SpaceX records another first for reusable rocketry by catching Falcon Heavy fairing with a boat

SpaceX has managed to do another thing that seemed audacious and highly unlikely after a few early botched attempts. It used a ship at sea to catch the falling nosecone that shielded the cargo aboard its Falcon Heavy rocket during launch.

The maneuver saw a SpaceX-owned barge called Ms. Tree rigged with a giant net slung across four large protruding beams navigate to a point off the Florida coast in the Atlantic Ocean to await the SpaceX fairing’s return once it separated from the rocket. Falcon Heavy launched from Kennedy Space Center last night for its STP-2 mission.

After beginning its career serving the launches that take place from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, Ms. Tree (née Mr. Steven) traveled to the East Coast via the Panama Canal earlier in the year to make some attempts at catching SpaceX rockets launched from Florida.

The boat was put into service during a SpaceX launch from Vandenberg for the first time in February 2017, but the fairing missed the net and the boat, and the same was true for three subsequent attempts in 2018, during which SpaceX also decked the boat out with larger nets to give it a better chance of success.

This is a big deal for SpaceX because it likely makes reusing the fairings much more feasible. CEO Elon Musk has said that the company is basically throwing away $6 million every time it loses one of these fairings to a hard ocean landing, and so SpaceX has been working on a way to recover the parts – just like it recovers boosters via controlled descent.

The nosecone parts (each launch has two, one fairing for each half of the payload capsule) have been able to control their descent using small thrusters and a parachute that SpaceX can steer to a degree from the ground since the company’s 2017 SES-10 mission. But until now they’ve dropped in the ocean, which makes recovery more challenging and difficult to refurbish.

During this launch, Ms. Tree caught one half of the fairing as planned, and the other half landed in the water nearby. The big test now will be examining the returned caught fairing to determine if it’s suitable for refurbishment and re-flight, which could help a lot in trimming SpaceX launch costs.