There are fans of SpaceX, and then there are fans of SpaceX. JB Wagoner is in the latter category.
Wagoner flew from California to Texas to try to attend Elon Musk’s Sept. 28 update on Starship development at SpaceX’s test site near Brownsville. Unable to get an invitation, he instead watched the webcast, he told Business Insider. The next day, he settled for a consolation prize: he went to SpaceX’s launch pad at Boca Chica Beach, walked up to the Starhopper prototype vehicle there and took some pictures — and, soon thereafter, was arrested for trespassing. (He argues a fence around the site was down and he couldn’t see any “No Trespassing” signs.)
This incident may be an extreme case, but one not out of character for the legion of hardcore supporters of SpaceX and Musk. The company and its founder have attracted people, many of whom are outside the space industry, who are zealous supporters and staunch defenders of whatever SpaceX does, a following unlike that of any other company or organization in the industry.
The most infamous example of this was three years ago, when Musk unveiled what was then called the Interplanetary Transport System at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico. The company’s fans lined up outside the main hall hours before his speech, racing in as soon as the doors opened. They monopolized much of a question-and-answer session that followed Musk’s speech, with one person offering him a comic book and another a kiss for good luck. (He declined.)
By those standards, the Boca Chica event was pretty tame. Some fans, ranging from local supporters of SpaceX to YouTube personalities, scored invites, including an opportunity to meet with Musk backstage. But the event itself was spared the craziness of Guadalajara, including a more conventional Q&A session with media.
Online, though, SpaceX supporters remain as dedicated to the company as ever. When NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine criticized SpaceX a day before the Starship event for being years behind on commercial crew, he triggered a torrent of outrage for daring to suggest that SpaceX pay more attention to Crew Dragon. When Bridenstine, several days later, tweeted that he had a good phone discussion with Musk and planned to visit SpaceX, his comments were dismissed as “damage control.”
It’s tempting to compare SpaceX’s supporters with sports fans, who pledge their allegiance to a particular team, buy its merchandise and want it to win it all. There is, though, a key difference. Sports fans are often a team’s harshest critics when things go wrong, convinced they could have caught the ball a player dropped or called a better play than the coach. SpaceX fans, though, are unfailingly uncritical of the company. If something goes wrong, the blame usually lies elsewhere, such as with NASA or Congress for commercial crew delays.
Why SpaceX has a devoted following far greater than other entrepreneurial companies, like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, is difficult to say. Musk’s vision of a multiplanetary civilization has clearly resonated with some, who believe that he is the best, if not only, person to make it happen. It’s interesting that Musk’s other major company, Tesla, also has a devoted fanbase, but at least, unlike SpaceX, those fans can also be customers.
This zealousness, though, isn’t necessarily constructive. While SpaceX has made tremendous steps toward that goal with Falcon and Dragon, and perhaps soon with Starship, those crusaders risk alienating others who are interested in what the company is doing but aren’t convinced SpaceX is the one true path to get to Mars.
As for Wagoner, he was released on bail after spending a night in the county jail, and hopes that SpaceX will drop the trespassing charges. He’s worried, though that the case could jeopardize his chances of working with the company: he’s part of a group that wants to develop a life support system for Musk’s future Mars settlements.
“Foust Forward” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the Oct. 7, 2019 issue.
Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine.