Boca Chica, Texas is a small town that’s about as far from the noise of the modern world as you can get. Or it was. Until Elon Musk and SpaceX moved to town to build the launch pad to Mars.
On the southernmost tip of Texas, where the US and Mexican borders meet the sea, sits the tiny town of Boca Chica. Surrounded by nothing but wild open scrub land, eight miles of virgin beach and a rich array of wildlife, the twenty-something residents of Boca Chica live in peace and disconnection. Away from the noise of the modern World.
It was that peace and disconnection that Maria Pointer, AKA Boca Chica Maria, and her husband Ray sought when they made their plans to settle down and retire in Boca Chica. But dreams of a quiet retirement are to be thrown out the window when new neighbours SpaceX move into town, right outside their bedroom window.
In today’s episode of Passport, we take a very special look at one of the most important journeys we may ever take via a quiet town in the South of Texas. A town which has become the launch pad to new possibilities and discovery for the human race.
The launch pad to Mars.
MORE TO EXPLORE
- The official SpaceX Website
- The Planetary Institute
- Maria is still documenting SpaceX’s efforts over on her YouTube channel, Starship Boca Chica
- Vice TV’s documentary on SpaceX and South Texas, Vice Versa: Between Musk and Mars
- BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK
The “stars at night are big and bright” in Texas, and visitors can expect to see 2,000 of them in one of the single best stargazing spots in the country.
- MCDONALD OBSERVATORY
Search distant galaxies, watch stars explode, and gaze into black holes with the help of one of the world’s largest telescopes.
- SPACE CENTER HOUSTON
Get up close and personal with artifacts and decommissioned spacecraft from throughout the history of space exploration.
- SOUTH PADRE ISLAND
The prime location for catching all of SpaceX’s launches with accommodations for every taste and budget.
- ANAHUAC NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
The arrival of SpaceX may mean the best birding days in Boca Chica are past, but you can still find winged treasures at this wildlife refuge just east of Houston.
This week’s episode of Passport was written, produced, and edited by Billy Craigan-Toon.
Huge thanks to Maria Pointer and Dr Aileen Yingst for helping us make the show.
Our theme music is by Nick Turner with additional stuff by Pandicio del Toro, The Honeymooners, Promobox, the benign one ones, hint of mint, TMG, King Kerr, Enemy silk Den, Bubbles and Cleats Onion Pocket
The show is mixed and mastered by Julian Kwasneski.
Eliza Engel is our production assistant.
Stacey Book, Dominique Ferrari and Avi Glijansky are on a beach somewhere getting spacey. They also executive produce the show.
Which is hosted by myself and a man who thinks Mars is flat, Andrés Bartos.
See you in the next place!
EPISODE 24 – TRANSCRIPT
NEIL & ANDRÉS: Spaceman, I always wanted you to go into spaceman, bom chicka wow wow…
[PASSPORT MAIN TITLE]
ANDRÉS: A destination isn’t always a place.
NEIL: Sometimes it’s a new way of seeing things.
I’m Neil Innes
ANDRÉS: And I’m Andrés Bartos.
NEIL: From Frequency Machine, this is Passport.
ANDRÉS: Your ticket to everywhere.
[END MAIN TITLE]
ANDRÉS: Mars is a world of wonders, a cold, red, radioactive place. A place where you’ll find volcanoes the size of Arizona, sunsets that glow pale blue and vicious dust storms that often blanket the entire planet.
NEIL: And while a Perseverance Rover hurtles towards the Martian surface on a mission to collect samples, here at home on earth, more money, effort, and enthusiasm to one day establish a human presence on Mars is being dedicated than ever before.
With some estimates suggesting the first astronauts could arrive as early as 2024.
ANDRÉS: Meaning that Mars as a destination has become at once very close and incredibly far. Mars may still feel like a distant and alien place to most of us, but there are people who are experiencing this interplanetary migration in incredibly intimate and real ways.
NEIL: Elon Musk’s boundary pushing Space X has changed the game on what feels possible. But every giant leap starts with one small step and that small step is taking place somewhere completely unexpected.
ANDRÉS: Today, Billy Craigan-Toon is taking a very special look at one of the most important journeys we may ever take via a quiet town in the south of Texas. A town which has become the launch pad to new possibilities and discovery for the entire human race. The launchpad to Mars.
NEIL: But at what cost? This is the story of two incredible women documenting two very different planets.
But it’s so much more than that. Welcome to Passport.
NEIL: If you had the possibility and if you were completely unattached in all ways – relationship, family-wise – would you go to Mars?
ANDRÉS: Would I go to Mars? I mean, I would like to astrolly project myself to Mars, but I wouldn’t want to travel to Mars. What about you?
NEIL: Sometimes destinations are more than a place. I would totally go.
ANDRÉS: You would do the full,
NEIL: Yeah, I’ve thought about it for years and years and years.
NEIL: Because of the end of Close Encounters, where Richard Dreyfus gets on the spaceship.
ANDRÉS: I’d like to see it. I’d like to experience it.
ANDRÉS: I don’t like airports, man. Frigging Mars?
NEIL: It would be a very short airport.
NEIL: Would you do it Bill?
ANDRÉS: Yeah, would you do it, Billy?
BILLY: I got a real boring answer for that, but I would go after a whole bunch of people had already been.
ANDRÉS: That’s smart, that’s like the people that update their phone immediately rather than like, let’s see how let’s see how it goes this month.
BILLY: Exactly. But yeah, once they’ve got the city there and there’s loads of, you know, stupid high paying jobs for mining whatever mineral they’ve discovered out there, and you can return within a few years.
Yeah, I’d go.
NEIL & ANDRÉS: Yeah.
BILLY: And that might be doable in our, in my lifetime. I can’t speak for you two,
BILLY: I’m sorry, you don’t need to include that
ANDRÉS: So when we’re dead.
BILLY: But by the time that happens, likelihood I’m in my fifties, at least.
NEIL & ANDRÉS: Yeah.
BILLY: So I’m approaching the point where I can’t be just going off and mining.
BILLY: You guys will be in your sixties.
ANDRÉS: And judging by our lifestyle…
BILLY: So, it’s unrealistic.
ANDRÉS: I guess so. Maybe, maybe by that point, there will just be a chip you can install and you can just avatar yourself into somebody that’s there.
NEIL: Yeah, like Total Recall.
BILLY: Is that what that film’s about?
NEIL: It’s a Mars simulation.
ANDRÉS: Consider that a divorce. Is that what he says to –
NEIL: He shoots, he kills his wife.
ANDRÉS: Sharon Stone.
ANDRÉS: Yeah. Consider that the divorce – it’s a fantastic punctuation, your little machine. Oh man.
BILLY: I’ve definitely seen it but as a child, I just remember the three-titted woman.
ANDRÉS: Yes. Bad, bad breasts, like badly made.
BILLY: Like blew my 10-year-old mind to smithereens.
NEIL: From Paul Verhoeven. He’s the best.
ANDRÉS: From Paul Verhoeven to Elon Musk.
BILLY: We’re not going to Elon Musk or Mars just yet. Although where we are going sometimes feels like another planet. We’re off to South Texas to do some birdwatching.
MARIA: This area has some of the rarest bird sightings, and that’s why people come down there to the Boca Chica. To catch a glimpse of something that nobody else has ever caught a glimpse of. And someone said to me one day, a guy stopped in front of the house. He was wanting to take a picture of this rare bird that he said has never been photographed.
And I said, well then how do you know what it is? But he said, well, it’s been years. And it hadn’t been photographed in the United States and it was sitting on our fence. And I told him, I said, oh, I’m just floored with what I see every morning if I get up early enough. Well, anyway, with that being said, he asked me, what do you think about Space X?
MARIA: And he goes, well, you know, if Space X comes, that’s gonna stop because the rarest of birds don’t go anywhere around development or noise. And I thought, oh my God, this is all going to be lost. I just had no idea how the development of the space industry was going to change everything, how we travel, how we think of lower orbit, how we think of the two miles past the stratosphere, the ISS station, it’s going to change where the birds land, where the drug lords transport their drugs.
It’s going to get very tribal. It’s going to change everything, mankind.
BILLY: On the southernmost tip of Texas, where the U.S. and Mexican coastlines meet, sits a rugged landscape of dunes, grasslands and scrub called Boca Chica. A wildlife haven only reachable by a single stretch of road called Boca Chica Boulevard. A highway that gets more traffic from bull snakes than cars, and that terminates a stone’s throw away from an eight mile stretch of virgin beach, where sea turtles land to lay their eggs and local fishermen catch wild mackerel and small sharks.
Year on year, over 500 species of migratory birds pass through Boca Chica skies and shores. Across its vast open plane, an asian antelope with short hind legs called the Nilgai grazes on the grasslands. And if you’re lucky enough and keep schtum, you may even catch a glimpse of the super rare ocelot.
BILLY: It’s not just animals that reside here, though. There is a human population of about 20 something residents who mostly live in the tiny Boca Chica village, a place where you will find no shops, bars, or restaurants for miles around. It’s so off the grid in fact, that there aren’t even pipes for water, which they instead have to bring in by truck.
Desolate and primitive, but silent and idyllic. Disconnected from the noise of the modern world, the way some people like it. For Maria Pointer and husband Ray, a couple who lived hectic adventurous lives working on ships in the maritime, Boca Chica was the ideal place to retire. And they had the perfect retirement plan.
MARIA: I was sinking a lot of serious retirement cash into an Airbnb, a birding sanctuary destination location with bus tours. It was an easy do. It was so laid back. It was the perfect retirement project because it wasn’t something that had to be in high gear every day, but it was going to bring in a lot of cashflow.
BILLY: She had plenty of space in a wild and peaceful location where anyone could bird watch or simply escape the city. But unfortunately for Maria, she was about to discover that some new neighbors were inbound and that these new neighbors were surely going to cause a disruption.
[TV REPORTS: This is a pretty historic day here in the state of Texas. Space X broke ground ceremonially here near Boca Chica beach this morning. It’s a 50-acre site on which Space X will construct a vertical launch facility in launch control. Elon Musk says creating this commercial space port is the first step toward his vision of one day. Establishing a human presence on Mars.]
[ELON MUSK: This feels great. It feels like the future. You know, it feels like we’re making real progress towards a future where humanity is a space sprang civilization. And ultimately in order for that to occur, there have to be hundreds of rocket launches per year and maybe thousands.]
BILLY: In many ways, Boca Chica makes a great location for a launchpad. First of all, there’s plenty of space for building, testing and launching. It’s on the coast, so if the rocket explodes midair, the debris should land in the ocean and not ruin anyone’s garden shed. It’s also close to the equator, which means a launch would get some extra boost from the earth’s planetary spin, which essentially means using less fuel. And finally, Texas state was prepared to offer some competitive tax incentive to Space X, were they to choose the south Texas location.
The original plan was to build a commercial space port hosting roughly 12 launches per year using preexisting rockets. However, early on in the process, Elon Musk decided to change tack and instead focus all efforts in Boca Chica, on building and prototyping Starship.
Starship is Space X’s proposal for a huge, reusable, stainless steel rocket, capable of transporting fuel, cargo and as many as 100 people to and from the moon and Mars.
The creation of this radical new vehicle is a critical step in taking Space X towards realizing its core mission, to make mankind multiplanetary.
And on top of all this, Musk predicts that it will be from the Boca Chica launch site that we will one day launch the very first human beings to Mars.
[ELON MUSK: If you know that there’s likely to be another dark ages, which it seems, my guess is there probably will be at some point. We want to make sure that there’s enough of a seed of human civilization somewhere else, to bring civilization back.
BILLY: Musk estimates that by 2050, Space X will have already sent 1 million people to Mars. To put that into perspective, if they were to start right now, it would be about 640 people per week. He says that we’re going to need a space fleet of around 1000 interplanetary rocket ships, and that all future travel to Mars would need to be accessible to pretty much anyone who wants it to go. Because apparently there’s going to be a lot of job vacancies to fill there.
And it was all going to start in a tiny fishing village and wildlife reserve called Boca Chica. Mankind’s future gateway to the red planet.
ANDRÉS: The seed of civilization, Texas.
ANDRÉS: Just in terms of Boca Chica itself, my building and the building across from me is already like double the population of Boca Chica. That’s already insane. It’s on the coast.
BILLY & NEIL: Yeah.
ANDRÉS: Just like scattered houses, beach.
BILLY: It’s basically just one tiny little village. Often, I mean, pre-Space X, you would often see these big trails in the sand, uh, from, uh, boats that drug mules would use to, uh, transport drugs. They’d actually drag these, these, these boats through the sand.
And so, and yeah, it’s, and it’s just, it’s a lot of just sort of empty marshland, grassland, that kind of thing.
NEIL: Well, they’re going, they’re going scientifically. They’re going as close, as close to the equator in the USA that they can get.
BILLY: It wouldn’t make sense almost to try and build something like that, that would create disturbance and take up a lot of space if there’s lots of people there. That would be more insane.
BILLY: The conceptual leap for me somehow is just to think of one of these tiny little places where there’s, they don’t even have plumbed water as suddenly becoming this launchpad into the future.
NEIL: Because the one thing is the, is the space station, but then the other thing is like, you’re going to have suddenly just like thousands and thousands of tourists coming to see rocket launches.
BILLY: There is the, on one hand, there’s the, the nice kind of Elon Musk vision of, um, isn’t this what we’re going to purpose built for, you know, isn’t this just what makes life worth living?
Uh, but then there’s the other side, um, which is self-preservation in it.
NEIL: I mean, his, his kind of, I’ve heard is his sort of dark ages talk before and it does, you know, he always talks about a way, like we need to get there just in case and then we can come back. Everything’s cool, we can probably come back.
It’s like a receding thing. Once uh,
ANDRÉS: To me, it sounds like, you know, we’ve burnt this place down. Let’s start something up elsewhere.
NEIL: Let’s move next door. My house’s dirty, buy me a clean one.
BILLY: Do you want to hear from a planetary geologist?
ANDRÉS: I do.
BILLY: There’s no doubt that Mars is the next big destination for human space travel. Be it in the very near or far future, we will get there one day. But with that being said, we are technically already there. Dr. Aileen Yingst is a planetary geologist who has spent the last two decades exploring Mars.
You know the curiosity rover that NASA landed in August 2012?
Well, it’s Dr. Yingst’s job to tell curiosity where to go and what to do. Put incredibly simply, the Rover captures images and samples of the Martian rock face, which Aileen and other scientists are then able to analyze. So I had a chat with her to find out what kind of a place Mars is.
AILEEN: That’s kind of a profound statement because Mars has become a place.
One of the amazing things that’s happened in the last few decades is the sea change from looking at planets through telescopes and looking at planets in C2. I think the images, especially that we’ve brought back from curiosity, especially the self-portrait that the molly camera, our camera took, the self-portrait has really, in some ways, made Mars very familiar.
You know, these are postcards practically that the rover’s sending back to us.
BILLY: What kind of things are you looking for?
AILEEN: So, one of the fundamental questions that anybody has, I think is, was Mars ever a place where life could have arisen? Was Mars at one point habitable? Did it have life? Well, Mars is unique in the solar system in that all of the environments that existed on early earth also existed on early Mars.
The difference between earth and Mars there is that Mars because of what happened to it later on where it became a less geologically active world, Mars retains much of that record in a way that earth does not.
If we want to understand what a potentially habitable world looked like very early on in the early solar system, we have to go to Mars to look for it.
BILLY: And this is where Aileen and the curiosity rover come in. Curiosity scours the surface of Mars, trying to figure out if it could have at one point been habitable. And just by looking at rock records, elements and compositions in the Martian rock face, Curiosity has been able to confirm that a one time or another Mars could have supported life.
AILEEN: If we were to discover that life at one point arose on Mars and is no longer there, That has profound implications for not only the prevalence of life, not just in the solar system, but in the universe, because we’re looking at one solar system. And if we have two bodies in that same solar system that have evidence that life once arose, that’s, to put it simply, statistically much more important than a single planet that may or may not be a one off.
If we find that Mars once had life and no longer does, the second part of that clause has profound implications for us on earth, because that can give us some clues as to how robust or not life can be on a single body.
If we in the future discover that life never arose on Mars, that is also a profound discovery because it tells us that even on a planet that was once potentially habitable, that tells us how unique and precious our own earth and our own life on earth is.
BILLY: Tensions between neighbors go a little further than an unsightly fence or music played too loud, too late at night when your neighbors build rockets. Space X claimed early on that they’d be good neighbors and that their encroachment on the area wouldn’t damage the piece so cherished by the locals.
Yet pretty much overnight Boca Chica Boulevard went from a silent stretch of empty road to being inundated with trucks transporting construction materials, fencing to block off the site and dirt to reinforce the bedrock. The sudden activity in a place where almost nothing happened ever was such a shock to the system that even the road surface started to show cracks and potholes.
MARIA: I think it was around 2014 and we started seeing cars going back there cause it’s right out our kitchen door.
And I thought, well, son of a gun, there goes my sunsets.
BILLY: All this change created controversy amongst the residents of Boca Chica, who felt Space X weren’t being the good neighbors they said they would.
[NEWS REPORTS: They are behaving as if this is Cape Canaveral. Stop the presses. Everything has to change for Space X… It’s just ridiculous. Either he’s not very well informed by his people or he’s got his head in the clouds.]
BILLY: Things got exacerbated further when the Space X CEO himself said this about performing launch tests on the South Texas location.
[ELON MUSK: We will have the rocket take off and land in Texas. Most likely it’s going to happen in our Brownsville location cause we’ve got a lot of land with nobody around. So if it blows up, it’s cool.]
BILLY: That didn’t exactly charm the locals.
MAN: In a rocket that size or any size that would go up and who knows what might happen. It might start tipping in the wrong direction, who knows. If something happens to the engine and it explodes, that’s cool?
MARIA: How do I say this politely. Space X was not supported and it kind of scared Ray and I, it did scare Ray and I, because we thought that it was right up our alley for technology, we enjoyed the moon program. We followed Apollo program. We followed the Challenger program. Ray and I were both in the maritime.
If we would have been 40 years younger, we would have been applying for Space X.
BILLY: Maria and Ray found themselves in a tricky situation. On one hand, Space X had caused a massive interruption in their lives. But at the same time, the prospect of living next to a space station was exciting. And there were others in the neighborhood who shared their enthusiasm for the new arrivals.
MARIA: They went to war with Dana and Frank because they put out a welcome Space X sign.
BILLY: Frank and Dana were residents of Boca Chica village. When the majority of residents rose up in opposition of Space X, Frank and Dana went against the grain, in the form of a welcome Space X banner hung up outside their house.
MARIA: Boy, it got to be a war.
BILLY: So what, what happened? What were people doing?
MARIA: It got nitpicky. It got petty. It got dangerous. And guns came out.
[Heart beat sound]
BILLY: Things came to a head one day with an argument between Frank and another local man turned nasty.
MARIA: One of the neighbors stopped in front of his house and rolled his window down and they had a verbal argument and the son was witness to it and it scared the son.
So Dana packed that family up and moved.
BILLY: In 2015, Space X called a meeting with the residents of Boca Chica to show them the full extent of their plans.
MARIA: Oh my gosh, the pictures they showed us, our little house would not have survived if you would have seen that picture that day. There was huge warehouses, huge complexes, huge roads. Everything was so huge.
And we were this little dot right in the middle of all of it. And I looked at the Space X point of contact person and I said, what, what are we going to do? I said, we’re, we’re doing an Airbnb. She goes, oh, we can’t allow people to be out here. We’ll have to do a badge system and you can’t do rentals.
And I said, but I’ll go broke because I put all my money into this, I got to make some money back. She didn’t answer. She had nothing to say to me after that point ever.
BILLY: It was clear there wouldn’t be the neighborly harmony once promised. So Space X had a plan B for the residents, a buyout deal. Space X offered all Boca Chica residents, three times the market value of their property, which many residents accepted. However, for Maria and Ray pointer, three times was nowhere near enough to cover the sum of money they had already invested building their home and Airbnb. So, not prepared to accept the Space X buyout deal, the meeting ended in a stalemate and the Pointers were staying put.
MARIA: I just thought, you know, we’ll stay until they give us our price. And that’s what I told SpaceX. You give us our price, we’re outta here.
NEIL: The people for it, the people against it, like hanging banners, like saying welcome Space X and everyone else, like getting annoyed
ANDRÉS: Down with Space X
NEIL: Down with Space X, like that’s 20 people in one town.
NEIL: How well are we going to do on Mars?
ANDRÉS: Well, that’s the other thing.
NEIL: When people start hanging banners on other planets. We can’t even get on when there’s 20 of us living in a town.
ANDRÉS: Well, I mean, maybe we should just let, you know, the human experiment die out. Maybe,
NEIL: Yeah, maybe it didn’t work. Yeah.
ANDRÉS: Yeah. Pure nihilism.
NEIL: No, that’s the other interesting thing about the two points of getting to Mars and finding out one of two things, one of three things. There’s nothing there, there never was.
NEIL: There was something there and it’s not there anymore. Or there is still something there.
ANDRÉS: You’re all alone, your skies are on fire and locusts are consuming all your fields, and everybody’s pandemic infused from a bat virus. Two, uh, there was life there, you know, which kind of like gives you a little, like preview of where things can go. And then the third one, which was there’s still life there, which is like, oh.
NEIL: Yup. I mean, just like, just scratching around, like you know, digging down and you just come across like a block of ice and there’s just already a frozen person in there. It’s like the end of Planet of the Apes, we’ve already been to Mars, it didn’t work.
ANDRÉS: We don’t learn, we can build the things, but we don’t learn.
NEIL: We’ll be back after the break to find out that this town ain’t quite big enough for both Maria and Space X. See ya in a bit.
MARIA: I’m behind the camera because I cannot stand in front of the camera.
You can go to any funeral in my family and see the pictures of that family member and you’ll never see me in the picture because I’m taking the picture. Even at the age of nine, I was always taking the picture. I even documented our childbirth. That was terrible.
BILLY: That’s a strange time to pick up a camera, huh?
MARIA: Well, we had safe angles.
BILLY: While she spent her career working on ships, Maria’s true love has always been photography. When SpaceX turned up, disrupting her retirement plans with a launch pad, Maria found a new project. Photographing and recording all the strange and intriguing things that were taking place right in her backyard.
MARIA: It all happened right out our bedroom window, all the Space X stuff. And I would just sit there and take pictures and post it on Facebook for my kids. I knew nothing about the space community.
I woke up one morning and there was a guy right outside my bedroom window, and I walk out there in my pajamas and I said, who are you? Oh, he goes, we’re doing a survey for the University of Texas and Space X. We’re going to put a little building up here and it’s going to be for an electrical grid or something. And I thought, oh, cool. Took a picture, took a picture of him and then posted it. And that went crazy.
Everybody’s texting, everybody’s messaging me on my Facebook page. And my kids are going, who are all these people on mom’s Facebook page? And I’m like, oh, I don’t know their trekkies, I called them. Call them nurdles now, people that follow Space X at every move.
BILLY: Maria’s photos were an instant hit online.
She found herself connected with a huge community of space fans and she loved it. It became a full-time job. Maria would be out every day, recording anything and everything Space X did. If you go to her Twitter account, Boca Chica Maria, you’ll find a thread of daily posts showing pretty much everything that happens there.
It’s a record that goes back to the very beginning of Space X in Boca Chica.
MARIA: I was going for an early morning walk with my husband, the morning fog rolled in and it just, illuminated my kitchen backdoor view. I was sitting there putting my tennis shoes on and I looked up and snapped a picture and tweeted it out there.
I had just started my Twitter account and Elon and May Musk both grabbed that picture and tweeted it out and I’m doing my morning walk and my phone starts making these weird noises, I shut it off. I had like a million views.
MARIA: Before Elon came to be our neighbor, Ray and I were following the space technology, and we watched a documentary about the Musk family and it was, it was kind of interesting. And I just adored his mother. Maye Musk was such an energetic, successful woman, had raised her children right. Stuck to her guns and was a good friend.
I mean, she just had those qualities that, that I just really admired that she didn’t let everything in her life change what she was capable of doing. And that’s a hard thing to do. So I just admired her. And so, hey, she shared my picture and to me that was more impressive than Elon sharing my picture.
BILLY: Maria’s interactions with the Musks would continue. And then Elon even started trolling her on Twitter.
MARIA: Elon said he was going to stop and have tea with me on Twitter. So all these people were trolling in front of the house. My God, it was hilarious. Crazy, it got a real crazy.
BILLY: So it sounds like you had a bit of a relationship with Elon.
Could you describe that?
MARIA: He follows pretty much everything I do and say, so I cleaned it up immediately after he told me that there was one time I was doing a photo shoot at the launchpad, and Elon photo bombs me.
I am committed to taking pictures. Let’s just put it that way. I have taken some pretty strange pictures and taking pictures of Elon’s family was the strangest because it’s a private moment. They’re happy. They’re a happy family. Elon’s a happy man. And I think people should know that he has a normal side to him.
BILLY: While Maria may have been enjoying all of the space activity and her new found social media presence and popularity, her stubbornness to stay put and not accept Space X’s buy out deal was also attracting attention from some unsavory characters. And then Maria began to have some strange and unsettling encounters.
MARIA: I was standing in Harbor freight and the line was real long at the cash register. So they were chatting it up. This lady chatting it up with me and she turns around and she’s looking at my dolly cart full of bird seed.
And she’s going, that’s quite an assortment of bird feed there. Where’s your ranch, where’s your farm? And I said, oh, I live on a wildlife refuge. And I have a bird migration pattern that stops in on our yard. And, um, I told her where.
And this woman goes, she was the first time I ever heard this. Oh, you’ve got to move because you will impede the colonization of Mars.
And I’ve had three people say that to me verbatim. Exactly the same. So there’s some really weird group out there that wanted to make sure we were all gonna leave.
BILLY: One time, someone drove right up to their house, rolled the window down and shouted those exact words. You need to leave. You will impede the colonization of Mars.
MARIA: And I talked to Elon about this and he laughed. And I says, no, it’s not funny Elon. These people, they will burn me out. It intensified security greatly after that conversation with Elon, because he agreed, he goes, oh my God, I didn’t know it was so bad for you.
BILLY: Did you ever get scared?
MARIA: Yeah. Yeah. I packed a gun. Oh yeah.
NEIL: It’s like a Shakespearean tale. It’s like a poor person from a tiny town gets enveloped into a Royal family against it, they’re apprehensive. They’re maybe not. They become like the Royal photographer.
ANDRÉS: It’s a Shakespeare play directed by David Lynch.
NEIL: It is.
ANDRÉS: Yeah, I don’t know where to begin. I don’t know where to begin.
I mean, already and from the beginning, you have like all these dichotomies set in place, but then in the science fiction stories of like the fifties, we didn’t have the, the Twitter and the Facebook built into that. So then you get like this crazy layer of, you know, the external forces around this stuff.
You have, you know, the utopian vision of traveling and colonizing another planet and the difficulties of a small town in the salt of the earth. But then add to that, Twitter.
ANDRÉS: I don’t know, man. It’s so insane. Also, this is in the first moment for me of the humanizing of Elon Musk.
NEIL: Just the, just, yeah, the nice, he is a normal guy.
He’s a happy guy. He’s a family guy.
ANDRÉS: The family, the image of the mother. You know, stuff that I didn’t think he had a mother.
BILLY: He’s an equal, he’s easy to love and hate.
ANDRÉS: On one hand, you can see him as a visionary. And on the other hand, you can see him as, you know, how many of these projects are actually going to happen, you know.
ANDRÉS: Like there’s certain, but this would, you would say the same about somebody like Edison or something like that, where they’re trying everything,
NEIL: But with Musk, there’s always a thing where he, no matter what he’s, well, no matter where he is and what he is or what he’s doing or how crazy it kind of seems, it feels like he’s, his heart’s always kind of working in the right way.
ANDRÉS: Oh, I see. It’s not like for the photo opportunity.
ANDRÉS: He really has that sense of the big project, the future, the visionary.
BILLY: Wanting to be thing of legend.
ANDRÉS: Yeah, there you go.
AILEEN: There are so many things on Mars that are familiar.
Those sorts of things are profoundly fascinating. Mars looks and feels in the images so familiar that I sometimes get emails from people saying that this is all a hoax and that the rover’s actually somewhere in Arizona.
BILLY: Of course you do.
AILEEN: Of course I do.
But, but, but that tells you something profound about Mars. Mars is a prime example of the fact that the laws of the universe, right, the physical laws of the universe work everywhere. That’s a very profound and fundamental statement that it took the human race up until 1600s or something to really codify. It’s the familiarity.
BILLY: By 2019, testing at the Space X facility have begun. The wild and picturesque views of the coastline had been replaced by a dominating spaceport. Testing was fast and frequent and often resulted in explosions. Residents began to receive weekly warnings, telling them to remain outside of their homes during tests, since the impact of a blast could be enough to shatter windows of homes for miles around.
MARIA: We had a news crew at the house from New York City. And, uh, they over pressurized the tank and it cracked one of our windows in the front of our house and it popped the header off the blinds, scared the crap out of us too. I had to grab one girl and say, it’s okay, it’s just the test. She really thought it was for real, that the rocket took off and was going awry, that you didn’t know what was happening.
None of us really knew what was happening. I was just trying to keep everybody calm so we could find out what was happening.
BILLY: What does it sound like?
MARIA: You, you ever heard a concussion from a bomb go off?
BILLY: I have not heard that. Wow.
MARIA: You know, the trees all suck in and blow out at the same time. So, if you’ve ever seen a movie where you hear a bomb go off, that’s basically what it sounds like.
BILLY: How often would this take place?
MARIA: Oh, that went on a couple of times, and then when hoppy did its hop, that was, uh, that was the biggest event of my life.
BILLY: In 2019, a shiny cylindrical structure appeared on the Boca Chica skyline. Space X had constructed a rocket ship.
It was a Starhopper. A reduced height prototype of Starship, the enormous stainless steel Mars voyager that Space X were almost exclusively focusing their energies on developing. The ship that will get us to and from Mars.
In order to understand the feasibility of the Starship project, they first needed to test Starhopper’s ability to take off and land again.
The test took place on August 27th, 2019, for which Maria had a front row seat, but not wanting to keep it all to herself, she decided to invite the world’s media.
MARIA: We had international film crews, a media gallery in the yard because, you know, Ray and I decided it was important that we have freedom of the press because we couldn’t cover it all.
BILLY: On the night of the Starhopper launch test, as the countdown began, everything and everybody fell silent with anticipation. The only sounds were a clicking camera shutters and the propellers of a helicopter in the sky. As the engines ignited, fire and smoke billowed from underneath the Starhopper, as it braced for liftoff.
MARIA: My legs were just vibrating, the ground rumbled, it escalates and it just keeps getting louder. It just kept accelerating.
BILLY: Starhopper lifted 150 feet into the sky. It hovered there for a second weightlessly, before landing back down on its feet with effortless precision.
MARIA: I wasn’t ready for that. I wasn’t ready for that intensity. And it was right in our front yard. Yeah, that was pretty cool. And it was amazing to see their success.
It was, it was a pretty good day to be neighbors with Space X.
BILLY: Should we go?
AILEEN: I will echo Carl Sagan’s statement that if there are Martians, then Mars belongs to them. If not, Mars is what’s next. That the Martians will be us. The benefits of being a multi planet species, not just in terms of not having all your eggs in one basket, but I would liken it to a kid like me who grew up in rural Michigan in a small town that, you know, had one stoplight and then went off to college in another state, in another area of the country.
And I became not a different person, but my attitudes and my ability to empathize, my ability to see other possibilities, all of those things were enhanced by broadening my perspective. I think the same would be true for the human race to become a citizen of another planet.
MARIA: That day, we were on our way to Houston and it was raining really bad. The delivery man threw our packet from Space X in a mud puddle. So, I open it up and it’s dripping this brown water off of it. And it had a immediate two week deadline. I called a neighbor. They said, yeah, we got one too. And we got to sell blah, blah, blah.
And I just threw it back in the mud puddle and walked away. And we went to Houston and did our doctor’s appointment. I was just scared. I thought two weeks, I don’t even want to know. I’m just, we were just really hurting, really hurting. Ray, got through his cancer, the kids, his father died. And right after that, I got diagnosed with a mal deformity that needed corrective surgery because I was becoming paralyzed and it just kept hitting us.
It just didn’t stop hitting us.
So my negotiation skills from the seventies kicked in and, and I just calmed myself down and said, um, our life is over pretty much, the way we know it. And in the meantime, my diagnosis got worse and my physical condition got extremely serious. And that’s where I was at when I was negotiating with Space X.
And, um, I lost, yeah, I lost big time. Let’s just say money’s not everything. In the negotiations, I was supposed to maintain my status of access to photographing. And I’ve been blocked out from being on the second checkpoint, like I used to be and it’s, it’s devastating to think that they thought I would give that up.
I didn’t agree to give that part of me up.
BILLY: Struggling under life’s weight and pressures, Maria accepted the Space X buyout deal, but on the verbal agreement that should be permitted to continue her work documenting Space X’s activities. But ever since she’s moved, Space X security have not permitted her that access.
MARIA: I knew it was going to be a short period of my life, but I knew it was forever going to be a part of my life. I got to live it. I got to see it. I got the smell it, I got to cry with it, I got to laugh with it. I mean, that’s what that camera meant to me. And I think in reflection, I just wish I hadn’t been so hard.
Cause I really wanted Space X to be a more positive part of our life since it happened at our bedroom window.
And when they took away my ability to photograph from the soft check point, I think that really made me realize that they just didn’t respect me.
So, it’s not about money, you know.
MARIA: Trying to support Space X is more than Maria and Ray Pointer or Space X. You got to look 50 years down the road on something like this. It’s a magnitude that should excite even a five-year-old. I mean, you’re not going to be stepping on an airplane in the future. You’re just not. You’re not going to be burning oil in the future. You’re just not.
You can’t fight these old white men in politics. You’re just not. They’re just going to die out and the young are gonna take over and do it a better way, a cleaner way, and, uh, invent things that should have been allowed long ago. Cause it’s been there.
I mean, the technology is not that new. It’s just taking people like Elon Musk to stand up against the status quo. And find a way to do it, to find the support to do it. But sad enough, even all the Elon’s in the world are not going to be able to protect us from the military complex that’s going to follow the space technology and the war zones and the profiteering of the war machines that’ll follow.
It’s not all about the, uh, Von Braun on hotel in the sky, it’s not. It’s about the dark side of the moon and getting there before China gets a foothold and getting your own footprint, your own military footprint. And that all to me is not good. It’s just not good, so.
BILLY: There’s something so poetic, isn’t there about this, this tiny town of Boca Chica and this incoming future.
MARIA: Well you know, when mom was dying, before she died, she was getting close to her time. You could tell she was feeling bad and I promised her I’d make lemonade out of lemons. And she goes, how are you gonna do that with Space X?
And I said, well, I don’t know, maybe they’ll name their first hyponic garden on Mars Boca Chica Maria’s garden.
BILLY: You should have written that into the deal.
MARIA: I suggested it and he said, he’d consider it.
ANDRÉS: You know, I wasn’t expecting to get my heartbroken today.
NEIL: Thank you again for making both me and Andrés cry.
ANDRÉS: Cry about fucking Space X. What the fuck?
Sorry, Katie. She’s a badass.
NEIL: Yeah. But she’s a bad ass who can somehow hold forever in her head.
ANDRÉS: That’s the thing that’s incredible.
NEIL: To con, like this conflict that’s going on with her and have utmost respect for Elon Musk, utmost respect for Space X, hate them and just be in this like
ANDRÉS: cognitive dissonance.
ANDRÉS: But in complete Zen.
ANDRÉS: It’s insane. The perspective shift is incredible.
ANDRÉS: Because depending on how you look at any moment, you’re going to see it in a different way. And she somehow manages to like, see it all. I don’t know,
NEIL: like at the end of all of it, do you think she’s kind of at peace with her relationship with, with Space X?
BILLY: She does not believe that if she were to be able to have a conversation with Elon Musk directly sort of, you know, human to human that it would have gone down a different way. If she was able to negotiate with the Elon Musk directly, it would have gone down a different way, but she wasn’t allowed to do that.
She wasn’t able to do that because the reality of the world is he’s too busy. It’s not his job to, to negotiate these things. That’s not his job. It’s one of his many, many employees to do that job. And,
ANDRÉS: and yet the impact is that close
BILLY: Exactly, she had to, she had to deal people who don’t know her, don’t respect her, don’t care.
ANDRÉS: Yeah. But can we start a campaign now to get that first hydroponic garden called Boca Chica Maria’s garden. Can we just start that now, immediately?
NEIL: We’ll write it down, send it out to the world.
ANDRÉS: Just get 300 million signatures. Let’s just do it.
BILLY: That has to, that has to happen.
NEIL: This week’s saved pins are all Texas based and space related, of course.
Number one, Big Bend National Park. Ranked fourth on the international dark sky associations top spots in the world to stargaze. It’s estimated that visitors can expect to see 2000 stars on a clear night, compared to just a few hundred in a midsize city.
It is the top spot in Texas to kick back and observe the night sky in all of its majesty.
ANDRÉS: Number two is the McDonald Observatory. If you’re still not satisfied with what you’ve seen at Big Bend, just a couple of hours north is the McDonald Observatory where visitors can look through the Hobby-Eberly telescope.
It’s one of the world’s largest. It is the ideal tool for searching for planets around other stars, probing distant galaxies, watching stars explode, staring into black holes and more.
NEIL: Number three, Space Center Houston. Ever wanted to get up close and personal with a rocket ship? At the space center in Houston, you can. The exhibition boasts an array of decommissioned spacecraft and space artifacts, such as the Falcon Nine, the Apollo 17, John Young’s space suit and a shuttle replica of Independence, which you can even go inside.
ANDRÉS: Number four is South Padre Island. Just north of Boca Chica is the beach resort of South Padre Island. No longer just a great holiday spot, South Padre now offers the closest lodging to the launch site with everything from RV and beach campsites to budget friendly hotels and vacation rentals to luxury accommodations.
It is now a prime location for catching Space X rocket launches.
NEIL: Number five, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. Our final saved pin is for those who have listened to this episode lamenting the fact that Boca Chica’s bird migrations may now be a thing of the past. So to compensate, we suggest heading just east of Houston to the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.
34,000 acres of protected area, it’s an excellent location for birding, where watchers can find numerous wing trenches, such as the black bellied whistling duck, the Wood Stork, the Roseate Spoonbills, the Black Rails, the King Rails, the Clapper Rails, the Marsh Wren, the Seaside Sparrow, and even the Dickcissel. That’s right, the Dickcissel.
ANDRÉS: Alright, that’s it for this week, guys.
Remember to rate and review the show where you get your podcasts and follow us on all social media @Passport Podcast. Next week on Passport, we head to 1970s era Vienna with a story of a group of renegade filmmakers, a psychedelic act of diplomacy, the chancellor of Austria, if there’s one chancellor, you have to meet it’s this one, and Timothy Leary, the high priest of LSD. It’s a great one.
We’ll see you then.
NEIL: This week’s episode of Passport was written and produced by Billy Craigan-Toon.
Huge thanks to Maria Pointer and Dr. Aileen Yingst for helping us make the show. We’ll have all of their details in the show notes if you want to check them out.
Our theme music is by Nick Turner with additional stuff by Pandicio del Toro, The Honeymooners, Promobox, the benign one, hint of mint, TMG, King Kerr, Enemy silk Den, Bubbles and Cleats Onion Pocket
The show is mixed and mastered by Julian Kwasneski.
Eliza Engel is our production assistant.
Stacey Book, Dominique Ferrari and Avi Glijansky are on a beach somewhere getting spacey. They also executive produce the show.
Which is hosted by myself and a man who thinks Mars is flat, Andrés Bartos.
See you in the next place!
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