SpaceX is one step closer to an even more re-usable launch system today, after it successfully recovered one of the halves of the fairing used on its Starlink satellite launch today. The fairing half was caught by its “Ms. Tree” vessel, a ship at sea in the Atlantic strung with a large net specifically for the purpose of recovering these launch craft components.
SpaceX had been aiming to catch both halves of the fairing, but the other (intended to land on “Ms. Chief,” another ship SpaceX operates specifically for this purpose) instead landed in the open water. SpaceX says it had a “soft landing” on the water, however, and it will be attempting to recover that half, too — though its purpose in using the ships is to avoid the much more difficult, costly and damaging process of fishing the fairing out of the ocean.
The primary reason SpaceX wants to recover these fairings is financial: It can shave another $6 million or so off the cost of its launches by re-using previously flown fairings. The company’s whole approach focuses on re-usability, because the more it can re-fly from a used rocket, the less it costs on a per-launch basis.
There’s another reason SpaceX wants to catch these fairings and recover them in good order: Doing so could potentially prove out the viability of a similary recover system for Crew Dragon. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said on a recent call discussing the company’s successful in-flight abort test of its Crew Dragon launch system that it could one day use ships like these to catch the returning crew spacecraft with astronauts on-board, simplifying the process versus an at-sea crew recovery or landing on solid ground.
SpaceX has caught three fairings successfully so far, so there’s still a ways to go before it can do so as reliably as it now recovers Falcon 9 first-stage boosters. Still, it does seem to be increasing its success rate, which is a good sign.