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$200,000 streaming rigs and millions of views: inside the cottage industry popping up around SpaceX

Tamir Kalifa for CNN

For a few hours one recent Saturday, Jack Beyer stood on the roof of his Land Rover, watching as SpaceX employees toiled under a 160-foot-tall silver rocket prototype that towered like an otherworldly visitor over the otherwise barren landscape.

Beyer, a Los Angeles-based photographer and contributor to the space news site, had by that point been staying at a South Texas hotel for a month, watching and waiting and filming as SpaceX prepared to launch the prototype — an early iteration of Starship, the spaceship that company founder Elon Musk envisions will one day land the first humans on Mars — on a doomed test flight.

On this particular day, Beyer had his camera up on his car roof, pointed at engineers and construction workers as they tinkered with the rocket or prepared to pour concrete to expand the vast launch site.

“I really do believe, not to sound like I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid or anything, but, like, I really do believe that what we are witnessing right now is history in the making. Ten, 20, 30 years from now, people will look back at this moment in history in the same way that we look back at the beginning of Apollo or the Gemini era,” he said, referring to the NASA programs that culminated in the mid-20th century Moon landings.

Beyer is only one member of one part of what has become a cottage industry around SpaceX’s launch operations. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. Musk — who has said that he doesn’t spend money on advertising — has embraced the people documenting the updates at this development facility for a vast online audience. Their recordings and online updates serve as promotion for SpaceX, and sometimes even allow Musk to keep tabs on South Texas operations when he’s out of town.

The size and passion of Musk’s fandom means people like Beyer can earn decent money doing that job. They may have to spend thousands of dollars on camera equipment, but in return they get access to hundreds of thousands of doting fans, and millions of YouTube views.

That Saturday it seemed like there might be only a couple of days left before the rocket prototype, which was known as SN11, was launched on its test flight. Ultimately, though, Beyer had to remain in Texas for two more weeks before the launch actually happened on March 30.

The early morning launch proved to be a dud as far as visuals went: An early morning fog rolled in and obscured any chance at clear views of the launch site. Beyer watched the launch from a nearby park as the cameras rolled.

Then, at some point during its landing, SN11 exploded.

On another day, the explosion could have been good — if disappointing — footage for the NASASpaceflight team and others documenting the launch. But the fog meant that NASASpaceflight’s stream, which stayed live, offered only brief glimpses of smoke and flame. Worse, shrapnel from the explosion nearly knocked out thousands of dollars of camera equipment. One of the solar panels Beyer uses to keep the equipment running, was knocked out by the blast, but, luckily, the rest of the rig was spared.

A few days later, the NASASpaceflight team was already livestreaming the assembly of SpaceX’s next prototype — SN15.

Beyer said a local resident, who goes by the name “BocaChicaGal” online, is the linchpin of NASASpaceflight’s video operation. She began recording SpaceX’s operations near her home, which is sandwiched between SpaceX’s launch pad and manufacturing facility, before the news outlet began conducting regular livestreams, and she now works as a NASASpaceflight contributor. She declined an interview with CNN Business.

Beyer said the channel’s contributors are paid for their work, though most of them keep side gigs to pay the bills. But lately, Beyer has made it a full-time job.

“It’s not a full-time job in terms of…I don’t get a salary or anything. I don’t get like health benefits, right? That’s normal,” he said. But lately he’s been working 40 to 80 hours a week on SpaceX-related content, and his online profile has grown to the point where he has a steady stream of donations and monthly income from Patreon, which allows fans to donate directly to their favorite online creators.

“It’s an insane amount of hours, but I will work my fingers to the bone. I don’t care,” he said. As a lifelong space fanatic, Beyer said, he would rather be in a dusty Texas town watching rocket prototypes explode than anywhere else on the planet.

NASASpaceflight is prolific. The team, which has about 10 contributors, is known to spend up to nine hours hosting livestreams as they await test flights. One NASASpaceflight stream of SN11 rolling down the street toward the launch pad, for example, got 1.5 million views in two months.

The contributors to NASASpaceflight aren’t the only ones doing this. Tim Dodd, who uses the moniker Everyday Astronaut, has amassed nearly 1 million subscribers on his YouTube channel. He began streaming the launches SpaceX conducts out of Florida and producing educational videos in which he delves into the physics of and design choices made for modern rockets.

Dodd previously worked as a photographer, shooting weddings all over the world, until he began airing his love of spaceflight through a series of Instagram posts in which he donned an old Russian flight suit. That evolved into a full-time YouTube career. He’s now set up a new studio space just a few miles from SpaceX’s South Texas launch pad, where a rear balcony gives him a clear view of SpaceX’s prototypes glinting in the sun. Though an Iowa native, Dodd has stayed in Texas for months tracking the company’s progress through a few previous rocket prototype launches.

Dodd has more than 5,000 Patreon supporters, and the donations roll in regularly during his YouTube livestreams — $5 here, $50 there. One subscriber sent a $250 gift with the note, “dinner is on me tonight.”

Though he pays producers, editors and other collaborators to help, Dodd mostly runs a one-person shop. He describes himself as an audio-visual perfectionist: He’s put more than $200,000 toward the cameras and equipment he uses to livestream the test launches, including new gear he recently ordered that will allow him to webcast in 4K.

“That’s where every dollar is going,” he told CNN Business. “Scarily, every penny that I’ve ever made is in this right now.”

His efforts have paid off. He’s won the support of Musk himself, who frequently replies to Dodd’s questions on Twitter, has been repeatedly photographed wearing Everyday Astronaut merchandise, and has sat for interviews for Dodd’s channel.

Musk has also tuned into a 24/7 livestream of SpaceX’s South Texas operations that was set up by Louis Balderas, an IT consultant who lives on South Padre Island in South Texas, Balderas told CNN Business. Balderas has for more than a year kept several high-end security cameras, which he said are together worth about $50,000, perched on nearby buildings or empty land. He uses them to stream an endless picture of SpaceX’s launch and manufacturing facilities on his YouTube channel, LabPadre.

“[Musk] said it’s easier for him to get an update on what’s going on rather than to pick up the phone,” Balderas said of what Musk told him about his stream during a 2019 meeting.

(SpaceX has not responded to interview requests or inquiries from CNN Business in nearly a year.)

Last month, Balderas said, SpaceX employees took down a key camera — the one capturing the closest view of the launch pad — just before SpaceX’s SN10 rocket prototype was slated to lift off. The camera was perched on a piece of property he used to lease, but SpaceX had taken it over, and it took down the device without telling him beforehand. Then some of Balderas’ fans complained on Twitter, and power tweeter Musk personally intervened.

“First I’ve heard of this. We’ll fix the situation,” Musk tweeted at Balderas. Within a day, SpaceX had given him his camera back and replaced the rig he used to keep it elevated, and the feed was back up, Balderas told CNN Business.

SpaceX and Musk rarely share their own updates about what’s happening at their South Texas facilities, which lie less than half a mile from a public beach called Boca Chica. That’s made streamers like Everyday Astronaut, NASASpaceflight and LabPadre an essential source of information about the operations.

When a prototype rocket is ready to launch, the YouTubers post feeds captured through remote cameras often set up days in advance. They go live hours before launch — long before SpaceX publicly confirms such tests are even happening.

Dodd, Beyer and other NASASpaceflight contributors keep their feeds filled with nearly constant analysis. Even without guidance from SpaceX, they’re able to post estimated countdown clocks ahead of launch solely by tracking observable changes to SpaceX’s fueling tanks and ground systems.

Unofficial livestreams of the SN10 prototype launch, which saw the vehicle soar about six miles high before landing upright on a nearby ground pad, wound up being key. SpaceX had wrapped its official livestream before the rocket exploded just a few minutes after landing, while independent streamers kept rolling, capturing the sudden eruption.

Musk himself said nothing until hours later, cryptically acknowledging the blast by posting a tweet that read “RIP SN10, honorable discharge.”

If it weren’t for the webcasters, the public — and many journalists who routinely cover SpaceX — might not have known until Musk tweeted that SN10 had exploded.

The cottage industry of SpaceX observers have gained new prominence on social media platforms at a time when the space community — mirroring political Twitter — is more divided than ever. There’s constant infighting among space fans, many of whom come in the form of anonymous accounts that rally around SpaceX and Musk as diehard defenders, levying threats or insults at those who critique the company. And there’s an emerging counter-movement, which is known to accuse SpaceX fans of being sycophants.

Dodd and Beyer both said they try to keep their heads above the fray. Their goal is to rally excitement around space exploration and to educate the public. They rarely mention the SpaceX controversy du jour. But the online “toxicity” does occasionally seep into the streamers’ comments sections, Dodd said.

“It sucks,” Dodd, who has nearly 400,000 Twitter followers, said. “I hate division. I hate tribalism. And I’m witnessing it happen more and more every single day…I don’t want to be thinking about negative things. I want to be excited about the future. And for me, that’s space.”

Evidence of the super-fandom the SpaceX YouTubers feed is visible on days when Boca Chica beach is open and rocket fans come by the carload, pulling off on the narrow roadway to snap pictures of the rocket.

On that Saturday last month, the fans flooded in, cameras at the ready. Brothers Matthew and John March said they had flown in to Austin and then drove nearly six hours south to stand beneath the massive steel vehicle. Philip Bottin, who lives in Washington State, said he drove practically from the top of the country to the bottom — his second pilgrimage to SpaceX’s South Texas launch site — to get a glimpse at the SN11 rocket and the remaining scraps of SN10, which were still visible near the landing pad.

Beyer said that after SpaceX’s first high-altitude test flight in December, which ended with prototype SN8 smashing into its ground pad and erupting into a ball of flames, there were maybe five people that drove out to the beach to get a glimpse of the wreckage.

After the test flight of SN10, however, “there was like 50 or 100.” Beyer said he’s even started having fans recognize him by the sound of his voice. (NASASpaceflight contributors provide audio but don’t appear on camera.)

“I say to people when they come up to me, ‘I’m so glad you’re excited about this because if people weren’t, there’s no way we’re going to Mars,'” Beyer told CNN Business.

Getting to Mars is something Beyer, a lifelong space fanatic, hopes to do before he dies. But whether or not SpaceX is ultimately successful is only part of his motivation.

“There’s only going to be one moment like this in my lifetime, and this is it right now,” he said. “You have to strike while the iron is hot.”

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