It’s a bird… it’s a plane… it’s a payload fairing?
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has made it no secret that his goal is to reuse as much of a launch vehicle as possible in order to drastically reduce the cost of spaceflight. While the company has made retrieval and reuse of a Falcon 9 first stage booster a commonplace event, recovering the upstream components has been a more-challenging problem.
The two major components of the Falcon 9 rocket yet to be reused are the payload fairing and the vehicle’s second stage. Though recovery of the second stage may be a longer-term achievement, SpaceX appears to be making significant strides when it comes to the $6 million fairing.
Historically, the protective fairing halves were discarded when their job was done and left to splash down in the ocean below. Occasionally, portions of the fairing would wash-up on coastal beaches, though they were in no shape to be reused. Indeed, exposure to salt water has a near immediate and detrimental impact on the composite material, as well as to any attached electronics.
SpaceX’s solution is to catch each fairing half as it descends under a parafoil in netting stretched between four claw-like extensions on the back of a boat. To date, the company has been unsuccessful in its bid to snag the fairing, though one piece came as close as a few hundred meters to the recovery ship, Mr. Steven.
With each recovery attempt, the company learns more about the process and changes needed for a successful outcome. For example, it was learned that the parafoil needed to be larger so that the canopy wouldn’t become fouled by turbulence from the fairing itself as it descended.
Recently, Musk released an image on Instagram of a descending payload faring after its parafoil opened. He did not reveal which mission this was from. However, recovery attempts have been made throughout the year during some Falcon 9 launches. The first occurred in February 2018 during the Paz mission from the West Coast. According to Musk, the fairing half missed Mr. Steven, but did land softly in the water.
A second fairing recovery attempt occurred during late March 2018 during the Iridium-5 mission, also from the West Coast. However, that fairing’s parafoil got twisted, causing the half to miss the boat and impact the water at high speed, Musk said during a tweet after the flight.
Most recently, SpaceX attempted a water landing of the fairing during the April 18, 2018, TESS mission on the East Coast at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.