VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — SpaceX launched another rocket on Friday, and fans waited with bated breath to find out if the company successfully landed the $6 million nose cone into a giant seaborne net.
But the news wasn’t good. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said on Twitter that as the nose cone — also called a fairing — fell back toward Earth, the parafoils that were supposed to slow its decent became tangled.
So the “fairing impacted water at high speed,” Musk said. That likely destroyed it.
Liftoff occurred just after 7 am PT from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and the primary mission went off without a hitch. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket delivered a group of 10 satellites into orbit for communications firm Iridium.
SpaceX is well known for landing and reusing rocket boosters to bring down the price of its rockets. But this was one of the rare occasions Musk has acknowledged his rocket startup’s attempts to recover the fairing after launch.
The fairing rests on the top of the rocket, and it acts as a shield for the satellites during launch. Once the rocket is in space,it splits into two and falls away. Typically, it’s left to plummet back to Earth where the ocean becomes its graveyard.
But SpaceX wants to change that. As Musk once put it, if “you had $6 million in cash on a palette flying through the air, and it’s going to smash into the ocean, would you try to recover it? Yes. Yes, you would.”
The company has quietly tried to recapture the 43-foot-long fairing halves since at least March of 2017.
At least twice, SpaceX guided fairing halves to soft landings in the ocean. But there’s a problem.
“Once it gets into the water, it’s quite damaging to the electronics and components inside the fairing,” said Glenn Lightsey, a professor of aerospace engineering at Georgia Tech. “Most likely if it gets into the water, it’s not usable.”
Enter, Mr. Steven.
For Friday’s launch, a ship, named Mr. Steven, went out to sea where it waited and attempted to catch half of the fairing with its giant net.
On Friday morning, marine tracking sites showed the ship positioned due west of Baja California.
Recovering and reusing a fairing has never been done by any company or government.
Experts told CNNMoney that the feat is extremely complex — but not impossible.
Robert Braun, dean of the college of engineering and applied science at the University of Colorado Boulder, said, “recovery of the fairing is absolutely feasible, just from basic physics. There are no showstoppers to doing so, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.”
But he added that SpaceX has the “right approach” with its try, fail and fix mentality. “I’m quite confident they’ll succeed sooner or later,” Braun added.
Musk is already tweeting about plans for running more tests and tweaking the fairing’s systems to give it a better chance of success next time.
SpaceX did not attempt its signature move on Friday by landing the first-stage rocket booster. The booster had flown once before on an October 2017 mission, and SpaceX will reportedly discard some of its older boosters as it gears up to debut an upgraded version of the Falcon 9, called Block 5.
SpaceX has already mastered the ludicrously complex maneuver of guiding a first-stage rocket booster back to Earth.
Thanks to SpaceX’s efforts to reuse hardware, its Falcon 9 rocket is drastically cheaper than competing rockets — and the customers keep lining up. The company is on pace to have its busiest year of launches ever.