SpaceX is all about reducing the cost of launching things into space, and right now one of those costs it think it can eliminate is having to use a new fairing every time it launches a rocket. The fairing is basically the shell at the top of the rocket that protects whatever cargo’s being launched (for instance, it housed the Tesla Roadster and SpaceX’s Starman mannequin during the recent Falcon Heavy test launch).
The fairing costs $6 million to produce, and so reusing it for multiple costs could lead to a significantly reduction in how much each launch individually costs SpaceX. SpaceX recovered a nose cone last year during a launch, but it has a new plan for fairing retrieval that should make it more repeatable and reliable to get these things back.
Enter “Mr. Steven,” essentially a large navigable platform ship, with extended ‘arms’ and a net strung between them. Teslarati’s Pauline Acalin snapped a photo of Mr. Steven docked on the California coast near Vandenberg Air Force Base, preparing to head out to sea to support the next Falcon 9 mission, PAZ, which includes imaging satellites for Spain as well as SpaceX’s own test satellites for its forthcoming broadband internet service.
That mission is currently set for February 21 (Wednesday this week) after a couple of delays; the goal will be to have the fairing return to Earth gently, assisted by geotagged parachutes that help guide it down to the Pacific Ocean, where Mr. Steven will navigate into its path, hopefully recovering the fairing as it gently touches down.
If SpaceX can make a habit of recovering and re-flying even half of its two-piece rocket fairing, it has a good chance of substantially reducing the per-launch cost of its missions. The estimated cost of the Falcon 9 launch is currently at around $63 million, assuming total expendable configuration, so cutting a potential $6 million from that total, on top of reusable booster benefits, could be significant.