- Elon Musk on Saturday shared SpaceX’s updated plan for a towering launch system called Starship.
- Musk journeyed to the rocket company’s launch site in Boca Chica, Texas, to deliver his remarks, and scores of passionate fans followed him.
- JB Wagoner, who says he’s a “big fan” of the company, took close-up photos of a SpaceX prototype called Starhopper on Sunday. But hours later, the Cameron County Sheriff’s Department called and told Wagoner to turn himself in on suspicion of criminal trespassing.
- Some large sections of the chain-link fence barring public access to the launch site appeared to have been detached. Wagoner said he didn’t see any “no trespassing” signs before approaching and photographing Starhopper.
- Wagoner, who is now out of jail on bond, is an aspiring space-technology entrepreneur who’s drawing up plans for a Mars habitat analogue in Iceland. He said he wants “a good relationship with SpaceX” and hopes the charge is dropped.
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Passionate photographers will often edge as close as they can to their subjects to frame the perfect shot.
But over the weekend, JB Wagoner – a California resident, Tesla electric-car owner, aspiring space-technology entrepreneur, and self-described “big fan” of SpaceX – was accused of getting too close to a muse of many spaceflight enthusiasts: Starhopper, a rocket ship at the aerospace company’s private launch site in Boca Chica, Texas.
Within hours of photographing the six-story steel vehicle, Wagoner said, he found himself spending time behind bars.
“I get arrested, I get taken to jail, and spent the night with seven other guys in a 12-by-16 concrete cell, sleeping on the floor,” Wagoner told Business Insider.
South Texas has become a mecca for fans of SpaceX
SpaceX built and launched Starhopper earlier this year at its rapidly evolving spaceport at the southern tip of the state. The vehicle, now retired and gutted, was a crucial first prototype for Starship, SpaceX’s planned 39-story reusable rocket system that may one day ferry 100 people at a time to the surface of Mars.
Starhopper sits in a launch site adjacent to a public road and beach, making it a magnet for streams of curious onlookers since its completion and move to the site in early 2019.
Elon Musk, the company’s founder and CEO, delivered a highly anticipated talk about Starship at the Boca Chica site on Saturday. During that event, he also unveiled the Starship Mark 1 prototype, a shiny 16-story follow-up to Starhopper, and shared a fresh version of the company’s vision to populate the red planet.
Like other space enthusiasts, Wagoner travelled from California to Texas to see the Mark 1 vehicle and hopefully see Musk’s presentation. Unable to secure an invitation, though, he settled for watching the talk from afar, at a residence in nearby Boca Chica Village.
Wagoner took the photo at the top of this story in front of the Mark 1 prototype.
Saturday was a good day for Wagoner. It was Sunday when his troubles began.
Fencing goes down, fencing goes up
Like many others before him, Wagoner said, he wanted to get a good look at Starhopper, which made its final launch in August.
So after parking his rental car at nearby Boca Chica Beach, a public shore area popular among locals, Wagoner hiked over some sand dunes, approached SpaceX’s launch site from its east side, and walked up to Starhopper, he said. He took up-close photos of the gutted rocket ship, then later publicly posted some on Facebook.
Within four hours of uploading those images, and as he was readying to leave for the airport, Wagoner received a surprise call from a sergeant at the Cameron County Sheriff’s Department, he said. Wagoner said the sergeant on the line told him he would not make his flight – he needed to turn himself in to be arrested.
“He says, ‘They say that you trespassed, and we have to file criminal trespassing charges against you,'” Wagoner told Business Insider.
Sheriff Omar Lucio, the county’s head law-enforcement official, told Business Insider on Wednesday that SpaceX pressed charges and that his department filed them against Wagoner.
“The reason for that is simple,” Lucio said. SpaceX has “a lot of equipment and chemicals out there – it’s for the safety of the public.”
He added: “It may be hard for them to see someone by their spaceship and taking photos. It was disturbing to them.”
After the call, Wagoner promptly reported for questioning at the sheriff’s department in Brownsville, the nearest city, about 17 miles west of Boca Chica. Officials from the Department of Homeland Security interviewed him about the incident because it was at a spaceport, Wagoner said, but did not file any federal charges.
However, the sergeant who called in Wagoner and questioned him ultimately arrested the out-of-towner on suspicion of criminal trespassing, a class B misdemeanour in Texas. The offence is punishable by up to six months in jail and a $US2,000 fine, according to the Texas penal code.
“He showed me pictures of a ‘no trespassing’ sign on a fence, and I said, ‘I’m not in that picture. And I don’t know where that is from,'” Wagoner said. “And he said, ‘Well it’s there, so you had to see it.’ And I said, ‘I wasn’t there, and I didn’t see it.'”
When Business Insider visited SpaceX’s launch site in April, chain-link fencing cordoned off the entire compound from the public, with some “no trespassing” signs attached. However, photos of the area taken on Saturday and Sunday obtained by Business Insider showed that most of the fencing on the east side of the launch site, and much of it on the south side, had somehow been detached from its support poles, lying in the sand. Photos of the same area taken on Monday (after Wagoner’s arrest) obtained by Business Insider showed chain-link fencing reattached to its poles.
Wagoner told Business Insider he didn’t see any “no trespassing” signs after hiking over the dunes on Sunday, so he walked to the Starhopper landing pad, took some up-close photos, and then returned to the public beach.
“I was never approached by anyone from security. I saw people working in the distance,” he said. “At no time did anyone say, ‘Oh, you’re not supposed to be here,’ or approach me in any way.”
Wagoner later said that “a child could have easily done what I did.”
“I didn’t think I did anything wrong. I posted the pictures on Facebook. If I thought I did something wrong, I wouldn’t have posted them,” he added. (Wagoner said he’s since taken down the original post to avoid causing more trouble.)
Lucio said he understood that “the fence was being repaired and replaced” at the launch site when Wagoner took his photos, but added that “just because a sign is down doesn’t mean you can go there.” (Lucio could not immediately confirm whether the arresting officer had personally seen the state of SpaceX’s fencing when he questioned Wagoner on Sunday.)
Following Wagoner’s arrest, a relative, who asked not to be named, posted a $US4,000 bond to release him. Wagoner said he left a detention facility on Monday around 3 p.m. CT after spending roughly 20 hours in custody. Wagoner said he didn’t yet have a court date, and a representative for the Cameron County district attorney said she was unable to provide any documents related to Wagoner’s arrest.
Wagoner is working on Mars life-support concepts that he hopes to show Musk and SpaceX
Wagoner said he saw the arrest as “kind of a nightmare situation” because he’s helping develop technologies he thinks may be useful to SpaceX in its quest to conquer Mars.
In 2018, for example, Wagoner was part of the Mars Colony X team in the Mars City Design competition. He and his teammates won first place for their “Marschitecture” concept to keep people alive on the red planet.
“Mars Colony X proposes using modified SpaceX rocket as a primary base element covered by an ice dome to protect from radiation and dust on the surface,” a Facebook page for the group says. “Each building is a self-contained habitat where crops are grown in vertical aquaponic gardens along the inside surface of the dome. LED lights provide supplemental light to speed growth and oxygen production. Algae CO2 scrubbers freshen air and provide useful byproducts in this sustainable, circular economy.”
These and similar concepts are known broadly as regenerative life support, since they can ostensibly turn waste into food, convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, and cleanse water with little to no outside input aside from energy.
When a CBS News reporter asked Musk on Saturday about SpaceX’s need for such a system on Starship missions, Musk said: “I think for sure you’d want to have a regenerative-life-support system.”
Wagoner said the team had since refined the concept to accommodate Starship and separate greenhouses and was working with officials in Iceland in hopes of building a test facility there.
“Our crazy idea would be to land a Starship in Iceland and build a Mars analogue around it,” Wagoner said.
‘I want to try to have a good relationship with SpaceX’
As part of his trip to Texas, Wagoner wanted to somehow get his ideas in front of Musk, in hopes of helping him with SpaceX’s long-term goals. Now he feels his arrest may jeopardize his chances.
“I want to try to have a good relationship with SpaceX. I don’t want to mess it up,” Wagoner said, adding that the criminal charge now puts him “kind of in a quandary.”
Wagoner on Tuesday asked Musk in a tweet to pardon him for his “photographic exuberance.”
“I didn’t mean any harm by it,” Wagoner told Business Insider. “I have nothing but admiration and best wishes for Elon Musk and the work that he does with SpaceX to make us a multiplanetary species.”
Wagoner said that he was innocent and that he hopes the charges are dropped. He said a DHS official who interviewed him described one of the photos Wagoner took that shows the downed chain-link fencing as an “ultimate defence.” (Business Insider left a message with the DHS media-relations team, but no one responded in time for publication.)
Lucio said that if a property owner decides to no longer pursue charges, “we’ll ask for a written signed statement and then give it to the district attorney.”
SpaceX did not respond to multiple requests for comment and information through emails to the company, phone calls to representatives, and voice messages left with employees over several days.
This story has been updated.
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