On Thursday, SpaceX successfully launched a previously-used rocket, a historic first that puts the company firmly on the path towards its promise of low-cost space flight. But, apparently not content with that achievement, they also recovered a $6 million nose fairing for the first time.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk described the fairing recovery as “the cherry on the cake” of the reused rocket launch.
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The fairing, which is 43 feet long and 17 feet wide, protects the Falcon 9’s satellite payloads during takeoff. For Thursday’s launch, the fairing was outfitted with thrusters and a parachute, turning it into, in Musk’s words, “its own little spacecraft.” In the future, Musk suggests that a cushioned landing pad could catch the fairing, allowing it to be recovered in better shape.
So far, SpaceX’s recovery efforts have been focused on the Falcon 9’s first stage, which has at this point returned to Earth a half-dozen times in dramatic landings on both ocean platforms and land sites. The first stage accounts for 75% of a Falcon 9’s $62 million cost. Musk says six more launches of recovered first stages are planned for this year.
On Friday, Musk speculated that the recovery efforts might go even further and attempt to recover the rockets’ upper or second stage.
Recovery and reuse of rocket components will, in the short term, allow SpaceX to offer lower rates to satellite launch clients. That presents a major threat to competitors including United Launch Alliance, and should shore up SpaceX profits that were recently revealed to be thin and inconsistent.
Perhaps more important to Musk’s visionary reputation, the same techniques will likely make portions of the planned Falcon Heavy rocket recoverable, increasing the feasibility of Musk’s planned colonization of Mars. Musk now says the first test of that rocket is scheduled for late summer.