/A fan of SpaceX was arrested after walking up to rocket prototype

A fan of SpaceX was arrested after walking up to rocket prototype

  • 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 to the area.
  • JB Wagoner, 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 chain-link fence that previously barred public access to the launch site appeared to have been detached. Wagoner says 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 that’s drawing up plans for a Mars habitat analog in Iceland. He said he wants “a good relationship with SpaceX,” and hopes the charge is dropped.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

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 [foot] 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, located at the southern tip of the state. The vehicle, now retired and gutted, was a crucial first prototype for Starship, which is SpaceX’s planned 39-story reusable rocket system that may one day ferry 100 humans at a time to the surface of Mars.

Starhopper currently sits in a launch site that’s 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 spacex starship mars rocket update presentation september 28 2019 2019 09 29T031316Z_1228265958_RC19CC4DAE80_RTRMADP_3_SPACE EXPLORATION SPACEX.JPG

SpaceX’s Elon Musk gives an update on the company’s Mars rocket Starship in Boca Chica, Texas, on September 28, 2019.

Callaghan O’Hare/Reuters

Elon Musk, the company’s founder and CEO, delivered a highly anticipated talk about Starship from 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 traveled from California to Texas to see the Mk 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 beginning of this story in front of the Mk 1 prototype.

Saturday, when Musk gave his talk, was a good day for Wagoner; it was Sunday when he said his troubles began.

Fencing goes down, fencing goes up

spacex starship starhopper steel spaceship prototype chain link fences boca chica texas launch site 2019 09 28 GettyImages 1171862758

SpaceX’s Starhopper rocket prototype at the company’s South Texas launch facility in Boca Chica on September 28, 2019.

Loren Elliott/Getty Images

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 popular public shore area among locals, Wagoner said he hiked over some sand dunes, approached SpaceX’s launch site from its east side, and walked up to Starhopper. He took up-close photos of the gutted rocket ship, then later publicly posted some to Facebook.

Within four hours of uploading those images, and as he was readying to leave for the airport, Wagoner said he received a surprise call on his mobile phone from a sergeant at the Cameron County Sheriff’s Department. According to Wagoner, the sergeant on the line said he would not make his flight — because he should turn himself in for arrest.

“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 his department filed them against Wagoner.

“The reason for that is simple. They [SpaceX] have a lot of equipment and chemicals out there. It’s for the safety of the public,” Lucio said, adding: “It may be hard for them to see someone by their spaceship and taking photos. It was disturbing to them.”

starhopper rocket ship final launch 150 meters boca chica south texas august 27 2019 trevor mahlman reuters 2019 08 28T000000Z_220527103_RC17E5EF1930_RTRMADP_3_SPACE EXPLORATION SPACEX STARHOPPER.JPG

Starhopper — SpaceX’s first Mars Starship prototype — hovers over its launchpad during a test flight in Boca Chica, Texas, on August 27, 2019.

Trevor Mahlmann/Reuters

After the call, Wagoner promptly reported for questioning at the sheriff’s department in Brownsville, the nearest city, which is about 17 miles west of Boca Chica. Officials from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) interviewed him about the alleged incident because it was at a spaceport, Wagoner said, but they 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 misdemeanor in Texas. The offense is punishable by up to six months in jail and a $2,000 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 did cordon off the entire compound from the public with some “no trespassing” signs attached to it. However, photos of the area taken on Saturday and Sunday, and obtained by Business Insider, show most of the chain-link fencing on the east side of the launch site, and much of it on the south side, was somehow detached from its support poles and laying down in the sand. Photos of the same area taken on Monday (after Wagoner’s arrest), and obtained by Business Insider, showed chain-link fencing reattached to its poles.

Read more: New documents reveal SpaceX’s plans for launching Mars-rocket prototypes from South Texas

Wagoner told Business Insider he didn’t see any “no trespassing” signs after hiking over the beach 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 “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 “the fence was being repaired and replaced” at the launch site at the time Wagoner took his photos, but added: “Just because a sign is down doesn’t mean you can go there.” (Lucio could not immediately confirm if 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 said they posted a $4,000 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 does not 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

Mars Colony X 2018 first place marschitecture j bohn associates

An illustration of the Mars Colony X team’s regenerative life support system idea that won a first-place award in the 2018 Mars City Design competition.

Mars City Design; Mars Colony X/J. Bohn Associates

Wagoner sees the arrest as “kind of a nightmare situation” because he’s helping develop technologies that 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 starship spaceship design jb wagoner

Mars Colony X has redesigned its habitat concept to accommodate SpaceX’s Starship rocket.
Courtesy of JB Wagoner

“Mars Colony X proposes using a modified SpaceX rocket as a primary base element covered by an ice dome to protect from radiation and dust on the surface,” according to a Facebook page for the group. “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.”

Read more: Life in a bubble: How we can fight hunger, loneliness, and radiation on Mars

These and similar concepts are known broadly as regenerative life support, since they can ostensibly turn waste into food, convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into oxygen, and cleanse water with little to no outside input aside from energy.

When a CBS News reporter asked Musk about SpaceX’s need for such a system on Starship missions during Saturday’s event, Musk said: “I think for sure you’d want to have a regenerative life support system.”

Wagoner said the team has since refined the concept to accommodate Starship and separate greenhouses and is 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 Analog around it,” Wagoner said.

‘I want to try to have a good relationship with SpaceX’

jb wagoner falcon 9 rocket selfie spacex headquarters hawthorne ca

JB Wagoner stands before a Falcon 9 rocket booster outside of SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.
Courtesy of JB Wagoner

As part of his trip to Texas, he 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 in “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 claimed he is innocent and hopes the charges are dropped. He claimed that a DHS official who interviewed him described one of the photos Wagoner took, which shows the downed chain-link fencing, as an “ultimate defense.” (Business Insider left a message with the DHS media relations team, but no one responded in time for publication.)

Lucio said 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. Business Insider sent emails to the company, placed phone calls to representatives, and left voice messages with employees over a span of several days.

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This story has been updated.

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