SpaceX recovers Falcon Heavy fairings and will reuse them


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Capitalism in space: In a tweet yesterday Elon Musk said that SpaceX had recovered both fairings from the Falcon Heavy launch and plans to reuse them later this year.

It seems that what the company has found is that catching the fairings is not necessary. Providing them parachutes and a guidance system so they land gently with the open half up, so they float literally like a boat, prevents any serious damage. The guidance system also gets them to land close enough for a quick pickup at sea.

Based on this knowledge, recovering and reusing these fairings was probably always a simple and fairly easy thing to do. No one however had had the smarts or open-mindedness to think of doing it. Moreover, from the article:

Musk told reporters last year that the fairing costs around $6 million. He said the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket comprises about 60 percent of the cost of a launch, with the upper stage responsible for 20 percent, and the fairing another 10 percent. The remaining 10 percent of the cost of a Falcon 9 mission come from charges stemming from launch operations, propellant and other processing expenses, Musk said last year.

In other words, by recovering both the first stage and the fairings, SpaceX makes their rockets about 70 percent reusable. That’s actually more reusable than the space shuttle ever was.

I must add that the section of the shuttle that was the most reusable was the section of SpaceX’s rockets that they as yet are not reusing, the upper stage. In other words, we have now tested and proven the technology for making an entire orbital rocket reusable, just never in the same vehicle. SpaceX is taking advantage of this knowledge and clearly applying it to their Super Heavy/Starship next generation rocket, which also means the likelihood of getting that to work is actually quite high and not as radical as many think.

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8 comments

  • fred k

    Good points.

    I’m always surprised to find that others are skeptical of building reusable rockets. The shuttle was an existence proof that rocket engines as well as the entire structure could fly to orbit, return and be reused.

    Granted, the shuttle program did not do this inexpensively, but that’s an optimization problem….

    SpaceX is busy figuring out how to reuse it’s rockets economically. What’s really exciting is we are in the very early phases of designing, building and flying reusable designs. Huge areas for improvement in front of us.

  • pzatchok

    The falcon heavy is the perfect ship to test a modified second stage built for re-usability.
    If weight considerations are taken into account obviously.

    As for recovering the fairings.
    We discussed just retrieving them from the ocean instead of catching them last year right here at this wonderful site.

  • D Ray

    Constant improvement and efficiency as a primary goal will always be the advantage of a commercial/private business over a government operated entity.

  • Richard M

    In fairness, it seems the fairings will be used on a Starlink launch. I actually doubt that SpaceX will attempt this with an outside client, at least barring new developments.

    But that’s fine, too: SpaceX is going to have to launch A LOT of Starlink payloads. Even if it only reuses fairings that took brief saltwater swims for these flights, that’s still a substantial savings to them. This could help get SpaceX’s internal cost to launch a Starlink payload down to $5-10 million, which gives it a major leg up on OneWeb.

    And, in the alternative, if SpaceX can rack up a couple dozen flights with reused fairings retrieved from salt water without incident, outside clients might become open to the idea (presumably for some discount). Just as has already started to occur with previously flown first stages.

  • Richard M

    “The falcon heavy is the perfect ship to test a modified second stage built for re-usability.”

    Well, it does seem that SpaceX has given up on pursuing this for now, even as a test item.

    For now, the reusable second stage they really want to invest in developing is Starship, and it looks like this is where they’re placing all their chips.

  • Col Beausabre

    So does this mean the lease on the catcher ship is cancelled ? Or is it still being used except to recover the floating fairings ?

  • Dick Eagleson

    Re: Mr. Steven, the SpaceX fairing catcher, no definite word yet of which I’m aware. The ship has supposedly departed L.A. and transited the Panama Canal, but this would be necessary whether the ship is being redeployed to Port Canaveral or being returned to its Gulf Coast lessor.

    I think the former is the far more likely scenario. Now that it is known fairing halves can stand a dunking, the obvious thing to do is deploy Mr. Steven to catch one and fish one out or, failing that, to fish two out. I don’t know how closely SpaceX is able to steer the two fairing halves to each other and one would not want them too close in any case. But Mr. Steven has about 10 more knots of top speed than any other ship in the “SpaceX Navy” so it can minimize the time the fairing halves spend in the water.

  • Edward

    fred k wrote: “I’m always surprised to find that others are skeptical of building reusable rockets.

    The problem had been bringing them back into the atmosphere without damaging the engine. Thus, many rocket scientists and engineers have been skeptical for decades. Using fuel for a powered landing also reduces the payload that can be lifted to space, and performance has been a priority for rocket manufacturers. It still is, but SpaceX decided to test the long sought for reusability hypothesis. Reusability has been the holy grail of rocketry since the 1990s, if not earlier. It is why single stage to orbit had been sought in the 1990s.

    The Shuttle’s SRBs were not such a problem, because solid rocket motors usually have a nozzle that is worn down from the nasty, hard aluminum and iron oxides, so they needed to be refurbished anyway. Since they dropped into the ocean, they did not have to use the engines for a soft landing and precision landing was not an issue, either. However, the SRBs also had the issue of having been in corrosive salt water for an amount of time. Usually, we try to keep corrosives away from flight hardware.

    SpaceX uses supersonic propulsive reentry to slow down the booster rocket to a safer speed. Supersonic propulsive reentry has some other advantages that have been known since the late 1950s or early 1960s, but the best of those advantages requires a much less forceful thruster than the Falcons have, so they only slow down to a safe speed. I have noticed that Blue Origin’s New Shepard’s booster’s maximum speed on its reentry is similar to the speed that Falcon slows to, about 2400 km/hr.

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