Falcon 9 B1048.2 is vertical at SpaceX’s Vandenberg Space Launch Complex 4 (SLC-4) facilities ahead of the rocket’s second launch, targeted at 07:21 PM PDT, Oct. 7 (02:21 UTC, Oct. 8). A bit less than ten minutes after liftoff, B1048 will attempt a Return-To-Launch-Site (RTLS) landing just ~1400 feet from the launch pad.
Meanwhile, Mr. Steven is ready to depart Port of San Pedro in support of Falcon fairing recovery operations soon after liftoff, the vessel’s fifth attempted catch in ~12 months of active service with SpaceX.
— Eric Ralph (@13ericralph31) October 7, 2018
A few hours after the vessel’s four arms and net were fully installed (the first time in more than six weeks), SpaceX technicians performed a series of last-minute tests with a Falcon fairing half placed on his net to verify that its mechanised rigging was working as intended, while also double-checking data connectivity between the fairing and its target (the net). Pre-launch checkouts largely completed, Mr. Steven now has to travel a short 200 miles to reach the region where SpaceX expects Falcon 9’s fairings to be recovered.
Of Falcons and fairings
It may feel quite different watching in real time, but SpaceX has made a huge amount of progress towards successful and routine fairing recoveries over the course of the last year and a half. Before the company became truly famous (and popular), more than two years (2013-2015) and a dozen distinct attempts were spent patiently learning how to recover Falcon 9 boosters, ranging from the first launch of Falcon 9 V1.1 (CASSIOPE, late 2013) to multiple instances where boosters exploded in spectacular fashions on drone ships Just Read The Instructions and Of Course I Still Love You after SpaceX began true landing attempts.
In fact, the first intact recovery didn’t even take place on a drone ship after years of extensive testing at sea – in December 2015, after separating from its Orbcomm-2 satellite constellation payload, Falcon 9 B1019 became the first booster recovered by SpaceX in one piece, landing almost flawlessly at the company’s just-finished Cape Canaveral landing zone, known as LZ-1. Several months later, SpaceX successfully recovered its first Falcon 9 at sea, landing a booster on OCISLY shortly after launching the CRS-8 Cargo Dragon mission, although several more failures or near-failures followed as recovery technicians and engineers worked through a diverse and unpredictable series of challenges as they arose.
Rocket recovery: it’s not easy
Even in 2018, SpaceX unintentionally expended Falcon Heavy’s center core, demonstrating that even three dozen successful Falcon 9 and Heavy booster recoveries are not necessarily enough to shine light on or predict all possible modes of failure. Around 7:21 PM (PDT) today, barring a scrubbed launch attempt, the already-flown Falcon 9 booster B1048 – refurbished from landing to launch in just ~74 days – will likely launch and land once more, and most of the world wont even blink and eye. In the eyes of those that don’t or haven’t followed SpaceX obsessively, rocket booster recovery and reuse is to some extent already perceived as routine, logical, and inevitable less than three years after the technology’s first true Kitty Hawk moment.
The point of this brief SpaceX history lesson is to emphasize that fairing recovery is an extremely young technology, even for SpaceX. Before Mr. Steven swooped into existence, SpaceX had begun attempting to softly land payload fairings in the ocean around the start of 2017, and Mr. Steven famously returned to Port of San Pedro with an intact (but unreusable) fairing half in March 2018 after successfully launching Earth-imaging satellite PAZ. Comparing historical apples to present-day oranges, it may be safe to assume that fairing recovery’s Orbcomm-2 moment – Mr. Steven’s first successful catch – is already on the horizon.
In the meantime, it never hurts to remind oneself that – vicarious frustrations aside – observers are likely watching history unfold in real-time once again. SpaceX’s SAOCOM-1A launch webcast will begin around 7PM PDT – 15 or 20 minutes prior to launch – and can be found at the link below.
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