NASA says that a minor accident that destroyed a crucial Crew Dragon mockup on March 24th should have minimal impact on the spacecraft's astronaut launch debut. (Richard Angle)

Elon Musk says SpaceX could catch Crew Dragon and NASA astronauts with a giant net

Shortly after SpaceX flawlessly completed Crew Dragon’s In-Flight Abort (IFA) test earlier today, CEO Elon Musk – speaking at a post-launch press conference – revealed that SpaceX wants to try to catch future Dragon spacecraft with the same ships – and giant nets – it uses to recover Falcon fairings.

This is not the first time Musk has mentioned such a plan. Back in February 2018, he noted that SpaceX ship Mr. Steven (now Ms. Tree), designed to catch parasailing fairing halves out of the air, “might be able to do the same thing with Dragon — if NASA wants us to, we can try to catch Dragon.” The motivation behind catching Dragon – instead of fishing it out of the Atlantic Ocean – is effectively the same reason that SpaceX is trying to routinely catch Falcon fairings: it’s much easier to reuse aerospace hardware that hasn’t been dunked and soaked in saltwater.

Of course, Musk cautioned that SpaceX would only pursue Dragon catches if NASA were open to the idea – the space agency’s conservatism is already largely responsible for the death of propulsive Crew Dragon landing, also intended to make spacecraft reuse much easier. Additionally, the CEO qualified his comments by noting that SpaceX would attempt to catch Crew Dragon only after Falcon fairing halves are being routinely and reliably caught.

As it turns out, both fairing recovery ships Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief are set to attempt their second simultaneous fairing catch less than 48 hours from now.

Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief actually departed their Port Canaveral home berths on the evening of January 18th, barely 12 hours before Falcon 9 B1046 lifted off for fourth and final time and was sacrificed for a thankfully flawless Crew Dragon abort test. The fast recovery ships – each outfitted with a giant net – are scheduled to attempt their second-ever simultaneous recovery of both halves of a Falcon 9 payload fairing.

Barely 48 hours after Crew Dragon’s IFA test, SpaceX has another Falcon 9 launch scheduled to lift off as early as 11:59 am EST (16:59 UTC) on Monday, January 21st. The mission will be SpaceX’s second Starlink satellite launch and third launch overall this month and is set to place the fourth batch of 60 Starlink internet satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO). Like all SpaceX satellite launches, the mission – Starlink V1 L3 or the third launch of Starlink v1.0 spacecraft – will feature a standard Falcon 9 fairing.

Around three minutes after liftoff, said fairing will separate into its two halves, deploying from the top of Falcon 9 and beginning a 100+ km (63+ mi) journey back to Earth. For SpaceX’s unique payload fairing, that journey includes reorienting with cold-gas thrusters, deploying a GPS-guided parafoil, and attempting to gently land in a giant net carried on the back off a ship.

Thus far, SpaceX has attempted to catch Falcon fairing halves nine separate times, resulting in two successful catches in June and August 2019. Two subsequent catch attempts in December 2019 and January 2020 were unsuccessful, a strong sign that SpaceX still has a ways to go before fairing catches are as routine and reliable as Falcon booster recovery.

As such, it’s unlikely that Ms. Tree or Ms. Chief will be catching Crew or Cargo Dragon capsules anytime soon. Still, it’s increasingly clear that every fairing catch attempt will also represent a potential step towards the goal of keeping Dragons and the NASA astronauts they’ll carry as dry as possible.

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Elon Musk says SpaceX could catch Crew Dragon and NASA astronauts with a giant net
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