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SpaceX recovers both reused fairings from most recent launch

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has successfully recovered both of the reused fairings that were used in its June 13th Starlink launch.

This sets the stage for the first reuse of a fairing for the third time. The article at the link notes this important detail about these used fairings, both of which were not caught prior to landing in the ocean:

Preventing a vast majority of seawater exposure, a catch with [the ships] Ms. Tree or Ms. Chief may always be preferable for fairing reuse but the fact remains that all three successful reuses up to this point have been achieved with fairing halves that landed in the ocean. That success means that SpaceX has found a way to fully prevent or mitigate any potential corrosion that might result from seawater immersion. Given that that problem must have been a showstopper for the ~2.5 years SpaceX was able to recover – but not reuse – intact fairings, it’s safe to say that the company’s engineers have more or less solved the problem of corrosion. [emphasis mine]

In a sense we should not be surprised that the fairings were not seriously damaged by their short exposure to salt water. As designed, the shape of the fairings is essentially that of a boat hull. By landing them controlled by parachute, SpaceX guarantees that the sensitive electronics and equipment inside the fairings remains dry and untouched by salt water.

Conscious Choice cover

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  • Ray Van Dune

    I am surprised that the goal of catching the fairings in a giant ship-borne net on SpaceX’s “Ms. Tree” and “Ms. Chief” has not been achieved. I really hope they continue to pursue the technology, because I would like to see it applied to the recovery of Dragon spacecraft, as an intermediate step to land recovery on airbags, or even propulsively. Water landings just scare the crap out of me! I mean, if Boeing can recover on land, surely Spacex can master it too!

    Ps. Have there been any successful fairing net catches at all?

  • Ray Van Dune: Yes. They have done it, but because it is hard they have succeeded only once or twice (I don’t remember the exact number).

  • MDN

    I’m still surprised that they have not tried helicopter recovery vs. ship catching. Each fairing is well under the cargo limit of a Blackhawk and it would seem trivial to equip Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief (hilarious names btw) to support this mission as small helicopter carriers. You’d just snag the chutes by giant catch hook from above as they come down. And to make that most workable include some radio transmitters on the chutes with a tracking / maneuvering package on the catch hook (i.e. autonomous steering of the end of the hook flying at the end of the cable, with altitude input and directional guidance up to the pilot). That doesn’t seem very complicated compared to landing a rocket stage free falling from space on a floating barge.

    To my thinking this scheme would seem likely to succeed pretty much every time vs. trying to drive a ship around to catch the fairings as the Blackhawk’s are much higher speed and can maneuver in Z as well, so should be able to achieve a workable intercept much more easily. And once caught, they’d drop them into the net on the ships and then land on the helipad for the ride back to port.

  • Mike Borgelt

    I too am amazed that catching the fairings seems to be so difficult. Skydivers with their similar rectangular steerable parachutes seem to manage excellent accuracy on spot landings. Maybe they should stop the boats so they are aiming for a stationary target? If the boats release a weather balloon and get the upper winds up to fairing parachute deploy altitude just before the fairings are due to arrive the boats can be put in the middle of the parachute landing footprint.

  • Mike Borgelt

    MDN, good idea.

  • sippin_bourbon

    All.I can think about is the number of factors involved.

    -A vessel at sea, steering, maintaining course, subject to both current and wind. They can manuever, but there are limits. Plus their own fuel considerations. Moving in a slow steady line is the most efficient.

    -The fairing’s steerable chute, but steered by GPS computer. However that will never be as precise as a skydiver, who can estimate and make judgement calls based on experience.

    -The fairing itself is a giant sail falling from the sky, subject to winds. This makes it harder on the steerable chute system.

    – While they consider weather down range for launch conditions, it is subject the change. High altitude winds can shift. A squall pop up. Mother nature gets a vote.

    The fact that they caught a few at all is amazing. I would love to see the operating costs for the recovery fleet, per launch.

  • sippin_bourbon

    The weight of the fairing may be light, MDN. But the risk is that the fairing, shaped as it is, would be a sudden drag on the aircraft when caught.

    My own limited experience is small fixed wing. However, I have friends who have many hours in UH-60s (and variants). They have told me some of the risk of sling loads. I know some that almost kicked the bucket when it was done wrong.

    A sudden shift, either by catching the fairing, or the pull and drag as it catches a wind, even just from movement, or a random wind gust. These things can cause the aircraft to tip quickly requiring quick action to recover. The aircraft is now the pivot point of a pendulum.

    So, risk vs reward. Is it worth the risk of losing a helicopter and crew?
    Landing a bird at sea is also risky. The Navy does it, but that is already a high risk business. This is just to save money.

    Consider, too, the cost of operating two birds, plus two vessels, plus fuel and crew for both. It starts to add up. If it gets too high, you approach the cost of just making a new fairing. The goal is to save lots of money, not just a couple thousand.

  • We must also consider the difficulty, risk, and expense of flying a helicopter to these points relatively far out to sea. Using a ship I think reduces the risk considerably.

  • wayne

    I seem to recall, the fairings cost SpaceX about $6 million for the pair?
    Can someone clarify that?

  • wayne: Six million is correct. See this post on BtB: SpaceX recovers Falcon Heavy fairings and will reuse them.

    The post also notes that the fairings are considered about 10% of the total launch cost.

  • pzatchok

    Its cheaper and simpler to water proof what you can and change what gets damaged.

    The electronics can’t cost but a few thousand dollars total not counting installation.
    Keep it simple stupid is not just a quit saying.

    Make it so the electronics can be switched out on a day. Take the used stuff back for testing and use on the next rocket.

    Just let them hit the water and pick them up.

  • pzatchok

    In my industry one of the big problems with fiberglass and space is moisture intrusion.

    Any moisture in the glass layers tends to expand and separate the structure. This was one of the big worries of NASA stopping re-usability.

    If the fairings stayed in the water to long they could have absorbed water and on the next flight they could fail.

    I guess Space X learned how to seal the glass to keep out the water or the damage is to small to bother them,

  • Dick Eagleson

    The fairings are about 10% of the cost of a complete Falcon 9 but they do not cost SpaceX $6 million to build. If both these things were true, a complete F9 would cost $60 million to build, thus guaranteeing a loss on every launch. The fairings are – or were – worth $6 million a pair to SpaceX because that’s, in effect, what customers are charged for them. Given that launching on a used F9 now costs $50 million, the value of a set of fairing halves is now about $5 million. Their cost to SpaceX, as new manufacture, is maybe a bit over $1 million per pair.

  • Edward

    You wrote: “The electronics can’t cost but a few thousand dollars total not counting installation.

    You would be surprised. Aerospace electronics are terribly expensive, but if SpaceX builds them in house then they can save a lot of money, but I don’t know whether they have that expertise, as there are a lot of different specialized electronics needed for spaceflight. Saving money is one of the reasons that SpaceX is vertically integrated (business meaning of the term, not assembly meaning).

    However, it should not be too difficult or expensive to protect the electronics boxes from the corrosive sea water by putting them inside protective housings, similar to an underwater camera.

  • wayne

    Good stuff.
    You have any feel for the average-‘cost’-per-satellite-launched, for the Starlink constellation?

    What is the mark up, on Aerospace electronics?

    Flex Seal Liquid Rubber
    Phil Swift 2016

  • Edward

    wayne asked: “What is the mark up, on Aerospace electronics?

    It is hard to say. The electronics that I ever worked on were specific to the instruments I built. Computers, IMUs, reaction wheels (momentum wheels), star trackers, Earth sensors, etc. are specialty items that I didn’t work on.

    However, aerospace electronics are not mass produced in the way that consumer electronics are, and the manufacturer is responsible for any repairs that have to be performed. Since high quality is a requirement, any hiccough is a concern, so electronics units tend to go back to the manufacturer at a surprisingly high rate.

    By the time electronics reach a spacecraft, they should have been tested and run enough to eliminate infant mortality problems, but even on the spacecraft it is tested and run quite a bit, giving plenty of opportunity for finding problems that would cost the manufacturer more than he intended.

    In addition, although development costs of consumer electronics can be amortized across millions or tens of millions of units (e.g. Xbox or iPhone), aerospace electronics may have total production runs of hundreds of units (e.g. for deep space probes) to tens of thousands of units (e.g. for aircraft).

  • pzatchok

    I manufacture the boards for those aerospace electronics. Or at least work in the company and division that specializes in just that.
    Another division of ours does all the board world for Musk’s Tesla cars and other projects.

    I do internal testing and inspection.

    Depending on the specific design, scrap rates could reach as high as 50% before it leaves our facility. We inspect and test so much though we get very very few returns.

    Production runs could be in the thousands but often we get orders for a single board.
    I have seen prices ranging from a few cents to well over 10 thousand dollars per board.

  • pzatchok


  • Edward

    pzatchok, wrote: “We inspect and test so much though we get very very few returns.

    This is why I am surprised that we had to return units for repair. Almost all passed the incoming bench test (survived transport), and almost all of those survived installation (one that didn’t was because my company had written bad installation instructions (the tech writer tried to blame my technician), so that repair cost us, not the manufacturer), but sometimes after weeks of use and testing, something would stop working properly. I thought of that as teenager mortality.

    We rarely had problems due to design, but we had some traveling wave tube amplifiers that failed at a very high rate, and the redesign still had terrible problems. That resulted in several months of delays followed by The Summer of Hell (I still have the memorial hat) when we worked seven days a week, twelve hours a day (each of us individually, the company ran twenty-four hours a day), trying to get seven or eight backed up satellites out the door and launched.

    One of those satellites was for a Canadian company that had just hired people for training to install household satellite dishes, but due to the delay all those new hires lost their jobs. Our boss used that as a teachable moment for why the quality of our own work is important.

    So, pzatchok, thank you for assuring that the electronics work before shipment. Poor quality or low reliability can result in lost jobs down the line.

  • wayne

    I’ll stick this in here cuz’ the new “When SLS launches…” John Batchelor segment is not yet up.

    “Riding the Booster”

    Excellent film of the Space Shuttle booster(s) from launch to splashdown, with (allegedly) authentic ambient sound.

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