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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SPACE WARS: Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are mocking each other’s visions to conquer Mars and …

Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk spent Thursday exchanging barbs about their respective plans to conquer space. At an event in Washington, D.C., Bezos …

It’s the intergalactic battle of the billionaires that’s taking place right here on Earth. Yes, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are exchanging barbs again about their respective plans to conquer space.

The two have a history of clashes over their space race ambitions, and their rivalry came to the fore again on Thursday as Bezos drew back the curtains on his vision to put people on the moon.

Business Insider’s Dave Mosher was in the room as Bezos revealed a giant lunar-landing vehicle created by his rocket company Blue Origin. Designed to deliver payloads to the moon’s surface, the “Blue Moon” would aim to establish a “sustained human presence” on the moon.

“It’s time to go back to the moon, this time to stay,” Bezos said.

Jeff Bezos shows off Blue Origin’s lunar lander concept, called Blue Moon, in Washington, DC, on May 9, 2019.
Dave Mosher/Business Insider

During the Washington DC event, Bezos couldn’t resist an indirect swipe at Musk’s plans to colonize Mars through his company, SpaceX. According to Bloomberg, one of Bezos’ slides included a reference to Musk’s red planet mission, suggesting that the moon is the more realistic ambition.

“Round-trip on the order of years,” one slide reportedly read, with an image of Mars. “No real-time communication.”

Read more: Elon Musk just trolled Jeff Bezos on Twitter, and it could reignite a years-old feud between the billionaires

Musk, as is his tradition, responded on Twitter.

The Tesla and SpaceX CEO posted three times about Bezos’ presentation, starting out with an open-minded tone. “Competition is good. Results in a better outcome for all,” he said, before turning a little more puerile.

“Putting the word “Blue” on a ball is questionable branding,” he added, in a nod to “blue balls,” a slang term for male sexual frustration.

He later wrote, “Oh stop teasing, Jeff 😉,” with a screenshot of a New York Times article with Bezos pictured in front of his lunar-landing vehicle.

It’s not the first time this year that Musk has called out Bezos on Twitter. He branded the Amazon CEO a copy cat over his plan to launch thousands of satellites that would deliver high-speed internet to remote parts of the world. SpaceX has been working on a similar project.

But it’s not always so testy between the billionaires — the two have also exchanged pleasantries before. Bezos wished SpaceX the “best of luck” with the Falcon Heavy launch in February last year. Musk thanked him with a kissing emoji, before Bezos responded with “woohoo” and three rocket emojis.

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SpaceX launches resupply mission to ISS

HAWTHORNE — Hawthorne-based SpaceX launched a resupply mission to the International Space Station early Saturday, May 4, in an operation …

HAWTHORNE — Hawthorne-based SpaceX launched a resupply mission to the International Space Station early Saturday, May 4, in an operation that was delayed a couple of days due to electrical problems.

“Dragon is on its way to the International Space Station! Capture by the @Space_Station crew set for early Monday morning,” the company tweeted Saturday.

Dragon is on its way to the International Space Station! Capture by the @Space_Station crew set for early Monday morning pic.twitter.com/oGs4IrBW9h

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) May 4, 2019

The Falcon rocket, which lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., carries a Dragon capsule with 5,500 pounds of supplies, and is due to arrive at the orbiting lab Monday.

The booster was recovered on a ship just offshore.

It was SpaceX’s 17th resupply mission to the space station.

Liftoff! https://t.co/gtC39uBC7zpic.twitter.com/IaHMvakoX7

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) May 4, 2019

Dragon’s solar arrays have deployed. pic.twitter.com/L3E4mnjQSz

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) May 4, 2019

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SpaceX’s third Falcon Heavy launch on track as custom booster aces static fire

SpaceX has successfully completed a static fire of its newest Falcon Heavy center core, a sign that the most challenging hardware is firmly on track for …

SpaceX has successfully completed a static fire of its newest Falcon Heavy center core, a sign that the most challenging hardware is firmly on track for a late-June launch target.

Currently penciled in for June 22nd, Falcon Heavy’s third launch is of great interest to both SpaceX and its customer, the US Air Force. Most of the two-dozen payloads manifested on the mission are admittedly unaffiliated with the US military. However, the rideshare – known as Space Test Program 2 (STP-2) – was acquired by the USAF for the branch to closely evaluate and certify SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket for critical military launches. The potential upsides of a successful demonstration and evaluation are numerous for both entities and would likely trigger additional positive offshoots.

Falcon Heavy center core booster completed a static fire test at our rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas ahead of its next mission → https://t.co/QjQ85Pfc1Opic.twitter.com/1UK1EUSryT

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) April 27, 2019

The Center Core experience

Beyond the general contractual aspects of STP-2, the mission is significant because it will use the third Falcon Heavy center core and second Block 5 variant to be built and launched by SpaceX. Of the technical issues that complicated and delayed SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy development, most can probably be traced back to the rocket’s center core, practically a clean-slate redesign relative to a ‘normal’ Falcon 9 booster.

Most of that work centered around the extreme mechanical loads the center core would have to survive when pulling or being pulled by Falcon Heavy’s two side boosters. Not only would the center core have to survive at least two times as much stress as a Falcon 9 booster, but that stress would be exerted in ways that Falcon 9 boosters simply weren’t meant to experience, let alone survive. After years of work, SpaceX arrived at a design that dumped almost all of that added complexity squarely on the center core and the center core alone. The side boosters would need to use nosecones instead of interstages and have custom attachment points installed on their octawebs and noses, but they would otherwise be unmodified Falcon 9 boosters.

USAF photographer James Rainier's remote camera captured this spectacular view of Falcon Heavy Block 5 side boosters B1052 and B1053 returning to SpaceX Landing Zones 1 and 2. (USAF - James Rainier)
Falcon Heavy side boosters B1052 and B1053 land at Landing Zones 1 and 2 (LZ-1/LZ-2) after their launch debut and Falcon Heavy’s first commercial mission. (USAF – James Rainier)
Falcon Heavy center core B1055 lands aboard drone ship OCISLY around 10 minutes after launch. (SpaceX)

On top of that, SpaceX’s Falcon upper stage and payload fairing would require no major modifications to support Falcon Heavy missions. On the opposite hand, the center core would require extensive rework to safely survive the trials of launch, let alone do so in a fashion compatible with booster recovery and reuse. Per the landing photos above, it’s difficult to tell a Falcon Heavy center core apart from a normal Falcon 9 booster, but the small visible changes are just the tips of several icebergs. Aside from a slight indication that the center core’s aluminum alloy tank walls are significantly thicker (they are), center cores feature a variety of unique mechanisms on their octawebs and interstages. All are involved in the tasks of locking all three boosters together, transferring side booster thrust to the center core, and mechanically separating the side boosters from the center core a few minutes after launch.

Underneath those mechanistic protuberances are the structural optimizations needed for a center core to survive the ordeal of launch. In short, to solve for those new loads, SpaceX wound up building a new rocket. Designing and building a new rocket – especially one as complex as Falcon Heavy’s center core – is immensely challenging, expensive, and time-consuming, particularly for the first few built. Like most complex products, building the first two Falcon Heavy center cores was probably no different. To make things worse, boosters 1 and 2 were based on totally different versions of Falcon 9 (Block 3 vs. Block 5), requiring even more work to further redesign and requalify the modified rocket.

Falcon Heavy center core B1057 completed its McGregor, TX static fire on April 26th, 10 days after the same booster was spotted eastbound in Arizona. (SpaceX)

This is where the center core assigned to Falcon Heavy Flight 3 and pictured above comes into play. Built just a few months apart from B1055, the first finished Falcon Heavy Block 5 center core, the newest center core – likely B1057 – is also the first to be built with the same design and manufacturing processes used on its predecessor. In other words, SpaceX can at long last begin serial production of Falcon Heavy center cores, allowing its engineering, production, test, and launch staff to finally get far more accustomed to the unique hardware.

Given Falcon Heavy’s healthy and growing manifest of 5-6 launches, SpaceX will probably need to build several additional Block 5 center cores over the next several years, hopefully resulting in a more refined flow for production, testing, and refurbishment. B1057 will be an excellent candidate for the first reused Falcon Heavy center core thanks to STP-2’s lightweight nature and an extremely gentle landing trajectory. With respect to Flight 3’s schedule, Crew Dragon’s April 20th explosion means that Falcon Heavy will have Pad 39A all to itself for many months to come. Truly the epitome of bittersweet, no doubt, but it does improve the odds that Falcon Heavy’s June 22nd STP-2 launch target will hold.

Check out Teslarati’s newsletters for prompt updates, on-the-ground perspectives, and unique glimpses of SpaceX’s rocket launch and recovery processes

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BACKSTORY-How to capture a rocket

Blake worked with Joe Skipper, a veteran of more than 200 launches, to produce Reuters visual coverage of SpaceX out of Kennedy Space Center in …

(Reuters) – “It’s a challenge to describe that noise,” says Reuters senior photographer Mike Blake, after witnessing his first rocket launch.

“It’s a sound of rippling energy. Reverberating, cracking. It’s something that stays with you.”

Falcon Heavy liftoff in April 2019

Blake worked with Joe Skipper, a veteran of more than 200 launches, to produce Reuters visual coverage of SpaceX out of Kennedy Space Center in Florida in March.

Reuters photographer Joe Skipper and Thom sett up remote cameras for the SpaceX Falcon 9 Commercial Crew demo launch in March Florida, U.S., March 1, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Apart from the visual thrill of a launch, readers want to know as much as possible about Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which resupplies the International Space Station and ultimately aims to put people on other planets.

Providing images is key to capturing the drama of a launch and whether it is successful, with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake.

MANY CAMERAS, ONE ROCKET

Reuters photographer Joe Skipper (top and right) gets help setting up remote cameras for the SpaceX Falcon 9 Commercial Crew demo launch in March. Reuters photographers set up 10 or more remote cameras around the launchpad with various focal lengths to get a variety of images. The cameras are triggered by loud sounds, which the rocket will supply as it lifts off.Photos by Reuters/Mike Blake

The next launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 is scheduled for Friday, May 3. The day before a launch slated for coverage, Skipper will assemble three or more freelance and staff photographers to set up 10 automatic cameras and associated gear on the perimeter of the launchpad.

NASA, which has run the Kennedy Space Center from Apollo missions in the late 1960s through the Space Shuttle era, takes photographers to a few select spots nearby where they can set up remote cameras with a view of the rocket, which is as tall as a 23-story building.

STANDARD POSITIONS

Where Reuters’ cameras and photographers are around Launchpad 39A
HURRY UP AND WAIT

The cameras are housed in boxes to protect them from the elements as they have to stand at the ready for eight hours or more, exposed to potentially drastic temperature and weather changes.

Inside the boxes, small electric fans blow on the camera lenses to prevent dew forming, which could result in blurry images. The Reuters crew adjusts focus, exposure, tests the automatic triggers and secures the tripods to the ground.

Photographer Joe Skipper sets up remote cameras near launch pad 39A prior to the uncrewed test flight to the International Space Station from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., March 1, 2019. Picture taken March 1, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake

See some recent Reuters space launch photographs and the story behind them

The cameras are connected to sound sensors and take shots automatically when something loud occurs, like a rocket with 1.7 million pounds of thrust launching nearby.

A photographer looks at a remote-controlled camera deployed to photograph space shuttle Atlantis in 2006.September 6, 2006. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

“Setting up cameras with triggers is not rocket science itself but having them sit there for up to 24 hours and keeping moisture off them and not having batteries fail is a little more complicated,” says Blake.

The media area to observe launches is about 3 miles (4.8 km) away. After setting up the remote cameras, photographers disperse to take up positions to get longer-range images.

The top of NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building gives a direct view of the launchpad across the low-lying wetlands. Another photographer will stand on top of the Reuters building in the media site. The combination of close-up and long-range viewpoints is designed to produce a variety of shots.

“We’re there close-up in case something happens,” says Skipper.

Reuters photographer Thom Baur set up a remote camera to get a tight shot of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and the water deluge system as it lifts off on an uncrewed test flight to the International Space Station in March. The water deluge system is used to reduce the massive amount of heat and energy created during a launch. Cape Canaveral, March 2, 2019. REUTERS/Thom Baur/File Photo

At the same time, it is important to capture the bigger picture. One Reuters shot of the launch in March, used by media outlets worldwide, showed the boosters returning to land from the vantage point of a beach, as birds fly past and a crowd of people watch, giving a wider perspective to the event.

Spectators watch from Jetty Park as Falcon Heavy booster rocket engines approach their landing pads in Florida, U.S., April 11, 2019. REUTERS/Joe Rimkus Jr./File Photo

“That’s the one we wanted to do,” says Skipper, who researched locations from a previous launch and instructed one of his photographers to take up his position on the beach. Another Reuters shot from 2000 showed surfers watching the shuttle going up.

Surfers watch the liftoff of the space shuttle Atlantis in the Atlantic Ocean near Cocoa Beach, Florida, in 2000.Photo by Reuters/Duffin Mcgee

“That shows something a little different from what people think is going on,” says Skipper.

The SpaceX Commercial Crew demo has an early morning liftoff from Launchpad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in March, as seen from the top of NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building.Photo by Reuters/Mike Blake

REUTERS GRAPHICS

Race for $paceFalcon Flights: A look at all of SpaceX’s missions

(Top video: Falcon Heavy liftoff in April 2019 compiled from a series of still images captured by a remote camera.

Slideshow (17 Images)

Reporting by Travis Hartman. Photography by Mike Blake, Rick Wilking, Scott Audette, Thom Baur, Joe Rimkus Jr. and Duffin Mcgee. Map by Christine Chan. Editing by Bill Rigby)

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