The Obsessive, Tumultuous Lives of SpaceX Rocket Chasers

By showing up, these rocket chasers are uncovering news about the secretive happenings at SpaceX. This past March, Chylinski was hunkered down …

A few hours before dawn in January 2015, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket departed from a launch pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on a mission to the International Space Station. It was the company’s fifth cargo resupply mission and the first time it attempted to land a booster on an autonomous drone ship. Rocket launches always inspire awe, but for Ryan Chylinski, this one was life changing.

A part-time photographer, Chylinski had signed up for NASA Social, a program that grants media credentials to unaffiliated writers and photographers. It was his first time photographing a launch up close. “It was addictive,” Chylinski says. “I just kept thinking about it.” He returned to his IT job and spent the next two years dreaming about rockets.

Daniel Oberhaus

In late 2017 Chylinski gave in to his obsession. He sold his belongings, left his job, and hit the road in a Capri truck camper with his dog, Tuck, to photograph rockets full-time. Most people in their mid-thirties would balk at that kind of career move, and Chylinski, now 35, admits he had reservations too. But he told himself it would just be for six months. If it didn’t work out, he’d return to corporate IT.

He’s been on the road chasing rockets ever since.

Chylinski is part of a small group of (semi-)professional rocket chasers who are obsessively documenting the new space race and paying particular attention to the happenings at SpaceX. They’ll camp out for days in a remote part of Texas just to get a glimpse of the company’s experimental rocket engine. They lurk in Florida harbors as drone ship paparazzi. They attend every single launch, no matter how unglamorous the payload or inhospitable the hour. By showing up, these rocket chasers are uncovering news about the secretive happenings at SpaceX.

This past March, Chylinski was hunkered down in a cramped bungalow in Cocoa Beach, Florida, a small tourist town just down the road from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. He had converted the condo, which he was renting for the week, into a personal command center in advance of the first commercial launch of the massive SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. Tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of cameras and equipment were strewn about the floor, some owned by Chylinski and some on loan.

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He had picked up a gig to film the launch, which allowed him to splurge on the condo. Normally Chylinski operates out of his camper, which he named the Voyager 3. He parks it around Orlando, where he might spend weeks on end, depending on the launch schedule at Kennedy Space Center. Chylinski says he supports himself on a modest income, mostly from online photography gigs, so he often sets up shop in cafés. But most of Chylinski’s launch photography is done for free. He uses the photos in personal projects or gives them to magazines in exchange for the media affiliation needed to access NASA’s facilities.

For most launches, Chylinski sets up three or four mirrorless cameras around the pad and uses sound triggers to take pictures when the rocket engines ignite. But for the Falcon Heavy launch, Chylinski significantly beefed up his rig. He also set up three high-speed cameras near the pad, which would capture the engine’s explosive power at nearly 2,000 frames per second. One of the camera models hadn’t even been released to the public yet, but Chylinski had established a relationship with its producer, Kron Technologies, which sent him one to demo.

These sorts of cameras weren’t designed to accommodate the unique challenges of a rocket launch, so Chylinski had to get creative with his setup. The biggest problem, he explains, is providing sufficient power to the cameras. A consumer DSLR camera can last for days in sleep mode, but the high-speed cameras will burn through their batteries in a matter of hours. Typically cameras need to be set up around the rocket as much as 12 hours prior to launch—at best. But launches are frequently delayed for days, and there’s no guarantee that camera operators will be allowed to return to the launchpad to swap out their batteries.

So Chylinski relies on homebrew solutions. Because he couldn’t get a 360-degree camera to connect to a traditional trigger, he made his own “robotic finger,” using an actuator to remotely set it off. He also repurposed a pair of 100-watt solar panels he used for his camper to supply nearly unlimited energy to his cameras. For the Falcon Heavy launch he connected his high-speed cameras to giant external batteries, leaving them largely exposed to the elements. If it rained, his cameras could get fried—but he didn’t have time to make a proper case, so he relied on garbage bags.

After the launch, Chylinski rode the NASA bus meant to shuttle photographers back to the launchpad to pick up his cameras. Although all of his Sony mirrorless cameras triggered as expected, when he popped the memory cards from the high-speed cameras into his laptop, he found them all blank. The cameras hadn’t been triggered. Chylinski took the failure in stride—it wasn’t the first time his equipment had failed. The trick, Chylinski says, is to quickly figure out what went wrong and start planning for the next launch. He spent the days after the launch troubleshooting the cameras, eventually placing blame on the afternoon heat, which caused the cameras to power off hours before the rocket departed to space.

Gregg Newton/AFP/Getty Images

The American space program has always been an object of fascination for the media. But following the end of the shuttle program, in 2011, the number of reporters turning up for launches declined, says Chris Gebhardt, the assistant managing editor for NASAspaceflight.com, a media outlet focusing on the engineering aspects of spaceflight. Although SpaceX’s flair for the dramatic has brought some of that early energy back to Kennedy Space Center, the traditional media presence remains scant. Between shrinking newsroom budgets and the availability of launch livestreams, the Space Coast no longer has the same pull.

But watching at a distance on official company feeds, as many reporters now do, means missing clues to what is happening at SpaceX behind the scenes. For many rocket chasers, those minutiae are what compels their work. Gavin Cornwell, for instance, created the SpaceXFleet project to monitor the movement of the company’s drone ships and other seafaring vessels. To do this, he relies on tracking services like MarineTraffic and listens in on maritime radio frequencies. This data helps Cornwall determine when recovered boosters will arrive back in port, which in turn allows photographers to document rarely seen phenomena, like the stowing of a Falcon 9’s landing legs.

But the life of a rocket chaser can be hard. Some of these space fanatics support themselves through contracts with specialist publications like Teslarati and NASASpaceFlight. Others, like Cornwell, solicit donations on Patreon. But many work other jobs to support their rocket obsession. Juggling launches and a day job can be tricky, says Jamie Groh, an elementary school teacher in southern Florida. For one thing, launches frequently take place in the dead of night. Groh, who travels nearly two hours to reach Kennedy Space Center, says that between inclement weather and technical problems, the delays on a single launch can eat up much of her time off for the year.

The unpredictability of launches can also be hard on relationships, Gebhardt says. In this respect, Chylinski has it easy. He met his partner, MaryLiz Bender, at a rocket launch a little over a year ago. Bender, a web developer and associate producer of Planetary Radio, was also on a perpetual road trip as a space evangelist. When they met, it seemed like fate. “I just got right into his camper so we could go on this journey together, and we immediately fell in love,” Bender says.

Chylinski and Bender have been on the road together for the past year, their schedule dictated almost entirely by rocket launches and celestial events. This has given them plenty of time to discuss why they feel compelled to dedicate their lives to documenting spaceflight. Pondering this question led them to create Cosmic Perspective, a multimedia project highlighting the role space exploration plays in fostering empathy and compassion on Earth.

“There’s certain things out there, like witnessing a rocket launch, that change you,” Chylinski says. “It elevates your perspective a bit, makes you focus less on the short term, and might change what you find meaningful. That’s a powerful thing.”

Cosmic ambitions aside, Chylinski’s life involves bearing witness to controlled explosions equivalent to tens of thousands of pounds of dynamite. As far as job perks go, there’s nothing else quite like it.


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Rocket Report: NASA considers Falcon 9 triple header, Indiana pol eyes Moon

SpaceX to launch dozens of Starlink satellites. SpaceX’s first launch to carry a large number of Starlink broadband Internet satellites is scheduled for …
A Falcon 9 rocket launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base.
Enlarge/ A Falcon 9 rocket launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Welcome to Edition 1.48 of the Rocket Report! Mostly good news this week, with launch-related successes in Japan, the United States, and New Zealand. We also have an interesting article written by a friend of Vice President Mike Pence, who says NASA should use Falcon Heavy rockets for the lunar return.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

Japanese start-up launches suborbital rocket. Interstellar Technologies launched its suborbital Momo-3 booster to an altitude of 114km on Saturday, The Japan Times reports. The booster fell into the Pacific Ocean 10 minutes after the launch. “It was a complete success. We’ll work to achieve stable launches and mass-produce (rockets) in quick cycles,” company founder Takafumi Horie told the publication.

A small team … This was the company’s third launch attempt after previous failures in 2017 and 2018. Interstellar aspires to develop a low-cost rocket to launch commercial satellites into space and, according to one source, has just 22 employees. A company must have no small amount of dedication to reach space with such a small core group, and we’re eager to see what comes next after its initial taste of success.

Rocket Lab flies sixth mission. On Sunday, an Electron launch rocket successfully launched the STP-27RD mission. The payload entailed three research and development satellites for the US Department of Defense Space Test Program that will demonstrate advanced space technologies, including a satellite to evaluate new ways of tracking space debris. The company has now deployed 28 satellites to date.

Rolling along now … “It’s a testament to our team and mission partners that Electron has placed another three satellites in orbit, just weeks after our flawless mission for DARPA,” said Rocket Lab Founder and CEO Peter Beck. It’s true. The company is on a roll, and aims to launch every two weeks by the end of the year. (We wouldn’t bet against that). Rocket Lab’s first launch from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia could also come before the end of 2019. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Relativity signs rideshare deal with Spaceflight. The rocket company Relativity announced Monday that it has signed an agreement with Spaceflight for a series of smallsat rideshare launches, beginning as early as the third quarter of 2021. The option includes an unspecified number of additional launches of Relativity’s Terran 1 rocket, SpaceNews reports.

A better number … Spaceflight officials said the ability to launch 15 or 20 customers on a Terran 1 rocket was about the right number, as it found the greater number of satellites on a Falcon 9 rocket launch in 2018 to be somewhat difficult to manage. “Getting a smaller number of payloads makes sense because you don’t have as much churn,” Spaceflight CEO Curt Blake told the publication. “If you’re talking 15 customers, 20 customers, that’s a lot easier.” (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Another Chinese company will try for orbit. After failed attempts last October (by LandSpace) and this March (by OneSpace), yet another Chinese company will seek to become the first one to put a satellite into orbit. The Beijing-based iSpace will attempt a June launch of an unnamed payload using its Hyperbola-1, four-stage rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, SpaceNews reports.

Bigger rocket coming … iSpace is one of the more prominent of the Chinese launch firms on the country’s startup scene, having secured more than $100 million in series A funding from Matrix Partners China, CDH Investments, tech giant Baidu, and others. Its larger rocket, the Hyperbola-2 booster, is expected to be capable of lifting 1,900 kg to LEO and will make its first flight after 2020, the company said. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

SpaceX to launch dozens of Starlink satellites. SpaceX’s first launch to carry a large number of Starlink broadband Internet satellites is scheduled for May 15, according to the company’s president, Gwynne Shotwell. This launch will carry “dozens of satellites,” adding more prototypes to the two currently in low Earth orbit, SpaceNews reports.

More launches coming … “This next batch of satellites will really be a demonstration set for us to see the deployment scheme and start putting our network together,” Shotwell said at the Satellite 2019 conference. “We start launching satellites for actual service later this year.” After the May launch, SpaceX anticipates launching two to six more times for its Starlink broadband constellation. When those launches occur will depend upon the performance of the first batch of satellites in orbit. (submitted by Unrulycow and Ken the Bin)

Production of Ariane 6 rockets begins. Arianespace said this week that it has signed an order with Ariane Group to begin manufacturing 14 Ariane 6 rockets, the first such batch that will be mass produced. These rockets, which will be flown between 2021 and 2023, will be built with contributions from 13 different European countries.

Final Ariane 5 rockets coming … Arianespace continues to work toward a 2020 launch date for the first flight of the Ariane 6 rocket, which seeks to provide a similar service as the Ariane 5 booster at a lower cost. Speaking of that venerable rocket, Arianespace said it will also produce a final batch of eight Ariane 5 rockets, which will be phased out as the Ariane 6 proves itself. (submitted by Ken the Bin and CK)

NASA considering using same Falcon 9 three times. Early Friday morning, SpaceX scrubbed the launch of a supply mission to the International Space Station. The stated reason was not a problem with the rocket but with the recovery drone ship. After the fact, NASA’s Kenny Todd said the agency was OK with the delay because of a back-up launch window the next day.

Agency wanted that rocket back … “In the end, SpaceX had to make the call,” Todd said. “But I think one of our senior engineers who’s watched an incredible number of these missions said, ‘You know, sometimes the universe is talking to you, and sometimes you need to listen to it.’ And the reality is, when we went through all of that yesterday it seemed like the universe was talking to us. So in the end, I thought it was an OK trade.” NASA also had a vested interest, as it planned to use this rocket for the next ISS supply mission (CRS-18) and possibly CRS-19 as well, Todd said. This would be the first time NASA has agreed to use the same Falcon 9 three times.

SpaceX getting better at stowing Falcon 9 legs. In the past, it has taken as much as several days for SpaceX employees to retract the landing legs on its Block 5 variant of the Falcon 9 booster. But as Teslarati reports, after the CRS-17 resupply mission to the International Space Station launched on Saturday, the company was able to retract the four legs in a matter of an hour or two after a droneship brought the rocket into port.

These details matter … As the publication notes, this was not so much an issue of cost, but time. The original retraction method added days to the time needed to turn around a Falcon 9 rocket for another flight. If the company is to ever reach Elon Musk’s goal of re-flying a Falcon 9 rocket within 24 hours, details like this matter. So it’s nice to see that SpaceX continues to strive to work through every issue confronting rapid reusability. (submitted by Max Q and Ken the Bin)

Air Force solicits bids for mid-2020 launches. After considerable public debate, the US Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center has released the final solicitation for companies to bid on launch contracts for the period of 2022-2026. Proposals are due August 1, and the Air Force intends to select just two companies, SpaceNews reports. “We must move forward now. We are answering Congress’ 2014 directive to transition off the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said in a statement. “The industrial base is ready.”

An ongoing battle … The field of competitors is expected to include current national security launch providers United Launch Alliance and SpaceX, as well as new entrants Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman. In recent months, each of these companies has waged, to a greater or lesser extent, a public relations and lobbying battle to better position itself in the competition, which will be critical for each of their business models during the coming decade. The battle is likely to continue as the US Congress sets the fiscal year 2020 budget for the Air Force in the coming months.

Moon can be reached on the cheap, Indiana pol says. Todd Rokita is a former four-term Congressman from Indiana and friend of Vice President Mike Pence. Because the vice president wants to land humans on the Moon by 2024, we were taken aback when Rokita co-authored a surprisingly radical article in The Space Review titled “Going to the Moon within five years and on the cheap: yes, it is possible.”

Doubling down on reusability … What allows the Moon program to be done at a lower cost? Rokita writes: “It’s the new availability of reusable rockets costing about five times less, like the whole world witnessed again on April 11 with the successful return of the three Falcon Heavy booster cores. This technology will allow for payloads not before even considered due to their very high costs. It has revolutionized our ability to go to Moon, Mars, and beyond.” It is not clear whether Rokita is trying to send a message to Pence or if Pence is trying to send a message to industry through the former congressman. We’re intrigued, regardless. (submitted by DR)

Next three launches

May 16: Falcon 9 | Starlink mission | Cape Canaveral, Fla. | 02:30 UTC

May 21: Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle | RISAT-2B | Sriharikota, India | 23:30 UTC

May 27: Soyuz 2.1b | Glonass-M navigation satellite | Plesetsk Cosmodrome, Russia | TBD

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SpaceX, NASA Space Mission Doomed To Fail? New Test Ends In Failure

It hasn’t been a good month so far for SpaceX as Elon Musk’s company once more failed another systems test after the disastrous explosion that …

It hasn’t been a good month so far for SpaceX as Elon Musk’s company once more failed another systems test after the disastrous explosion that happened in Cape Canaveral on April 20.

According to Inverse, the SpaceX Crew Dragon, a capsule which was built to bring U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station, failed a parachute test held at Delamar Dry Lake in Nevada. SpaceX was trying to figure out if the capsule would survive if all four parachutes failed to launch in time. During testing, three of the parachutes failed to set off, causing considerable damage to the Crew Dragon during impact.

The parachute test was revealed by NASA’s associate administrator of human exploration, Bill Gerstenmaier, during a hearing led by the U.S. House of Representatives’ science, space and technology committee.

The test result was given in answer to a question from Mo Brooks, a Republican representative from Alabama. Brooks has been known to be one of the top critics of “commercial” space agencies such as SpaceX.

The failure seriously undermined the possibility of SpaceX successfully bringing astronauts to the ISS via the Crew Dragon. However, NASA explained that there is a silver lining to all the failed tests since it can provide the much-needed data that scientists will need to make the necessary changes to the capsule and ensure its passengers’ safety.

“Their teams are fully engaged, we are understanding this. This is a gift to us. We have gotten data that is unique, that will help us design and understand if this is something that needs to be fixed, or if this is something that was just a nuance of the test and the configuration,” Gerstenmaier said.

After a successful demo that brought the SpaceX Crew Dragon to the ISS without assistance, Musk’s space agency has been working hard on the next phase of their mission: human transport.

During a crucial test, however, the Crew Dragon blew up while SpaceX was firing up engines embedded within the spacecraft. The capsule is equipped with eight small thrusters known as SuperDraco engines, which are intended to play an important role in case of glitches during space flights.

The thrusters were intended to bring the Crew Dragon away from danger should the SpaceX rocket (either the Falcon 9 or the Starship) encounters a fatal malfunction. However, the engines ignited while conducting a test of the engines at the company’s landing pad at Cape Canaveral.


spaceXThe exterior of SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California as seen on July 22, 2018.Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

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Want to see a reused Falcon 9 rocket booster from SpaceX? You’ll be able to this summer in Houston

A space shuttle replica held aloft by the original plane used to transport these vehicles across the country, oft times blots out the sun as you drive …
  • Pictured here is an artist's rendering of SpaceX's Falcon 9 booster on display at Space Center Houston, the museum side of Johnson Space Center. The rocket was donated by SpaceX and is one of only two Falcon 9 boosters on display. The booster will arrive this summer and will be the museum's first commercial exhibit. Photo: Credit: Space Center Houston
    Pictured here is an artist’s rendering of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster on display at Space Center Houston, the museum side of Johnson Space Center. The rocket was donated by SpaceX and is one of only two Falcon 9 boosters on display. The booster will arrive this summer and will be the museum’s first commercial exhibit. less
    Pictured here is an artist’s rendering of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster on display at Space Center Houston, the museum side of Johnson Space Center. The rocket was donated by SpaceX and is one of only two Falcon 9 … more

    Photo: Credit: Space Center Houston

Photo: Credit: Space Center Houston
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Pictured here is an artist’s rendering of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster on display at Space Center Houston, the museum side of Johnson Space Center. The rocket was donated by SpaceX and is one of only two Falcon 9 boosters on display. The booster will arrive this summer and will be the museum’s first commercial exhibit. less
Pictured here is an artist’s rendering of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster on display at Space Center Houston, the museum side of Johnson Space Center. The rocket was donated by SpaceX and is one of only two Falcon 9 … more

Photo: Credit: Space Center Houston

Want to see a reused Falcon 9 rocket booster from SpaceX? You’ll be able to this summer in Houston
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A space shuttle replica held aloft by the original plane used to transport these vehicles across the country, oft times blots out the sun as you drive through Space Center Houston’s parking lot.

It’s the first thing you see upon entering the complex — a mammoth piece of history welcoming you into the museum’s 250,000 square-foot building chock-full of spacey artifacts.

But this summer, a new piece of space history — albeit more recent — will be the first thing to greet museum visitors. A flown SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket booster, which stands five stories tall when vertical, will be laid out on its side along a grassy berm near the parking lot entrance.

It’s the only Falcon 9 on display anywhere in the country, with the exception of the one outside SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. The new exhibit was announced Thursday night at the museum’s Galaxy Gala in downtown Houston.

“SpaceX has been very busy building a company, so they haven’t placed a real emphasis on gifting hardware,” said William Harris, museum CEO. “We’re so honored and thrilled to be among the first to put their hardware on display.”

Harris admits that the placement of the Falcon 9 near the property entrance was, in large part, because it wouldn’t fit anywhere else. But it’s also indicative of the direction space exploration is headed.

“We want to emphasize what is going on in space exploration and where it is going,” he said. “A big part of that is working with commercial partners to transport goods and, eventually, people to the International Space Station.”

The focus on private sector involvement in space has been ramping up since NASA retired the space shuttles in 2011 after 30 years of flight. First, companies such as SpaceX and Orbital ATK began sending supplies, food and other cargo to the orbiting laboratory via uncrewed, commercial spacecraft.

Now, SpaceX and Boeing are working on commercial vehicles capable of transporting humans to the space station, and the Trump administration’s plans to put humans on the moon in five years calls for intense collaboration with commercial and international partners.

A very special booster

Conversations with SpaceX began about two years ago, as museum officials searched for a way to incorporate commercial space exploration into its artifact repertoire.

Officials reached out to several companies about acquiring pieces of hardware, preferably ones that were flown in space, but SpaceX was the first to latch on to the idea.

The company, founded by Elon Musk, agreed to donate the used Falcon 9 and for the past year, the two entities have been working together to determine the best way to preserve and display the rocket booster.

But its not just any booster.

It first was flown in June 2017, launching nearly 6,000 pounds of supplies and payloads, such as food and solar panels, to the space station. The mission was the eleventh that SpaceX had flown under its first contract with NASA to resupply the orbiting laboratory. The company has since entered its second contract with the space agency to send supplies to the station through 2024.

This same booster then was flown again in December 2017 — marking the first time a booster was reused for a NASA mission.

“It’s part of a historic achievement, designing a reuseable rocket to further space exploration and America’s commercial space industry,” Harris said.

It seems appropriate, then, that such a historic rocket booster mark such a historic milestone at the museum: the first commercial space exhibit on the grounds.

“The new exhibit is one way we’re interpreting the future of spaceflight,” Harris said. “We are deeply grateful to SpaceX for their contribution.”

Coming this summer

The used Falcon 9 will arrive at Space Center Houston this summer via a rail car or a flat bed truck.

Museum officials haven’t picked an exact date for the arrival, but they are collaborating with SpaceX to determine the best way to get it to Houston from its current location at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

For now, the booster will be displayed on its side, raised 12-feet off the ground so that museum visitors can walk underneath it. The Falcon 9 will be an extension of the museum’s current space station exhibit, Harris said, offering an even deeper glimpse at how space station operations work.

The booster is a permanent display at the museum, but Harris said officials have gotten the go ahead from SpaceX to eventually display it vertically. He’s not sure when that change would take place, but said they wanted the Falcon 9 on display as soon as possible.

People want to know more, Harris said, and having a Falcon 9 on site is a great teaching tool.

“The public is really curious about who are these other companies doing space exploration and what does it mean,” he said. “So we’re looking at those that work with NASA and we’re interpreting that for them.”

Alex Stuckey writes about NASA and science for the Houston Chronicle. You can reach her at alex.stuckey@chron.com or Twitter.com/alexdstuckey.

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SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to land on display at Space Center Houston

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to land on display at Space Center Houston … The first SpaceX rocket to launch on two NASA missions will soon land on …
May 9, 2019

— The first SpaceX rocket to launch on two NASA missions will soon land on exhibit in Houston.

Space Center Houston, the visitor center for NASA’s Johnson Space Center and a Smithsonian affiliate museum, has announced it will display the twice-flown Falcon 9 first stage beginning this summer.

“We’re excited to welcome Falcon 9 to our growing center,” said William Harris, president and CEO of Space Center Houston. “We are deeply grateful to SpaceX for their contribution.”

Harris revealed the news on Thursday (May 8), during Space Center Houston’s Galaxy Gala at The Ballroom at Bayou Place in downtown Houston. The evening event served as a fundraiser for the non-profit science and space exploration learning center, which is run by the Manned Space Flight Education Foundation.

The 15-story-tall rocket stage will be displayed outside, on its side and raised off the ground so guests can walk underneath the booster. The exhibit will be located adjacent to Independence Plaza, Space Center Houston’s display of NASA’s 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft topped by a mock shuttle orbiter.

“One of things we’ve been wanting to do here is interpret the history of the space program, but also interpret for the public what is currently going on and where we are going moving on into the future,” Harris told collectSPACE in an interview. “With the relationship that NASA has with the commercial sector in support of the International Space Station and other missions, I felt we really needed to begin interpreting that as well.”

“And one thing we are really emphasizing is showcasing innovation,” said Harris. “What SpaceX has achieved with the reusable and landing rocket segments is really an achievement. It has had a big impact on the space industry in terms of costs and efficiencies.”

SpaceX developed the Falcon 9’s first stage to be recovered and reused in an effort to bring down the cost of accessing space. After launching its upper stage and payload, the first stage separates and re-ignites up to three of its nine Merlin engines to fly back to a vertical touchdown. The stage deploys four legs before landing on either a concrete pad located near its launch site or on an ocean-based autonomous droneship.

Falcon 9 rocket stage. Click to view and enlarge in a pop-up window.(Space Center Houston)

The Falcon 9 first stage donated to Space Center Houston first launched on June 3, 2017, on SpaceX’s 11th NASA-contracted resupply mission to the International Space Station. It was the historic 100th launch from Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and marked the first reuse of a Dragon cargo spacecraft.

The first stage successfully returned to a touchdown on SpaceX’s Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1) at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Six months later on Dec. 15, 2017, the now “flight-proven” first stage lifted again, this time with the station-bound CRS-13 Dragon capsule. The booster landed at LZ-1 for its second and last time.

“We are so excited that we got CRS-11 and CRS-13, because it was the first reusable rocket segment used for a mission to send cargo to the International Space Station for NASA,” said Harris. “It is really appropriate because we [control the] space station from here in Houston and we have a major exhibit about the International Space Station.”

SpaceX subsequently upgraded the Falcon 9 rocket, leading to what is now Space Center Houston’s first stage being retired.

Renderings of Space Center Houston’s exhibit includes a walkway stylized in a shape of the “X” in SpaceX’s logo. The rocket is configured with its landing legs stowed up against the booster’s body and its maneuvering grid fins deployed.

“Our plans in the long term is to display it in the vertical,” Harris told collectSPACE. “But that takes a lot of engineering work because space artifacts are not designed for museum exhibits. So a lot of work needs to be done to stabilize it for long-term exhibition.”

“We were given the option of exhibiting sooner and for the near term, placing it on horizontal display and then by some point, probably by next year, we will have it vertical,” he said. “We will have to work closely with SpaceX on the installation.”

SpaceX previously erected its first recovered Falcon 9 first stage on vertical display outside its headquarters and assembly facility in Hawthorne, California in August 2016. Elon Musk, SpaceX’s CEO, also gifted the company’s first “flight-proven” booster to be launched and recovered for a second time to “the Cape.” To date the stage has yet to go display.

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