SpaceX has stopped attempting to catch rocket fairings as part of efforts to improve its ability to reuse rocket components with a minimum of refurbishment. It cites the limited effectiveness of the method used to catch them, which involved a large net extended from the recovery ships, which were named Ms. Chief and Ms. Tree in SpaceX’s tradition of humorous names for its ships.
Catching the fairings would have reduced their exposure to highly corrosive sea water. The fairings are part of the nose cone on top of the rocket and protect payloads being sent into orbit while the rocket punches its way through Earth’s atmosphere on a trip that includes the potential for dangerously high acceleration and vibrations that would otherwise damage the payload. As recently as eight months ago, SpaceX had this successful fairing recovery:
SpaceX uses the same reasoning to use the drone ships named Just Read the Instructions and Of Course I Still Love You to catch the first stage of its Falcon 9 rockets. Doing it out at sea simply adds an additional safety component over landings back at the launch site.
By making use of the drone ships, SpaceX can reduce the workload needed to refurbish the first stages and bring costs down for buyers of launch services who agree to make use of a previously flown booster stage. Just last Wednesday, the same first stage booster that launched NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley in the DEMO-2 flight to the International Space Station was reused for the seventh time to send sixty more Starlink satellites into orbit.
Test launches and landings of SpaceX’s Starship prototypes have been explosive enough and allegedly unsafe enough to attract unwelcome attention from regulators and spur Congress into calling for a committee hearing into the safety of operations at its Boca Chica facility. Although no one was injured in the explosions, safety may be a legitimate concern, considering that pieces of SpaceX’s rockets have come down on at least one farm in Washington State.
Landing the components on a drone ship out at sea is simply one way to reduce the risk in the event of an accident. Though, of course, Elon Musk would very much like to save the trip back to port by resolving the cause of the explosions and making it possible to bring the rocket directly back to the landing pad without attracting unwanted attention from the regulators who have so frequently annoyed him by causing delays in his companies’ operations.
(It’s not always safety issues. The current delay in the final approval of Tesla’s Gigafactory Berlin appears to be more about bureaucratic red tape than about safety.)
However, the efforts to catch rocket fairings were only successful in 9 out of 50 tries. SpaceX determined that the operations necessary to have a less than 20% chance of actually catching them were more expensive than doing a little more work to refurbish them.
The two ships used of these operations have apparently been stripped of their SpaceX branding and sold to unknown parties. Elon Musk’s statements on the matter does not appear to have ruled out the possibility that SpaceX could come up with another method for catching the fairings once they’ve done their job and then released the payload so that it can maneuver toward its final destination.