On July 20th, SpaceX launched a South Korean military communications satellite (ANASIS-II) using the same Falcon 9 that delivered a pair of astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) back in May. And in another interesting development, this mission was the first time that SpaceX managed to not only retrieve the first stage booster at sea but also retrieved both halves of the payload fairing.
Whereas the booster landed aboard one of SpaceX’s Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ships (ASDS), Just Read the Instructions, the fairings were caught separately by Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief – two vessels that are fitted with wide nets precisely for this purpose. Elon Musk took to Twitter to announce the company’s success and shared a series of videos that show the fairings landing in the retrieval nets.
SpaceX successfully recovered a fairing for the first time in March of 2017, which allowed them to recoup an estimated $6 million dollars from that launch. By February of 2018, the company announced that it would be making the recovery of fairings (something Musk had hinted at before) a priority from then on. Their first attempt to catch fairings at sea was made using a newly-commissioned droneship, Mr. Steven, shortly thereafter.
This took place on February 22nd, 2018, after SpaceX launched the PAZ Earth Observing satellite – for the Spanish Earth Observation Program (PNOTS) – and two Starlink demonstrations satellites to orbit. To assist in the recovery process, the fairings were equipped with deployable chutes that would control their descent as they fell towards the Pacific Ocean.
Unfortunately, ground crews and the Mr. Steven recovery ship were unable to “catch” the fairings at the time and they ended up in the ocean. But things began to turn around with each subsequent attempt, and eventually, SpaceX was able to recover at least one fairing per launch. With this latest recovery, they’ve demonstrated that they can recover both.
Given that the cost of launching a single Falcon 9 an estimated $62 million, then the regular recovery of fairings (which cost roughly $6 million each) would mean the company can now recoup an additional 10% of the costs for every mission. If SpaceX succeeds in making the second stage of their Falcon 9 rockets retrievable, this would mean the entire system is reusable – much like what Musk has planned for the Starship and Super-Heavy.
It’s an exciting time for SpaceX! In a few days, astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley (aka. Bob and Doug, eh!) will conclude their operations aboard the ISS and will return to Earth using the same Crew Dragon that brought them there. And if all goes well, the Starship SN5 will be attempting a static fire test, followed by a 150 m (330 ft) hop test, in the coming weeks!
Further Reading: Popular Mechanics