Video: SpaceX Develops "Catcher" Boat for Rocket Fairings

Published Jan 9, 2019 7:15 PM by The Maritime Executive

Commercial rocket company SpaceX has built its business model around recovering as much of its equipment as possible after each launch. Reused rockets save SpaceX tens of millions of dollars for each flight, relative to single-use operations, and that savings can be passed on to its customers.  

To make recoveries possible, SpaceX has developed several novel methods for retrieving components at sea. It has two autonomous deck barges that serve as offshore landing pads for booster rockets, and it has recovered multiple boosters after launch from its Cape Canaveral site. One recent at-sea recovery made history: on December 3, a SpaceX orbital-class booster rocket became the first of its kind to make three full round trips, thanks to a successful deck barge landing.

SpaceX is also developing a specialized workboat to retrieve rocket nose cone fairings - the high tech aerodynamic shells that surround the payload during launch. This unusual boat, dubbed Mr. Stevens, is intended to work like a catcher's mitt. It is a fast crewboat retrofitted with a large net above its back deck, and its role is to maneuver underneath a fairing as it falls towards the sea. (The fairings are equipped with parachutes, slowing their descent.)

So far, the catching tests have not been successful, but the but the boat has still managed to recover the fairings from the water for later reuse. After the Mr. Stevens missed two fairings from a live launch last year, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said that the "plan is to dry them out and launch again. Nothing wrong with a little swim."

In another recent test, a helicopter dropped a fairing from altitude so that the Mr. Stevens could make an attempt at a catch (top). The effort was not successful, but the boat came within feet of landing the fairing. Musk has previously said that each fairing is worth $6 million, raising the prospect of significant savings from recovery and reuse.