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Opinion | What Living in a SpaceX Company Town Tells Us About Elon Musk

Just after 7 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 18, as the sun was rising in the Gulf of Mexico, Noel Rangel, a 26-year-old native of Brownsville, Texas, was brought unwillingly into wakefulness by an uninvited sensation: The richest man in the world was shaking him. Or rather, his entire apartment. His bed was rumbling, his windows rattling. “I could hear the glass,” he said. He was confused. He woke as if Elon Musk himself had grabbed him by the shoulders.

Americans as a whole have become more familiar with the tax that powerful and erratic figures levy on people’s emotional and mental well-being. Though many very rich men fantasize about disconnecting from other humans — to go to space, or, in the case of the tech billionaire Peter Thiel, to create artificial cities in international waters — they are more desperate for social validation, not less. They need to inspire love or fear or awe.

Many people suspect that Donald Trump — though he denies it — ran for president in part because he was tired of being mocked so often. Jeff Bezos spent $42 million to build a mechanical clock under a West Texas mountain that is intended to last 10,000 years. Mr. Musk spent $44 billion of mostly other people’s money to buy Twitter, rebrand it as X and guarantee that he could continue to irritate people on a global scale.

For Mr. Rangel, what was figurative for others had become literal: When a tycoon stomps, the earth shakes. Mr. Musk’s company SpaceX had launched a new iteration of its Starship rocket about 25 miles away. That one didn’t blow up over his city as previous launches had. But Mr. Rangel still couldn’t go back to sleep. Across social media, some residents shared his irritation at being roused by a launch they did not realize was coming.

Their irritation was perhaps surprising. Brownsville has become something of a company town for SpaceX, its largest private employer, and the most high-profile firm in the commercial space industry right now. Its more than 13,000 employees build rockets, launch NASA astronauts on their journeys to the International Space Station, provide broadband internet via satellite and are working toward an ambitious goal to send people to Mars one day.

Murals glorifying the company dot Brownsville’s downtown, which has been spruced up with donations from Mr. Musk. Businesses have reoriented to serve space tourists who flock from all over the world to see his rockets up close. To some, Mr. Musk has given Brownsville, a particularly poor city of about 200,000 in a neglected part of Texas, a reason for being, a future. To others, he’s a colonizer, flirting with white nationalists online while exploiting a predominantly brown work force in one of Texas’ fringes.

Those debates have been reported in dozens of articles about Brownsville in the last decade. I suspect the real reason journalists keep coming to the city is that it serves as a stand-in for debates about America’s increasingly plutocrat-based economy and culture. NASA’s decades-long solar research program is called Living With a Star, signifying respect for a neighbor that is all-powerful and unaccountable. Brownsville is accruing data for a project that you might call Living With Elon.

A community organizer in the city who opposes SpaceX’s intrusion into Brownsville, Bekah Hinojosa, told me at length about the material concerns she had — pollution, the cost of living, the fragile environment around the company’s launchpad. But Ms. Hinojosa’s core complaint was that her native city didn’t feel like it belonged to her anymore, and that it felt as though public officials were changing the city to become a center for space tourism. It was a kind of psychological burden. “It’s exhausting,” she said. “We are constantly being bombarded by Elon Musk and SpaceX news down here.” There was the ever-present threat that “Elon might show up to charro days, or sombrero fest,” she said, referring to some of the local festivals. Most of all, she wished simply to stop having to think about him so much.

In that sense, we’re all living in Brownsville now.

I live about 300 miles from Brownsville, in Austin, Texas, where Mr. Musk moved in 2020. His presence here is felt very strongly: Residents whisper about his social life, and his companies’ health affects the real estate market. In 2022, he bought the website formerly known as Twitter, where I am still, as a journalist, effectively required to spend a good portion of my time online. Mr. Musk’s presence made both places worse, a little cheaper, a little phonier. His promises always seemed to fall flat, both the trivial (he vowed to eradicate bots, but now X is filled with automated porn) and the consequential (he vowed to make his Tesla factory in Austin an “ecological paradise” but is now fighting to exempt it from environmental regulations).

Around that time, I started to consider how much of my adult life had been intimately shaped by billionaires and the otherwise very wealthy. The answer, I realized, was all of it. For a decade I’ve written about Texas politics, which is almost all reducible to fights between plutocrats belonging to different factions. I was a stenographer recording the symptoms of feuds between powerful men I’d never meet. National politics was not much different. At some point, it became more important to follow Thiel and Robert Mercer than the speaker of the House. Billionaires ran the new media (Mr. Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin and Larry Page) and the old (Rupert Murdoch, the Sinclair family). My childhood newspaper, The Austin American-Statesman, was gutted by the mismanagement of the Cox family, descendants of old-school media barons, and then sold to hedge-fund vultures. The chaos they created was inseparable from the chaos I was writing about in politics.

For all their wealth and power, these figures generally seem maladjusted, unhappy and insecure. Maybe that is to be expected. In 2012, social scientists found that those driving more valuable cars were less likely to stop for pedestrians at a crosswalk. If that’s what a slightly nicer whip does to the human brain, what does ten thousand million dollars do? What strange ideas might you develop about yourself? Would you feel bound by conventional morality? Would anyone around you seem real?

Mr. Musk seems even more disconnected to the bonds that tie the rest of us. He has talked often of his suspicion that the world around us is a computer simulation, which seems less of a philosophical inquiry than an explanation of how far he feels from human connection. When one of his children came out as trans and it was reported that she no longer talked to her father, he said, “Can’t win them all.” He has reportedly discouraged workers at his injury-prone factories from wearing brightly colored safety vests because he thinks them aesthetically displeasing.

He rages against the haters, the doubters, the clods who don’t understand his brilliance. But his complaints prove that he needs admiration more than anything. I was an admirer once: He built electric cars and rocket ships, what wasn’t to like? But while he retains a devoted fan base, it doesn’t seem to be enough. He seems most alive on his social media website, a place where everyone seems a little bit sad.

In Brownsville, though, Mr. Musk has in the real world what he can’t quite grasp online — a captive audience, and people who need him, both for the material benefits he provides and the vision he offers to the town. Though he has detractors too, they’re greatly outnumbered by those who feel positively about the company. In elections, there’s no real anti-SpaceX faction: The powers that be are generally quite hostile to those who, like the organizer Ms. Hinojosa, speak up.

One of Brownsville’s strongest believers in the Musk project is Jessica Tetreau, a former city commissioner who was at City Hall the day the company’s representatives first came to town in 2011. Ms. Tetreau had a “very hard childhood” in Brownsville in the 1980s and ’90s, she said, when it was a place with “very limited opportunities.” When she was 2, her father was laid off when a Union Carbide chemical plant closed. For the rest of her childhood, she says, he had to travel regularly to Texas City to work at another Union Carbide plant.

When SpaceX first pitched Brownsville on building the launch site, Ms. Tetreau said, most city officials didn’t seem to get it. They joked off-mic about which locals they’d most like to send into orbit. But she lit up, immediately understanding that this was a big deal, that Brownsville could be part of something that would save humanity by paving man’s road to the stars. Ms. Tetreau went all in. She bought her first Tesla in 2015. She bought her children Tesla Cybertruck toys to play with and SpaceX blankets to cover themselves with at night.

She recounts the material benefits of SpaceX. Her constituents got good-paying jobs — a welding position currently advertised at the Brownsville facility starts at $18 per hour — in a region where the ship breaking industry was previously a primary source of employment. Two years ago, the city’s mayor told reporters SpaceX employed 1,600 people, and its presence netted $885 million in gross economic output for the county. Brownsville public school students got to broaden their horizons in programs held at the SpaceX production facility. In 2021, Mr. Musk pledged $30 million to local schools and a downtown Brownsville rejuvenation program — a substantial sum that amounts to about 0.01 percent of his current net worth.

But no less a boon was the fact that Brownsville could wrap itself in Mr. Musk’s expansive, and spiritual, vision for the company: its mission to, as Ms. Tetreau says, “preserve humanity and extend consciousness” with human settlement of the solar system. If the city once lacked hope for a better future, it could now consider itself part of the grand progression of human civilization.

Protective of the dream, Ms. Tetreau responds stiffly to criticism of Mr. Musk. I ask her about a Reuters report that Brownsville SpaceX workers are being injured at a rate six times that of the industry average, in part because Mr. Musk discourages the traditional safety practices (which he reportedly finds inefficient). She responds that she “never heard of anybody getting hurt.” She says that in person, Mr. Musk is “actually very genuine and kind and a humble person.” She asks SpaceX’s critics in Brownsville to remember that he just may be saving the human race.

Though I never felt as strongly in Mr. Musk’s promise as Ms. Tetreau did, I think I understand it. In a way, I envy it, in the same way I envy friends who have a strong and sincere religious belief. In writing about politics, I am struck forcefully again and again by the desire most people have to be part of a grand story, an exciting narrative that gives meaning to their lives. We live in an age of declining religious belief and existential unrest. Mr. Musk is offering the public a chance to be part of his grand narrative. It’s a kindness.

Just like actual religious belief, Musk fandom has the tendency to cloud people’s minds. The belief he provides in “the future” comes at a cost. Where some amount of natural beauty in utilitarian Texas has been preserved to the present day, it is often simply because the land is not useful.

Boca Chica, the little beach and wilderness area east of Brownsville where SpaceX launches rockets, wasn’t useful to anybody until the company came around. The flat scrubland and low dunes around Starbase, the somewhat grandiose name the company has given its industrial processing facility and chemical tank farms, aren’t much to look at. The area’s main virtue is that it is physically isolated from human populations — inaccessible to tourist beach towns to the north because of the Brownsville Ship Channel, cut off from the south by the Rio Grande and the Mexican border, and half an hour’s drive to Brownsville, the largest nearby city.

But this isolation made it a special place. Sea turtles left eggs along the beach. Dolphins shelter in the Laguna Madre, north of the launch site. Wildcats like ocelots roam the land; the last confirmed local sighting of a jaguarundi occurred nearby in 1986, and they may still be there. Most of all, the area is one of the best places for birding in the United States. The wetlands and sheltered beaches provide a perfect stopover for sea birds and migratory birds, some of whom rely on Boca Chica Beach to breed.

In 2021, I tagged along with Stephanie Bilodeau, a biologist whose job it was to count local bird populations at Boca Chica — particularly the snowy plover, a comically small shorebird that lays eggs the size of Ping-Pong balls in the Boca Chica underbrush. Snowy plover populations have been in decline. Another type of bird that rested in the area, the biologist explained, migrated annually from the Arctic Circle to the Antarctic Circle and back — navigating with methods no scientist had yet been able to figure out. This was a much more impressive accomplishment than anything Neil Armstrong had done, I remember thinking, never having paid much attention to birds before.

We sat in the rain near the launchpad’s parking area, filled with Teslas. The nests the biologist counted were in steep decline. The beach nearby was dotted with chunks of steel, left from a recent catastrophic launch attempt that ended in what the company calls a “rapid unscheduled disassembly.” Other failed launches and the normal operations of the facility may have dumped rocket fuel and industrial wastewater over the nearby wildlife refuge. I told Ms. Bilodeau that Mr. Musk had recently spoken about the possibility of bringing endangered species to Mars, letting them live on even if they went extinct at home. Did that seem feasible? “Probably not,” she said, looking defeated. I felt grateful for the work she did, and a bit sorry for her. She was like a village priest who keeps tidying the church as the years go by and the congregation thins.

Mr. Musk has also seemed more defeated than usual lately, though it’s hard to say why. Partly, at least, it’s his mystification at the criticism he has received. “I’ve done more for the environment than any single human on earth,” he mopily told the New York Times journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin onstage at a DealBook conference in November. He had done capital-g Good, while his critics — in this case, those who were looking uneasily at his repeated affirmations of white nationalists and antisemites on the social media website he owned — only pretended to be good. (This was the interview in which Mr. Musk used a crude insult toward advertisers who pulled out of X because of his endorsement of antisemitic posts.)

Mr. Sorkin noted, in so many words, that Mr. Musk seemed sad, his mind stormy, that he seemed to be reaching for something he couldn’t grasp. In extended digressions that approximated a talk therapy session, Mr. Musk turned unprompted to SpaceX and seemed to suggest that it was a balm for the lack of meaning he perceived in the universe. “My motivation, then, was that well, my life is finite, really a flash in the pan, on a galactic time scale, but if we can expand the scope and scale of consciousness … maybe we can find out the meaning of life,” he said. As an example of the excitement we might find Out There, he asked: “Where are the aliens? Are there aliens? Is there new physics to discover?”

SpaceX hoped to present to other humans struggling with the big questions “the idea of us being a spacefaring civilization.” That’s the language Ms. Tetreau and so many others in Brownsville and elsewhere have picked up on: the idea that by “making humanity multiplanetary” by facilitating human settlement of Mars and beyond and by protecting sentience in case humans one day die off here, the “light of consciousness” will be preserved or extended.

It’s language that sounds as if it might come from an Eastern religion — taking the Dao to Pluto — or New Age syncretists. Mr. Musk has self-interested reasons to make this case, of course. If SpaceX has a spiritual mission, then he is a spiritual leader, all the better to receive the approval he seems to crave. In 2021, he argued that he shouldn’t pay higher taxes because it would interfere with his mission to “preserve the light of consciousness.”

But he clearly also believes it. And Mr. Musk is properly understood as a kind of spiritual leader. There’s something of a dividing line among SpaceX fans between engineer types who think the rockets are cool, and those who accept Mr. Musk’s premise that the company is saving the human race. He offers community. He offers hope.

Will any of it happen? It seems doubtful. SpaceX’s Starship has reached orbit. But regular safe transport to the Red Planet is a fabulously difficult proposition, the kind of project that could only be undertaken by sovereign governments. Once the light of consciousness does touch down there, what does it do? Mars may have water and other potential resources, but on top of its profound hostility to human life, the planet looks like the most charmless corner of the American Southwest, without the saving grace of being able to grab a Cherry Coke slushie from a nearby filling station.

In truth, it doesn’t really matter whether Mr. Musk’s most ambitious dreams become reality. (Except to NASA, which is counting on a perfected Starship to ferry its astronauts to the moon in 2026.) We’ve been conditioned by a century of media and storytelling to believe that the next great adventure is waiting for us in space — the frontier extended. We’ll solve our problems out there, unburdened by Earth’s gravity and the weight of thousands of years of history. We’ll make friends, we’ll learn about ourselves, we’ll get wiser and better. And if we can’t quite get there yet, we’ll eagerly wait for the day when we can.

It’s worth noting, though, that astronauts who have experienced revelatory change in space are struck not by how much is up there but by how little. The emotional impact of seeing Earth from a distance is called the “overview effect,” and while everyone experiences it differently, it often manifests as a kind of sorrow and loneliness mitigated by a feeling of community and solidarity with all that remains on Earth.

In July 2021, Jeff Bezos, a different billionaire with a private space program in a different part of Texas, experienced weightlessness, briefly, after being launched by a Blue Origin rocket. A few months later, the company launched William Shatner, the progenitor, as Captain Kirk, of several generations of adolescent space fantasies. When he landed, while Mr. Bezos grinned nearby at the success of his latest toy, Mr. Shatner wept. He was struck not by how much was “up there” but how little. “Everything I had thought was wrong,” Mr. Shatner wrote later. “The contrast between the vicious coldness of space and the warm nurturing of Earth below filled me with overwhelming sadness.” He suddenly understood how fragile the home planet was, and he knew it was all we had.

If Mr. Bezos had a flash of the same insight, he didn’t show it. It must be fun to have a toy box like that — with spaceships, cities on the sea, yachts and submarines. But it comes at the cost of sight. Having stretched out their arms for glory, men like Mr. Musk can’t see that their real legacy may be, when the final accounting comes, the price others paid for them. In Brownsville, for each beneficiary of the largess, there are costs: residents displaced, workers injured, endangered animals harmed, a community disrupted.

That’s true everywhere Mr. Musk goes. Our consolation is that we can see right through him and the others. They seem to be no happier. Their preoccupations make them appear strangely small, sometimes even pitiable. Thiel, Mr. Musk’s former business partner, has spent decades and millions of dollars trying to prevent his own death. No poor man could be so foolish.

We have all been given the light of consciousness, to nurture and protect. But for all his abilities, for all his assets, Mr. Musk is stuck looking for redemption in a place that doesn’t hold it. The meaning of life isn’t on Mars, but in Brownsville. The only meaning available to us is in one another: love and friendship, truth and beauty where it can be found, the snowy plover and Noel Rangel in his bed.

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