When Elon Musk’s newest rocket erupted into a fireball last week, just as it returned to Earth from a brief journey into the heavens, Louis Balderas was a few miles away, contending with technical difficulties of his own. Since the spring of last year, the South Padre Island resident has had cameras trained around the clock on the Gulf Coast operations of Musk’s company SpaceX, which intends to someday carry humans to Mars. For the YouTube channel where Balderas streams his footage, LabPadre, last Wednesday’s launch was to have been its biggest show yet.
Unfortunately, some of the volunteers remotely operating several of his seven cameras “hit the wrong button” and struggled to follow the rocket after liftoff, while spotty wireless reception caused the feed to blink in and out. “This was a trial run. We’ve never tracked rockets before,” Balderas says of the bumpy live coverage. Still, when it was working, the footage was spectacular.
Three engines propelled the unmanned, 165-foot-tall Starship 40,000 feet upward. Then the gleaming hunk of metal, which resembles a silver bullet with fins, executed a sort of “belly flop” maneuver and began its descent. “That thing took off, and we felt it in our chests up until it was eight miles in the air,” Balderas says of watching it all unfold from where he’d spent the day waiting with a few friends and some of his more than 110,000 LabPadre subscribers. “It felt like somebody was hitting my chest. I’m not a crying type of guy, but my eyes were watering. It was intense.” Two of the engines reignited as the rocket approached the ground, bringing it upright and slowing it down, but not enough, and the rocket exploded shortly after making contact with the landing pad.
The test’s incendiary denouement ended up far more visible on other video coverage of the day, especially SpaceX’s own livestream. Regional and national reporters covered the event, as well as the website NASASpaceflight.com and its local correspondent. But Balderas’s 24/7 cameras offer a closer and more constant look at SpaceX’s Texas operations than almost anyone who doesn’t work for the company is likely to get. More impressive yet, the near-constant chat on the LabPadre channel has provided a gathering spot for people who want to cheer on Musk as he aims his rockets for Mars—or those who just like to see big, expensive things blow up. Balderas’s audience has dubbed itself a “nerdle,” shorthand for “herd of nerds.” They’ve proven eager to weigh in on whatever is—or, more often, isn’t—happening at SpaceX.
“Even in the middle of the night, when there’s absolutely nothing going on, and you’re staring at a launch stand with nothing on it, there will still be two thousand people in there watching, and a few dozen people chatting about whatever,” Balderas says.
Last Wednesday, more than 50,000 viewers were tuned in to LabPadre’s stream. After months of smaller tests and various setbacks, it was to be the first demonstration of the rocket’s ability to reach and maneuver in higher altitudes. SpaceX described it as a crucial step in the Starship’s development.
Liftoff was scheduled for shortly before 5 p.m. Balderas was set up on a large deck just outside the zone where people are prohibited from going during SpaceX launches, which take place at the company’s facilities just outside the village of Boca Chica, about six miles from South Padre Island. Four of his cameras are installed on a thirty-foot tower he built about three-quarters of a mile from SpaceX. He enlisted members of LabPadre’s online community to help with everything from remotely operating cameras to chat moderation to live video commentary.
For hours on launch day—and the previous day, when the launch was aborted at the last second—LabPadre subscribers scattered across the country could be heard on the stream discussing what was coming and fielding viewer questions about everything from the orange foam on the outside of the prototype (insulation for its electrical components) to whether a particular Baptist church on South Padre still serves breakfast to spring breakers (it does).
The commentators, for the most part rocket hobbyists who have never met offline, stick to first names and nicknames, so while a viewer may question the credentials of “Jeff” or “Falcon,” there’s no denying their enthusiasm, especially on launch day. There’s the occasional special guest too, like Scott Manley, a popular YouTuber whose channel specializes in rocket science. The atmosphere on the channel is welcoming: Come on in, we’re talking rockets.
Wednesday’s crash wasn’t unexpected. Musk had beforehand given the rocket low odds of landing in one piece, and observers described the test as a success for SpaceX and its development of the Starship. “Mars, here we come!!” tweeted Musk after the explosion. SpaceX’s own stream was likewise sanguine about the flight’s finish. “Awesome test. Congrats Starship team!” read text overlaid on the company’s live feed of the smoking wreckage at the landing site.
LabPadre plans to continue to stream each future launch, along with every second leading up to each launch. The community of rocket nerds and space enthusiasts that’s formed around the LabPadre live stream doesn’t necessarily come for the splashy primetime programming anyway. On Friday evening, when the feed showed nothing much of anything going on at the SpaceX site, the channel’s chat was as busy as ever and buzzing over the latest development: earlier that day the cameras had captured the next Starship prototype appearing to tip over in its bay.
Thomas Pederson started following LabPadre on YouTube about a year ago. An archivist who lives in Utah and hopes to one day work for SpaceX, he has the voice of a radio DJ, a fact that came in handy when he started doing live commentary on the stream. He shares with other LabPadre subscribers an interest in the company, whose ambitions he compares to NASA’s historic Apollo missions to the moon. “You could call us detectives,” he says of the LabPadre community’s penchant for dissecting whatever is visibly going on at the SpaceX site for clues about what’s to come. “SpaceX as a company is doing things no other company would do out in the open. They started building these rockets out in a field.”
More gear for the stream, including a high-end thermal imaging camera, is on the way, paid for by thousands of dollars in donations from subscribers who have already funded much of LabPadre’s equipment. A solar array and a battery bank power the cameras that are placed on land that Balderas obtained access to this year after previously filming from a nearby house in Boca Chica. A satellite dish points back to South Padre Island and links the feed to the internet.
At a SpaceX media event in the fall of 2019, Balderas and his wife were pulled aside to meet the company’s founder. Balderas gave Musk a LabPadre shirt he’d brought to the event. “He told me that he watches my stream all the time,” Balderas says. “He told me it’s easier for him to get updates by watching my cameras than it is to him to get up and make a call.” (SpaceX did not respond to requests seeking confirmation of this, but a photo on LabPadre’s Twitter page shows Musk and Balderas posing together.)
Balderas, who works as a self-employed IT specialist, hasn’t always loved rockets. “I’m just a tech guy that likes to watch and talk about it a little bit,” he says. He has, however, enjoyed a lifelong fascination with film and video. As a teenager growing up in San Antonio, he would listen to his firefighter father’s radio so he could tote his camera to the scenes of fires. He started his YouTube channel more than a decade ago. “Padre” is for his home, “Lab” for his initials, although the vaguely scientific connotations of “lab” proved fitting later. He originally filled it with videos of spring break revelry and mayhem on the island alongside footage of surfers and other wildlife.
That changed in the spring of last year, when Balderas began training his camera on the increasing activity at SpaceX’s facilities. “As soon as I started messing with SpaceX, the rocket nerds just flocked,” he says, and a channel that had racked up 100,000 views in ten years was soon getting 6 million views a month. He soon settled on setting up a constant livestream. He never solicited donations, but viewers increasingly wanted to see more of SpaceX—which meant more and more expensive cameras—and offered to pay for it. Balderas sells LabPadre merchandise, and the YouTube streams bring in some advertising money, which he says he feels compelled to mostly put back into LabPadre.
“My wife gets a little upset with me. SpaceX has consumed every nook and cranny of our lives,” he says. “We hardly have any time to ourselves anymore. But I got to do it. The world is depending on me. These people are sending me this money.”
SpaceX’s arrival in South Texas more than six years ago (construction and testing ramped up only in the last couple of years) wasn’t welcomed by many residents of Boca Chica, which is less than two miles from the launchpad. They understandably complained about the noise and mess generated by a rocket factory near their homes. Many of them have since sold their properties, and environmental activists have protested the company’s operations so close to Boca Chica State Park and the Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area.
But South Padre Island leaders have made SpaceX part of their marketing and tourism materials, seemingly more than happy to have Texas’s newest resident billionaire and his rocket company. Balderas says that’s especially true of the hotels and condominiums that are boarding SpaceX workers and trying to lure rocket tourists. Local news stations reported that hundreds of people watched from South Padre’s Isla Blanca Park. In exchange for plugging the property on the stream, LabPadre was allowed to install cameras on the roofs of a hotel and condo complex on the island. Another hotel, where Balderas will soon install another camera, has put LabPadre’s streams on the televisions in its lobby.
Some “minor issues” aside, SpaceX has largely welcomed LabPadre’s fixed gaze, Balderas says. And however exhausted he may be—he’s considering hiring assistants for future launches—Balderas is committed to seeing LabPadre grow. Like Musk, he’s got his eyes off-world. “I want to be the first human to actually be livestreaming on Mars,” he says. “My wife says as long as she’s alive I will not be leaving this planet. But, yeah, Mars is where I want to be.”