SpaceX has completed the retrofit for two new ships that will be added to its recovery fleet with the names “Bob” and “Doug.” They are, obviously, named in honor of the crew of the first Crew Dragon to ferry NASA’s astronauts to the International Space Station as part of the Demo-2 mission, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.
Bob and Doug were previously used as standard platform supply vessels, which could make supply runs to platforms at sea that are used for things like offshore oil drilling. Their previous names were Ella G and Ingrid.
The two ships will be used to retrieve fairings that are typically used to protect payloads during launch. They have been retrofitted with a large crane designed to lift the fairings out of the water, as well as a winch and roller that will enable the deployment of a chain for towing. Upgrades to their communications gear appears to include a Starlink terminal that can be used to upload and download data using SpaceX’s Internet satellite constellation.
SpaceX had previously attempted to catch fairings in a net suspended between two ships but gave up on that earlier this year due to the hit-or-miss nature of the attempts. The fairings have since been upgraded to better survive exposure to corrosive sea water. SpaceX prefers to refurbish rather than discard the fairings after each use as part of its efforts to develop reusable hardware that can bring the cost of launches down.
Since SpaceX quit attempting to catch the fairings in nets, it relied on contracts with other ship owners to retrieve the fairings, but found it to be more expensive than operating its own fleet.
Bob and Doug will also be capable of towing SpaceX’s drone barges and providing support for drone barge operations, which could theoretically reduce the number of ships required to bring back the first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket after launch from five ships to just two. Although the drone ships used for Falcon 9 rocket stages to land on are mostly automated, the tug ships used to bring the drone ships back to port and fairing retrieval ships still require crews.
SpaceX’s continues its tradition of humorous names for its drone ships with the addition of “A Shortfall of Gravitas” to its fleet. “Just Read the Instructions” and “Of Course I Still Love You” are currently being upgraded, possibly to improve their ability to operate autonomously. Once the upgrades are complete, “Of Course I Still Love You” will be used to support rocket retrieval operations off the Californian coast, where SpaceX sometimes launches Starlink satellites and customers’ payloads from Vanderberg Space Launch Complex.
The use of autonomous ships like SpaceX’s drone barges are still relatively new and unfamiliar turf. The Coast Guard, for instance, apparently had a ton of questions for SpaceX about its barges, their autonomous operation, and their ability to avoid collisions between vehicles operating at sea. (The Coast Guard’s inquisitiveness does not seem to have triggered Elon Musk’s famously short temper with regulators, though.)
The new fairing cargo ships, Bob and Doug, are unlikely to be fully autonomous quite yet. However, they are likely to improve SpaceX’s efficiency at retrieving important hardware like the fairings for refurbishment.