A hop and a skip away from SpaceX’s first Falcon 9 Block 5 recovery, the company’s famous fairing recovery vessel Mr Steven was caught by Teslarati photographer Pauline Acalin performing some unusual maneuvers at sea, hauling what can only have been the intact fairing half recovered after SpaceX’s March 30 launch of Iridium NEXT-5.
Why exactly the fairing half was aboard Mr Steven for high-speed trials and eventual delivery to Berth 240 – SpaceX’s future Mars rocket factory – is not entirely clear. The most obvious explanation is that these new operations are in some way related to Falcon 9 payload fairing drop tests hinted at recently by CEO Elon Musk, tests that would allow the company to hone the accuracy of the autonomous parafoils currently used to recover them. In light of Mr Steven’s newly upgraded net, the goal is to gently catch each fairing before they touch down on the ocean’s surface – per SpaceX’s Hans Koenigsmann, even partial immersion in seawater precludes any future attempts at reuse.
While we originally speculated that water intrusion into the fairing halves’ aluminum honeycomb composite structures – a common failure mode in the history of the material’s use in aerospace – would pose a problem for fairing reuse sans net capture, the actual reason Koenigsmann gave was the fact that the environment inside Falcon fairings must be kept extraordinarily clean to avoid damaging the highly sensitive satellite and spacecraft payloads housed inside. In retrospect, it makes a whole lot of sense that cleaning a fairing thoroughly enough after exposure to seawater/sea spray and its multitudes of organic material, minerals, and simple saltwater could pose an extremely expensive (if not outright intractable) problem for routine reusability. Hence Mr Steven and his wonderfully analog recovery hardware (i.e. a giant net).
After approximately six weeks of rest after its return to Port of San Pedro aboard Mr Steven, the fairing half found itself speeding around the mouth of Port of San Pedro aboard the net boat Mr Steven on May 16, after which it was carefully offloaded at SpaceX’s recently-leased Berth 240 facilities, set to one day become the company’s first Mars rocket and spaceship factory (currently housed in a giant tent a few miles away).
A careful scan of the day’s aviation activities showed no tracked helicopter flights that could have been involved in fairing drop tests, and it’s equally implausible that SpaceX would choose (or be permitted) to attempt to catch a 1000 kg autonomous parafoil a handful of miles from densely populated Los Angeles. Mr Steven’s distinctive yellow net – a brand new upgrade – was also visibly strewn about the vessel’s deck, over top of a basic wooden fairing stand, atop of which sat the sooty Iridium fairing half. Given the lengthy journey, it has made to be aboard Mr Steven, May 16’s unusual day of testing is presumably just the beginning of a number of outings, perhaps culminating in fairing drop and catch tests with a helicopter.
Regardless, the whole event was an incredible spectacle, caught in awesome detail by Pauline Acalin. One can only begin to imagine what other sights might one day – perhaps fairly soon – grace the dramatic dockside space SpaceX now owns at Berth 240.
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