Brownsville, Texas

Just a few miles from the sand dunes Elon Musk now calls home, a whirling festival of lights is emerging beneath the full moon. Teenagers sing Mexican folk tunes and dance in folklorico dresses, all under palm trees bearing piñatas shaped like stars.

The cosmos has been on the minds of many in the Rio Grande Valley lately. In fact, it’s been difficult for people to focus on anything but space since the world’s richest man arrived two years ago, promising his interstellar dreams could be a rocket ship to prosperity for his neighbors too.

Musk chose to base his SpaceX South Texas Launch Site here in 2014, with plans to launch its rockets to Mars from nearby Boca Chica beach — although mounting regulatory pressure could move its Starship launches to Kennedy Space Center in Florida instead. 

Either way, the spaceport Musk calls “Starbase” is likely to remain as a key research and development site. It would be a major investment anywhere, but it’s an especially dramatic one in South Texas, a remote, mostly Hispanic region, without other high-tech industries or top-tier universities. Its largest population centers regularly rank among the poorest U.S. cities.

“It would change what it means to be from Brownsville,” one local astrophysics professor said, before Musk chose the launch site.

Musk’s arrival has reverberated through the lives of residents: The principal and the school superintendent, working to create an education pipeline to the opportunities the billionaire has promised. The astrophysics Ph.D. student who stayed close to home, wondering if faith in space could keep others believing in the Valley, too.

Each of them is asking some version of the same two questions. 

What, really, will change? And at what cost?

The SpaceX South Texas Launch Site at Boca Chica Beach. Photo: Nick Fouriezos

The Rio Grande Valley has become Musk’s ticket to reaching Mars. It wasn’t just that SpaceX received a decade-long county tax break — and more than $15 million in state and local economic incentives. Nor simply that Musk had history in Texas, having purchased the company’s first test site in McGregor in 2003, shortly after founding SpaceX.

The location is attractive to Musk in other ways, too. It is ideal geographically: close to the equator, shortening the distance to orbit, and with a gulf to its east, so rockets can ride the earth’s rotation without endangering more populated regions. Socioeconomically, the region offers lower costs, lower wages, a ready manufacturing base, and a clear supply chain to Mexico.

The billionaire is so bullish on the Valley’s potential that he sold his seven houses and most of his physical belongings to spend much of his time in a tiny house on Boca Chica, which locals have long called “the poor people’s beach.”

In the Rio Grande Valley, fewer than 1 in 5 of those 25 or older have a bachelor’s degree, compared with about 1 in 3 nationwide.

Within months of Musk’s arrival, Brownsville educators and students started feeling SpaceX’s presence — and not just in the series of launches that shook their homes from miles away.

Officials said the Boca Chica site would bring $100 million in investment and 600 direct jobs, plus hundreds of indirect ones. Those jobs represent new education pathways for Brownsville schools Superintendent Rene Gutierrez. In his Valley district, more than 9 of 10 students qualify for the federal free lunch program. Many of their parents never finished high school. In the Rio Grande Valley, fewer than 1 in 5 of those 25 or older have a bachelor’s degree, compared with about 1 in 3 nationwide.

Gutierrez was even more optimistic, after Musk tweeted last March: “Am donating $20M to Cameron County schools & $10M to City of Brownsville for downtown revitalization. Details to follow next week.”

Just a sliver of Musk’s net worth, now estimated at $222 billion, the donation was a rare relief after a pandemic that hamstrung budgets and exposed the city’s notoriously bad internet.

Within a month, the Musk Foundation approved a Brownsville wish list that included new STEM labs and equipment for studying rocket prototypes, robotics, solar energy hardware and more. While on a tour of the SpaceX facility at Boca Chica, Brownsville educators saw how much aluminum welding and KUKA robotics engineering played a role at the company — and immediately added funding for certifications in both areas to their proposal. 

“If I don’t see school buses coming in here all the time, then we will have failed to stay in contact with the community around us,” one engineer told the superintendent.

Gutierrez didn’t hesitate: “We’ll roll them in.”

Mary Solis, principal at Porter Early High School, says students in the Valley hope having a flagship company nearby will create better future jobs. Photo: Nick Fouriezos

The automotive shop at Porter Early College High School is eagerly awaiting a new $250,000 SpaceX-funded setup to train students to service electric vehicles — such as Teslas, another Musk company, of course. From a nearby classroom, student leaders listen to a recent Valley college grad now working with Google and other Fortune 500 companies. “He’s only 23 years old and making over $150,000,” a teacher tells the principal, Mary Solis, who gasps.

The sum seems unreal to Solis. In the Valley, many students feel like they only have four options, and three of them come with a gun: the military, law enforcement and Border Patrol. That is all they know, and all she and her classmates knew three decades earlier, when she chose the fourth route: working for the school district. 

But the Valley is changing rapidly, as rural areas are replaced by a wall of mini-cities forming along the Rio Grande. The careers are changing too. Advanced manufacturing: not just robotics engineers, but also the people who check for inconsistencies in the paint on the robots. Aerospace: not just rocket scientists, but also the welders who mold metal that might one day reach Mars.

All nine of Brownsville’s high schools are now designated Early College high schools, where students can get associate degrees or certifications at the same time they earn their high school diplomas. That’s helped with college-going but, still, only about a quarter of Brownsville students are enrolled in those programs.

In the Valley, many students feel like they only have four options for careers, and three of them come with a gun.

The pandemic has worsened things. Solis’ newest crop of seniors face even more pressure to skip college and start working immediately. She wonders if the pandemic has stolen their confidence in themselves — confidence like the type Musk showed, she says, when he found business success despite being bullied and struggling in school.

Her students hope having a flagship company for the region will create better future jobs. After initially picking a law enforcement track in 8th grade, Ezra Esquival changed to mechatronic engineering as a freshman — a “second chance,” he says, boosted with the rise of SpaceX. Soon, he expects to graduate from high school with a diploma, an industrial certification, an associate degree in engineering, and an aerospace minor. 

His peers express similar optimism. Many don’t share the litany of concerns they hear from older generations: that housing costs are rising, that SpaceX jobs may largely go to outsiders instead of locals, that its rockets will harm the ecologically rich region. 

The future isn’t so clear to Solis, who sometimes fears what is to come. But hearing the optimism of her students, she chuckles: “Obviously we drank the juice here at Brownsville.”

Trey Mendez, Brownsville’s mayor, at his newest downtown restaurant; “We’re trying to make Brownsville a destination city.” Photo: Nick Fouriezos

Not everyone has, though.

The city recently received public backlash after paying a California artist $20,000 of Musk Foundation money to paint a pepto-bismol pink “BTX” mural mimicking the “ATX” ad campaigns in gentrified Austin. 

Wherever you look, it seems as if Musk’s face is never far, staring out from paintings on battered buildings across town, says Bianca Castro, a state teachers union organizer.

Castro was a middle schooler when the Valley first pitched itself to SpaceX. She had an associate degree by 16 and was on the path to becoming a nuclear engineer — a direct product of the Valley’s push to get more students into science and engineering. 

She soon questioned her aspirations. Taking Mexican Studies at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Castro learned how much harm had been done to communities of color like hers, all in the name of “progress.” Science, once so promising, now felt like just another form of colonialism. 

Concerned locals describe SpaceX’s presence as “troubling,” “exploitative,” and “destructive.”

Now she is worried Musk and SpaceX are bringing her fears to life. Castro, and a number of other longtime Valley residents like her, are worried that SpaceX is exacerbating inequality throughout the region. Their concerns have led to protests and heated conversations in monthly Zoom calls hosted by the labor union La Unión del Pueblo Entero, where concerned locals describe SpaceX’s presence as “troubling,” “exploitative,” and “destructive.”

Still, the mayor says Brownsville is lucky to have a generational figure like Musk nearby.

“We’re trying to make Brownsville a destination city,” says Trey Mendez, who bought a Tesla last year. His biggest goal, the mayor adds, is to “ensure that there are local engineers and other individuals that meet the skillset SpaceX is looking for, so they don’t have to import people.”

Out in Boca Chica, SpaceX welcomes in student visitors, but few other outsiders, including journalists. Neither the company nor the Musk Foundation has responded to multiple requests for an interview or comment for this story. Meanwhile, Musk has started another mission launched by tweet: to create “the city of Starbase.”

Moises Castillo, an astrophysics Ph.D. student at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, is conflicted about whether SpaceX will be good for the region. Photo: Nick Fouriezos

Starbase. Where work never stops, its flood lights shining nightly for miles over the black mangroves and tidal flats. Where Musk has claimed residence and where movie-set trailers are rising, housing SpaceX employees to try to exceed the 201-person population needed to incorporate his new city.

Moises Castillo’s dad was one of the welders working long nights beneath those flood lights. He stopped after the pay dropped below $30 an hour — less than the $40 minimum he typically worked for. Castillo, an astrophysics Ph.D. student at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, is conflicted about whether SpaceX will be good for the region. 

SpaceX has given some kids hope they could find a career in aerospace without leaving home, says Castillo, a native of nearby Los Fresnos. However, Castillo hasn’t seen that hope rewarded yet: None of his STEM friends have gotten full-time SpaceX jobs. Two of his friends, a couple, interned at the company but are no longer there. Another briefly worked at SpaceX … as a barista.

The region’s research university has tried to capitalize on the Valley’s nascent space industry. It created the STARGATE program to develop new technologies for space exploration. The university even bought a 15,000 square foot lab space at Boca Chica, telling students they could one day study in the shadow of the SpaceX launch site. 

Many of those STARGATE students became disillusioned after the university rented out that research space to SpaceX instead. University officials say the drive to Boca Chica was a burden on its cash-strapped teachers and students. An entrepreneurship track to spur local businesses is starting soon, which program director Teviet Creighton says could help Valley residents and students get aerospace jobs.

The company is giving students real-world challenges, too, with SpaceX engineers and students coordinating on a senior thesis developing a more cost-efficient weather balloon release system. At least one of those students is now interning with the company, which has gone on a hiring spree now reaching more than 1,500 jobs, according to the mayor, more than doubling what officials hoped for years before. 

Immanuel Edinbarough, an engineering professor, told his student, Miguel Garcia, to show up with a resume at a SpaceX job fair at Boca Chica. Garcia listened, and the Valley native dropped out of college months later to take a robotics job making nearly six figures for SpaceX.

“I’m learning so much here. I’m putting to work all the things I learned while studying with you guys,” Garcia tells Edinbarough in a phone call.

“Come back and finish the program,” Edinbarough says. “You can start taking some courses, we’ve got some in the evening or morning. We will work with you.”

Edinbarough wants his students to finish school even if they already have good work. After all, no company lasts forever. Regulatory agencies have recently cast doubt on SpaceX’s assertions that its rocket to Mars would not harm the protected wildlife refuges nearby, spurring Musk’s comments about moving launches to Florida. 

The Federal Aviation Administration’s concerns could lead to a years-long environmental review, precious time Musk doesn’t feel like he has. Over Thanksgiving, he emailed employees saying that the company faced “genuine risk of bankruptcy” if it couldn’t achieve two Starship Heavy flights a week this year.

Despite Musk’s reassurances about sticking with the facility, even if only for R&D, SpaceX could abandon the Valley if it can’t reach its goals there. And while a dream job can be taken away in a moment, a degree cannot. 

“We don’t want them to be lost,” Edinbarough says.

Brownsville residents sing and dance beneath piñatas shaped like stars at a Las Posadas celebration. Photo: Nick Fouriezos

Something lost, something gained. Perhaps that’s the story of SpaceX in the Valley. Luxury one-bedroom apartments next to fading tiendas and zapaterías. Mornings in Mexican diners eating huevos rancheros on folding tables, nights in yuppie craft bars drinking $10 mezcal cocktails.

The full moon shines over it all. 

Over the bartender, leaving the Valley next week to study computer science in San Antonio. Over the homegrown engineer who applied to work at SpaceX, but now only visits to drop off his Uber riders, mostly employees from California. 

Over Solis and Guttierez, clapping along as the students of Brownsville sing at the school district’s annual tamalada. Over Castillo, the astrophysicist spending his nights at the university’s observatory, showing classmates the radio waves left by faraway dead stars.

And Musk, asking questions of his own. Facing fears of bankruptcy and mounting regulatory pressure that could upend the promises he’s made to the Valley. After all this, the dream of reaching Mars remains so far away. Somewhere along the dunes of the poor people’s beach, the moon shines over the world’s richest man, too.

This story was co-published by USA Today.

Open Campus national reporter covering the role of college in rural America.