SpaceX and CEO Elon Musk have released videos offering an extended look at the unexpectedly dramatic conditions Falcon payload fairings are subjected to during atmospheric reentry, as well as the first successful landing in GO Ms. Tree’s net.
Captured via an onboard GoPro camera during Falcon Heavy’s June 25th launch of the USAF Space Test Program-2 (STP-2) mission, the minute-long cut shows off a light show more indicative of a spacecraft entering hyperspace than the slightly more mundane reality. Shortly after SpaceX posted the reentry video, CEO Elon Musk followed up with a video showing a fairing’s gentle landing in Ms. Tree’s net. More likely than not, the fairing with the camera attached and the fairing that became the first to successfully land in Mr. Steven’s (now GO Ms. Tree’s) net are the same half. Regardless, the videos help document a major step forward towards SpaceX’s ultimate goal of fairing reuse.
“In a pleasant, last-minute surprise, SpaceX fairing recovery vessel Mr. Steven has departed Port Canaveral for its first Falcon fairing catch attempt in more than half a year. The speedy ship has already traveled more than 1250 km (800 mi) in ~48 hours and should soon be in position to attempt recovery of Falcon Heavy Flight 3’s payload fairing halves.
Over the last week or two, Mr. Steven has been officially renamed to GO Ms. Tree, a strong indicator that Guice Offshore (GO) – a company SpaceX is heavily involved with – has acquired the vessel from financially troubled owner/operator Sea-Tran Marine. With this likely acquisition, nearly all of SpaceX’s non-drone ship vessels are now leased from – and partially operated by – GO. The name change is undeniably bittersweet for those that have been following Mr. Steven’s fairing recovery journey from the beginning. However, it’s also more than a little fitting given that the vessel switched coasts and suffered an accident that forced SpaceX to replace the entirety of its arm-boom-net assembly. Much of Mr. Steven – now GO Ms. Tree – has been replaced in the last few months and with any luck, the vessel is better equipped than ever before to snag its first Falcon fairing(s) out of the air.”
As they say, the rest is history. Some 60-75 minutes after Falcon Heavy lifted off from Pad 39A on June 25th, Ms. Tree successfully caught a parasailing fairing for the first time ever, just barely snagging one of the two halves at the very edge of the ship’s net. Two days later, Ms. Tree arrived back at Port Canaveral. Another 24 hours after that, the intact, dry fairing half was safely lifted onto land and transported to a local SpaceX facility dedicated to analyzing (and eventually refurbishing) recovered Falcon fairings.
Landing on Ms. Tree pic.twitter.com/4lhPWRpaS9
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 4, 2019
With any luck, the successful catch will prove that the years of work have been worth it, demonstrating that fairing halves caught – rather than fished out of the ocean – are structurally sound and clean enough to be quickly and affordably reused. While Falcon fairings have been estimated to take up less than 10% of the material cost of Falcon 9 production (~$6M, $3M/half), the manufacturing apparatus needed to build them takes up a huge amount of space. Additionally, the process of oven-curing huge, monolithic carbon fiber fairings introduces fundamental constraints that physically limit how quickly they can be built.
Fairing reuse would be an invaluable benefit for SpaceX’s internal Starlink launches, of which dozens and – eventually – hundreds will be needed to build an operational constellation of satellites. Thanks to the wonders of Falcon 9 Block 5 booster reuse, the internal cost of a flight-proven booster is essentially just the cost of refurbishment and then the propellant and work-hours needed to launch it. What remains is the cost of the expendable Falcon upper stage (unlikely to be recovered or reused) and payload fairing, now reasonably consistent at landing intact on the ocean surface but yet to demonstrate practical reusability.
As proposed, SpaceX’s completed Starlink constellation represents almost 12,000 satellites. Assuming no progress is made with packing density, no larger payload fairing is developed, and Starship doesn’t reach orbit until the mid-2020s (admittedly unlikely), Starlink will require almost exactly 200 Falcon 9 launches, each carrying 60 satellites. According to Musk, despite the fact that the first 60 satellites launched were effectively advanced prototypes, the cost of launch is already more than the cost of satellite production.
Speaking at a conference in 2017, Musk noted that payload fairings cost about $6M to produce, roughly 10% of Falcon 9’s $62M list price. In 2013, Musk stated that the first stage represented less than 75% of the overall cost of Falcon 9 production, meaning that the rocket’s upper stage probably represents another 15-20% (call it a 70:20:10 split), or ~$9-12M. Conservatively assuming that the operating costs of Falcon 9 refurbishment, launch, and recovery are roughly $5M per mission, the internal cost to SpaceX for a launch with a recoverable flight-proven booster and an expended fairing and upper stage could be just $20-25M and may be even lower.
For reference, assuming 200 Falcon 9 launches, SpaceX could save nearly $600M by consistently recovering and reusing just one fairing half on average per launch, up to as much as $1.2B if both halves can be consistently recovered and reused. June 25th’s successful fairing catch is the biggest step yet in that direction and is hopefully a sign of many good things to come for SpaceX’s latest attempt at building truly reusable rockets.
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