Station in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, the first U.S. orbital-crewed missions since NASA stopped its space-shuttle program in 2011. The company plans to complete the first all-civilian voyage to space by the end of this year. In other words, SpaceX has a steady revenue source, and it plans to use that money to maintain its lead on the rest of the field.

Starlink, the company’s satellite network, which it hopes will offer global high-speed Internet, has shown promising early results. More than 1,200 broadband satellites have already gone into operation, and its beta version is providing connectivity for thousands of users. If successful, global satellite broadband would be transformative, both for parts of the world out of reach of reliable high-speed Internet—and for the profitability of SpaceX.

Before SpaceX, Brownsville rarely made headlines. (IAN DAGNALL/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)

SpaceX came to South Texas because it wanted to control a launch site of its own rather than depending on NASA or the U.S. military, allowing for more test flights and fewer logistical delays. Incentives worth $15.3 million from the state may have sweetened the deal, but the geography was a bigger draw: Boca Chica is sparsely populated and very near the ocean; flying rockets is much less complicated over water than over land. Crucially, the site is also about as far south as one can go in the continental United States. The closer to the equator you get, the easier it is for a rocket to escape orbit. From SpaceX’s launchpad, the Starship will be able to head out of the Gulf and through the gap between Mexico and Cuba. The Texas legislature also helped clear the way for the move—convincing SpaceX of the merits of Brownsville over rival bids from Florida and Puerto Rico—by amending noise ordinances and public-beach access rules that would have made the company’s work impossible.

Consultant Gilberto Salinas, part of the team that helped bring SpaceX to Brownsville, told me that Texas’s business-friendly ethos was crucial. “We’ve still got that pioneer spirit,” he says. “When it comes to doing business in Texas, policymakers are always very supportive.” Around the same time that SpaceX broke ground on the Boca Chica site, then–Texas governor Rick Perry was touring California, touting the comparative advantages of his income-tax-free state over its high-tax, Democratic-run West Coast rival. “Governor Perry was instrumental,” says Salinas. “And Governor [Greg] Abbott is still very supportive.”

Migration from California to Texas has entered warp speed in the last year or so because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Austin, the state capital, topped the list of cities that Americans moved to in 2020. According to census data, 687,000 Californians moved to the Lone Star State in the decade before the pandemic. Some of the most storied names in California tech, including Oracle and Hewlett-Packard Enterprises, have also moved their headquarters to Texas. Commenting on what he called the “tidal wave” of businesses heading to Texas, Abbott said, “Cost of business means a lot. No income tax means a lot, but also the freedom to operate without the heavy hand of regulation means a lot.”

Perhaps the most high-profile California transplant? Elon Musk, who announced his move late last year. Tesla and SpaceX remain headquartered in the Golden State, but, as Musk recently explained to the Wall Street Journal, “the two biggest things I’ve got going on right now are the starship development in South Texas . . . and a big new factory called GigaTexas near Austin.” Still under construction, GigaTexas will be a 5-million-square-foot factory where 5,000 employees will build Tesla’s new Gigatruck.

Not that Musk has given up on California altogether: Tesla and SpaceX, Musk has observed, are among the last car and aerospace companies still manufacturing in the state. “There used to be over a dozen car plants in California,” he said, adding that the state was once the center of aerospace manufacturing, too. “There are a lot of things that are really great about California,” he said. “But there is something that happens when, to use a sports team analogy, a team has been winning for too long. They do tend to get a little complacent, a little entitled. California has been winning for a long time, and I think they take that for granted.” More recently, Musk predicted that Austin would be “the biggest boomtown that America has seen in 50 years.”

Texas’s pull factors are nothing new. It has had lower taxes, fewer rules, cheaper housing, and other enticements for quite some time. What has changed is a progressive creep in Californian policymaking that treats free enterprise with ever more suspicion and, for all the West Coast’s supposed emphasis on open-mindedness, fosters an increasingly intolerant intellectual and cultural climate. So-crazy-it-might-just-work types like Musk don’t fare well in that kind of environment.

But the California-versus-Texas debate is about more than two competing regulatory regimes. It goes to the heart of the kind of future that America will build for itself. The work at the SpaceX site in Boca Chica, where massive, noisy, gas-guzzling rockets are blasted into the sky with abandon, is exactly the sort of activity that one suspects that California government would want to obstruct. It’s emblematic of the limitlessly ambitious, genuinely transformative, form of innovation that these days feels a lot more Texan than Californian.

In The Decadent Society, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat ties the concept behind his book’s title—a kind of cultural, economic, and political stagnation that, he argues, has plagued America for a generation—to a lack of extraterrestrial ambition. “Across human history, the most dynamic and creative societies have been almost inevitably expansionary,” he writes. Where space once inspired awe, most Americans have, for decades, been decidedly indifferent toward the final frontier. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the end of the space age has coincided with turning inward in the developed world, a crisis of confidence and a loss of faith in institutions, a shift toward therapeutic philosophies and technologies of simulation, an abandonment of both ideological ambition and religious hope.

Could the progress being made by SpaceX, as well as the renewed interest in space travel more generally, be a sign that this is about to change? Early on in the pandemic, Marc Andreessen, a prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist, issued a call to arms called “It’s Time to Build.” He lamented a “smug complacency” and “satisfaction with the status quo” visible “throughout Western life, and specifically throughout American life.” The main obstacle to a big leap forward, argued Andreessen, is lack of desire. “We need to want these things. The problem is inertia. We need to want these things more than we want to prevent these things. . . . We need to want new companies to build these things, even if incumbents don’t like it, even if only to force the incumbents to build these things.” On the political right, Andreessen argued, “it’s time for full-throated, unapologetic, uncompromised political support” for “aggressive investment in new products, in new industries, in new factories, in new science, in big leaps forward.”

Could it be that the 2010s were an underwhelming prelude to a roaring 2020s, built on real-world technological innovation? Head-scratching about sluggish productivity growth and meager scientific progress would soon be forgotten after discoveries in transportation, energy, biotech, and AI that some see on the horizon—tangible, real-world transformations that make a far larger impact on our lives than Facebook, Uber, or Airbnb ever could. (See “The New Productivity Revolution.”)

Peter Thiel, a tech maverick like Musk, famously once complained that “we wanted flying cars; instead we got 140 characters.” But late in 2020, he told Forbes that Covid-19 was a “giant watershed moment” and that the pandemic year should be thought of as “the first year of the 21st century. This is the year in which the new economy is actually replacing the old economy.”

If Thiel is right and an era of dynamism is just around the corner, men like Musk and companies like SpaceX will likely be at the heart of it. And, just as important, places like Brownsville, Texas—unlikely corners of the country with less to lose than Silicon Valley—could be the sites of a technological and industrial revolution.

Top Photo: Spectators await a Starship rocket launch. (LOREN ELLIOTT/GETTY IMAGES)

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