booster recovery, Dragon recovery, drone ship, drone ship landing, Elon Musk, fairing recovery, Falcon 9, falcon 9 landing, rocket launch, Space, SpaceX, SpaceX Recovery Fleet
SWARUPA’S 6-PART SERIES ON ELON MUSK’S SPACEX
Discovering SpaceX: Falcon Rocket Family
Discovering SpaceX: Fleet of Recovery Ships
Discovering SpaceX: Dragon Spacecraft
Discovering SpaceX: Starlink Satellite Constellation
Discovering SpaceX: Super Heavy Starship
SPACEX”S FLEET OF RECOVERY SHIPS
As the world’s leading provider of launch services and the only provider with an orbital class reusable rocket, SpaceX operates a large fleet of over a dozen owned and leased ships designed to safely and reliably recover its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets and Dragon spacecraft that take both humans and cargo to orbit.
These marine vessels include:
Drone ships (or floating landing pads), support ships and tug boats for booster landing and recovery.
Recovery ships, multi-purpose ships and fast boats for Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 payload fairing recovery after an ocean splashdown.
SpaceX’s new-age Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets can be reused over and over again with minimum maintenance, making them significantly low-cost.
The Falcon 9 first stage booster is fully reusable…
But the second stage (or upper stage) is partially reusable. That is, only the second stage is expended, the rocket’s nose cone (or the payload fairing) is recoverable and reusable.
Payload fairing, second stage and inter stage…
One of the unique features of SpaceX’s Rocket Reusability Program is the use of autonomous spaceport drone ships (ASDS) to recover the Falcon 9 first-stage boosters.
On high-velocity launches, the returning boosters do not have enough fuel to make a return-to-launch-site landing, so SpaceX lands them on remotely-operated, dynamically-positioned “drone ships” stationed in the ocean downrange from the launch site.
SpaceX drone ships are modified barges with a large landing platform, almost the size of a football field. They have four azimuth thrusters fitted to each corner of the landing platform to maintain a precise position while at sea to within 3 meters, even under storm conditions, using GPS.
Drone ship stern (rear) with generators, thrusters and other equipment…
Each drone ship is fitted with cameras, sensors and other measuring equipment to allow SpaceX to record and gather data on the landings. The cameras can be remotely adjusted and moved during landings to provide a better perspective. Onboard satellite antennas up-link the landing data to a satellite to enable communication with the incoming booster.
Self-propelled and unmanned, the drone ship is monitored by a remote operator, who has total visibility, control and maritime domain awareness over it, as well as communication links to personnel in multi-purpose support vessels nearby.
The critical nature of the recovery operations places a significant demand on offshore network solutions to deliver data on the spot, regardless of operating location or weather conditions.
Prior to Starlink, SpaceX’s maritime recovery fleet relied on traditional geostationary satellite internet service (VSAT), which came with high latency, low bandwidth, and poor reliability. The systems were also challenging to install and required frequent maintenance. VSAT’s 1-2 second latency would cause lag and delayed feedback from gigabytes of telemetry, closed-circuit television (CCTV), and navigation data streaming from the drone ship. Moreover, its lack of bandwidth coupled with the intense vibrations from the rocket engines often led to total dropouts in video and data. That’s the reason why at times, during SpaceX webcasts, video connection to the drone ship would get temporarily disconnected.
With high data transfer cost, satellite internet was one of the top operating costs for SpaceX’s recovery fleet.
Under an experimental license, SpaceX recovery teams had the opportunity to test and develop Starlink’s maritime terminals prior to market release with dramatic results:
With a max upload speed of 40Mb/s on each installation, Starlink has enabled the transfer of 100s of GB of data within hours of the rocket landing. Its low latency of just 50ms, allows operators to respond faster and with greater control over their fleet.
The throughput boost combined with exceptional connection stability enables continuous live video during rocket landings and improved the video quality.
At a flat rate of $5k per vessel per month, SpaceX will see a nearly 70% reduction in monthly internet cost for the fleet after implementation of Starlink, all while expanding capability and total throughput.
Frame of a Falcon 9 rocket landing at sea using VSAT (left), and using Starlink (right)
As SpaceX’s launch cadence has accelerated in recent years, the time spent by the teams and vessels offshore has increased significantly. More time at sea drives additional risk to crew, and communications are key to minimizing that risk.
With Starlink, SpaceX has seen improved connection reliability, including in thunderstorms and thick cloud cover, which has helped reduce crew isolation while at sea.
SpaceX recovery members are now able to have video calls with their families during long stretches at sea. During off-time, they can stream movies and play online, latency dependent multiplayer games, all while offshore.
Falcon 9’s drone ship landing
SpaceX drone ships are not designed to autonomously move themselves over long distances. A tugboat is used to tow the drone ship to the target position offshore in the ocean.
The exact position of the drone ship is dependent on mission requirements. Boosters used on Starlink and geostationary transfer orbit missions typically land between 600 – 675 km downrange. The furthest drone ship position was 1239 km downrange, set during the STP-2 Falcon Heavy mission in June 2019.
The drone ship and the tugboat depart from the port up to 7 days in advance of the launch date, while other accompanying support ships depart later.
On reaching the landing zone, the thrusters and other equipment is engaged. Drone ships are unmanned during booster landings. The tugboat and support vessels maintain a safe distance to observe the landing.
The drone ship is equipped with remotely-operated firefighting hoses that can quickly deluge the drone ship in water in the event of an explosion or fire caused by a failed landing. The flames can be doused in a short time.
Falcon 9 landing takes place more or less 8 minutes and 30 seconds after lift-off (or T+0:08:30).
Braving clouds and winds, the 15-storey first stage descends unpowered. At an altitude of two kilometres and a speed of roughly 235 m/s, it extends its four-legged landing gear and ignites a single engine for a 20-second landing burn in a final braking manoeuvre just before making a soft touchdown on a drone ship in the landing zone, close to the launch site.
After landing on the drone ship, the Falcon 9 booster is secured either manually or by an on-board robot “Octagrabber”.
Technicians disengage the thrusters of the drone ship and prepare it for the return journey. It is towed by the tugboat back to port.
The drone ship takes the booster back to the port to be prepared for a future flight.
Arrival at port…
Booster lifted by crane…
Hanging from the crane…
Lowered down and waiting to be transported back to the SpaceX hangar for refurbishment and re-use…
Arriving at the hangar…
Inside the hangar…
SpaceX’s first drone ship was introduced into operations in early 2015. Today, there are three operational drone ships stationed in the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean. They are named after artificially-intelligent spaceships featuring in the Culture series, a series of science fiction novels written by Iain M. Banks.
“Just Read the Instructions” (JRTI) and “A Shortfall of Gravitas” (ASOG) operate in the Atlantic for launches from Kennedy Space Centre and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, while “Of Course I Still Love You” (OCISLY), operates in the Pacific to support West Coast launches from Vandenberg Space Force Base.
The first successful drone ship landing took place on 8 April 2016, after a Falcon 9 rocket launched a SpaceX Cargo Dragon 1 spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS), and the first stage booster returned to Earth making a historic touchdown on “Of Course I Still Love You” (OCISLY) positioned in the Atlantic Ocean.
Enjoy the rocket’s descent with this 360 degree video:
Enjoy this hilarious SpaceX video celebrating its landing failures too:
How Not to Land an Orbital Rocket Booster:
Out of total 135 drone ship landing attempts till date, only 10 landings were unsuccessful.
SpaceX has a current streak of 85 landing successes in a row since March 2021.
Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY)
“Of Course I Still Love You” (OCISLY) is currently based on the West Coast, operating out of the port of Long Beach, California, to support offshore booster landings for missions lifting off from the Vandenberg Air Force Station launch site.
OCISLY is built upon a barge – Marmac 304 – and was modified in a Louisiana shipyard. as a replacement for SpaceX’s original experimental drone ship, “Just Read the Instructions” (JRTI). Modifications included an expanded deck to increase the size of the landing platform, the installation of four thruster engines so the drone ship can autonomously maintain its position at sea, and blast shielding to protect electrical and engine equipment on deck.
OCISLY entered service in June 2015 and was based at Port Canaveral, Florida, to support launches on the East Coast.
On 8 April, 2016, SpaceX achieved its first successful controlled landing on this floating landing pad…
It was after a Falcon 9 launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida carrying Cargo Dragon-1 on its 8th resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS). The returning booster made a soft touchdown on OCISLY stationed in the Atlantic Ocean…
In June 2021, after more than 40 successful booster landings in the Atlantic Ocean, OCISLY was repositioned to California to support Pacific Ocean operations.
The drone ship was loaded onto heavy-lift ship “Mighty Servant 1” in the Bahamas and carried all the way through the Panama Canal to Long Beach where it was unloaded.
OCISLY has made 63 landing attempts, of which 7 were unsuccessful.
Just Read the Instructions (JRTI)
SpaceX named its first and third drone ships, built upon barges Marmac 300 and Marmac 303 respectively, as “Just Read the Instructions” (JRTI).
The original drone ship “Just Read the Instructions” built upon barge Marmac 300 operated for two experimental landings in the Atlantic Ocean in early 2015, but was scrapped after a landing failure in April 2015.
In 2015, some of the parts from the original barge were used to build the operational JRTI. It was built in a Louisiana shipyard alongside OCISLY.
Until mid-2019, JRTI was based in California to support missions launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California for Pacific Ocean booster landings.
It was moved to the East Coast in late 2019 to support the increasing number of missions launching from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
To reach its new home, JRTI had to pass through the Panama Canal. Because of the limited width of the Panama Canal locks, the drone ship’s wing extensions – designed to provide a larger landing pad – had to be detached and placed on the deck for the transit.
The drone ship spent about four months in Louisiana, where its side wings were reinstalled and the barge received a general refurbishment. Loaded with a large amount of equipment to be installed later for upgrading, JRTI was towed to Port Canaveral, where SpaceX technicians worked upon it between January and May 2020.
Since then, it is based on the East Coast, at Florida, to support the increasing number of missions launching from Cape Canaveral.
JRTI (both Marmac 300 and 303) has made 46 landing attempts, of which 3 were unsuccessful.
A Shortfall of Gravitas (ASOG)
Built upon barge Marmac 302, “A Shortfall of Gravitas” (ASOG) is the latest drone ship operating out of Port Canaveral, Florida, for East Coast booster landings.
The drone ship was officially introduced on 9 July, 2021.
ASOG arrived at its Florida home port on 15 July, 2021.
ASOG’s first mission was Cargo Dragon-2’s third resupply flight to the ISS (CRS-23) for NASA on 29 August, which concluded with the returning booster making a successful touchdown on the drone ship, close to dead-centre.
ASOG has made 26 landing attempts, all of them successful.
Octagrabber – The Falcon 9 Securing Robot
After landing, with hardly any fuel left, the Falcon 9 first-stage booster weighs only about 25 tons. It has a very low centre of gravity, as almost all of its weight is concentrated at the bottom where the Octaweb (the sturdy structure that houses the engines at the bottom of the rocket) is located.
So to stabilize the Falcon 9 booster and prevent it from sliding around the deck in choppy seas, all SpaceX drone ships have an on-board Falcon 9 Securing Robot called Octagrabber.
When a rocket booster is landing, the robot is hidden away in a safe place on the drone ship so it does not get damaged by the rocket’s exhaust or by an explosion in the event of an unsuccessful landing.
After a successful landing, SpaceX technicians remotely control the robot from a nearby ship, driving it out from its blast-proof shelter (or garage) and positioning it directly below the landed booster. Subsequently, the robot raises it four arms (hydraulic jacks) to grab and latch onto Falcon 9’s heavy Octaweb, securing the huge booster and preventing it from accidently slipping during the drone ship’s journey back to port.
Once Octagrabber secures the booster, SpaceX technicians (or recovery team) board the drone ship to perform other post-landing tasks including disengaging the thrusters and prepare the drone ship for the return journey. The robot allows for a safer and more efficient recovery process. The tugboat tows the drone ship back to port.
Octagrabber was first seen in March 2017 aboard the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY).
Prior to Octagrabber’s introduction, the landed boosters were manually secured. Recovery crews would board the drone ship after booster landing and secure the booster.
Manual securing requires buttressing the booster up with jacks to take some of the weight away from the composite landing legs. Metal stoppers are welded to the deck beneath the booster, and the booster is tied down with chains attached to the Octaweb. This method is still used as a backup system in the event that Octagrabber cannot be used.
The main advantage of Octagrabber is that the recovery crew is safe on another ship while the rocket is secured, so the risk of injury is significantly reduced compared to securing the rocket manually.
Recovery teams still have to board the drone ship to perform other post-landing tasks but the robot allows for a safer and more efficient recovery process.
SUPPORT SHIPS FOR DRONE SHIPS
West Coast Ships: GO Quest
Based on the West Coast, GO Quest is a chartered sea vessel and the first support ship that joined the SpaceX recovery fleet in 2014.
The workhorse of SpaceX recovery fleet, GO Quest was a part of the East Coast fleet from the time SpaceX first started landing its Falcon 9 rockets at sea.
Starting with the first mission, CRS-5 in February 2015, it supported all drone ship landing attempts in the Atlantic Ocean, serving a record + 70 missions until September 2021, when it was replaced by SpaceX’s two new multi-purpose support ships for drone ships and fairing recovery, Bob and Doug.
GO Quest was repositioned to the West Coast to support Pacific Ocean operations with a new home at SpaceX’s Long Beach facility.
A temporary support ship Adele Elise joined the fleet in the West Coast until Go Quest took over in November 2021.
Adele Elise (in red) and OCISLY with tugboat Scorpius (in the foreground) in the Port of Long Beach…
Tug Scorpius handles the towing of OCISLY to and from the landing zone.
East Coast Ships: Bob and Doug
Multi-purpose recovery ships Bob and Doug, used for towing and supporting drone ships in the Atlantic Ocean since November 2021 and January 2022 respectively…
Chartered tugboat Finn Falgout joined the SpaceX fleet in April 2020 for drone ship towing in the Atlantic Ocean.
Finn Falgout was the most experienced tugboat, having towed a drone ship offshore more than 35 times until it was retired in mid-2022.
Chartered tugboat Crosby Skipper is used for drone ship operations in the Atlantic…
Chartered tugboat Zion M Falgout is used for drone ship operations in the Atlantic…
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 payload fairing (or nose cone) is a two-piece protective shell made of carbon composite material measuring 43 feet (13.1 meters) tall, 17 feet (5.2 meters) in diameter and weighing more than 2,200 lbs. (about 1,000 kilograms).
The fairing is designed to protect satellites against dynamic pressure, acoustic effects and aerodynamic heating during launch through Earth atmosphere.
SpaceX’s Starlink satellites do not require acoustic tile protection for the fairings.
Once outside the atmosphere, these effects are no longer experienced so the fairing is jettisoned. It splits into two halves.
On fairing separation, the payload is exposed to outer space for the first time. View of Earth from second-stage onboard camera, with the payload (Starlink satellites) at the forward end…
While other launch companies discard their rocket fairings which either burn up in the atmosphere or gets destroyed upon hitting the ocean, SpaceX recovers its Falcon 9 fairings to lower its launch costs.
Each SpaceX fairing half is a fully capable re-entry vehicle with its own thrusters, thermal protection, avionics, sensor suite and a parafoil to softly touch down the fairing half in the ocean.
A GoPro inside a fairing from a Falcon 9 flight captured some spectacular views as it fell back to Earth:
Falcon 9 fairing onboard camera captures second-stage plume, first-stage entry burn and Earth in twilight…
After lift-off, the two-stage Falcon 9 climbs into space reaching an altitude of about 110 kilometres (or 68 miles) above the densest layers of the atmosphere. After stage separation which takes place around 2 minutes and 30 seconds after launch, the first stage booster manoeuvres itself back to Earth for a vertical touchdown on a prepared landing pad.
The second stage releases the payload fairing 30 seconds later. The second stage with payload continues on to its intended orbit and the fairing halves falls back to Earth.
View from half of the payload fairing encapsulating Starlink satellites as the fairing deploys:
Designed to be reusable, the fairing halves are equipped with cold nitrogen gas thrusters (or small engines) that allow them to stabilize as they make a safe atmospheric re-entry and once they slow down enough, a GPS-equipped steerable parachute called a “parafoil” deploys approximately 5 miles (8 km) above the water for a gentle, controlled descent in the ocean, where they are recovered by a SpaceX recovery ship stationed close by.
The recovered fairing halves are cleaned and refurbished before re-flying them on another mission.
Early experimental techniques to recover the payload fairings
Like everything else, SpaceX manufactures its fairings in-house. Due to size and the materials used, fairing production is time-consuming and costly.
In 2017, the total manufacturing cost for Falcon 9’s two fairing halves was around $6 million, accounting for approximately 10 percent of the total rocket launch cost.
After jettisoning, the fairing halves would fall back to Earth and get destroyed. Because of the manufacturing expense, SpaceX experimented with ways to recover and re-use fairings to save money and bring down launch costs, just like they did with Falcon 9 boosters.
The recovery method chosen by SpaceX was to equip fairings with thrusters and a steerable parafoil to control and slow the descent after jettison. To test, adapt and improve the parafoil guidance system, different ships were sent downrange to monitor the success of the procedure and then, if possible, haul the fairings from the water and bring them back to land for analysis.
SpaceX started doing this in 2016 using a ship “GO Searcher” (later it became Dragon 2 recovery ship, Megan). The ship would attempt the fairing recovery by observing the fairing’s descent and then retrieve it from the sea.
Initial attempts by “GO Searcher” did not prove successful. On its 4th mission, the ship managed to recover two sizeable chunks of fairing debris and returned it to land.
On 30 March, 2017, SpaceX successfully retrieved a fairing half intact for the first time. It was brought back by GO Searcher, covered with a tarpaulin sheet.
SpaceX then planned to position a ship, equipped with a sizeable net, to catch the falling fairing half before it hit the ocean surface. For this, in October 2017, SpaceX chartered a fast, highly manoeuvrable ship and named it Mr. Steven (later renamed as GO Ms. Tree – shortened to Ms. Tree).
Mr. Steven arrived at Port Canaveral, Florida, and was soon sent out during a launch mission to perform GO Searcher’s task of recovering fairing halves from the water.
Mr. Steven returned to Port Canaveral with a largely intact fairing half – the first major success of the fairing recovery program.
Shortly after this, in December 2017, SpaceX moved the ship to California to develop the catching system closer to their Hawthorne headquarters. At Los Angeles port, it was fitted with four arms shooting out from its deck, supported by a large net stretched between them.
The net was meant to allow Mr Steven to catch the slowly descending fairing and prevent it from falling into the sea.
Here’s an animated visual of the entire recovery operation:
Stationed on the West Coast, Mr Steven tried catching the fairings landing in the Pacific Ocean in its net, but all the attempts were unsuccessful. So the net and arm structure was significantly upgraded to make it more than four times the area of the first net, totalling an area of up to 3,600 square meters.
Despite continued attempts during missions throughout 2018, Mr Steven was unable to catch a fairing half, although it was able to recover them from water quite often.
Mr Steven conducted numerous tests between June and December 2018. For the tests, a fairing half was placed onto a barge and towed out to sea. A helicopter would then lift the fairing half to ~3.25 km (10,000 feet) in altitude before dropping it for Mr Steven to chase and catch. These tests were reportedly not successful either.
With Mr Steven on the West Coast, and GO Searcher re-assigned to Dragon-2 recovery, a third ship was needed to continue fairing recovery operations on the East Coast.
GO Pursuit was brought in as GO Searcher’s replacement…
Throughout the first half of 2018, GO Pursuit was sent out four times. It managed to recover two fairing halves. Go Navigator (later became Dragon-2 recovery ship Shannon) helped on some missions in 2019. GO Pursuit is no longer a part of SpaceX fleet.
In 2019, Elon Musk renamed Mr Steven as Ms. Tree. The ship was moved to the East Coast and began operating out of Port Canaveral, Florida.
On Ms. Tree’s first mission in the Atlantic Ocean, the ship encountered stormy weather. Huge waves teared off two of the four arms holding up the sprawling net. The catch attempt was abandoned and the ship returned to Port Canaveral for repairs. It took nearly three months for the new net to be fabricated and installed.
Ms. Tree returned to service in June 2019. It finally succeeded in catching a fairing half for the first time and on its first recovery attempt in the Atlantic Ocean during Falcon Heavy’s STP-2 mission on 25 June, 2019.
The fairing recovery zone for the mission was at a record distance of 1,350 km downrange. Although it was dark, the ship managed to position itself correctly under the descending fairing half for it to glide gently into the net. The fairing half was lowered from the net and delivered back to Port Canaveral for processing and potential re-use in the future.
It was SpaceX’s first successful fairing recovery with the fairing catcher net and Ms. Tree’s first success in seven attempts at recovery.
The next recovery attempt took place during Falcon 9’s AMOS-17 mission on 7 August, 2019. Once again, Ms. Tree was successful in landing the fairing in the net.
Ms. Tree catching a fairing half after the launch of SpaceX’s eleventh Starlink mission on 18 August, 2020…
In an effort to recover both fairing halves during a single mission, SpaceX introduced a new vessel, GO Ms. Chief, which was identical to Ms Tree.
Ms. Chief joined the fairing catching operation in August 2019. It was modified and retrofitted with four arms and giant net just like Ms. Tree.
Ms. Chief‘s first successful fairing recovery happened on 20 July, 2020, after the launch of South Korea’s ANASIS-II military communications satellite.
That was also the first mission during which both fairing halves managed to land in the respective nets of the twin boats.
The twin recovery ships cruised the Atlantic together launch after launch trying for a successful catch of both fairing halves during a single mission.
Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief return from a mission…
Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief were crewed at all times. During a catch attempt, the movements of the ship were directly controlled by a computer system; however, the crew could manually intervene if required. SpaceX had slowly refined the system to improve the reliability of the catching operation.
The descending fairing half and the ship computer communicated to autonomously steer themselves towards each other. Recovery teams conducted a poll shortly before each catch attempt. During the poll, they reviewed the current weather and telemetry from the fairing to decide whether or not to proceed with a catch attempt.
If a catch was unsuccessful or SpaceX decided to not proceed with the attempt then the two ships had the ability to ‘scoop’ the fairing from the water. Each ship had a smaller scoop net underneath the catching net that could be lowered into the water. SpaceX modified its fairings to withstand the corrosive nature of seawater. The fairing, which would be floating on the water, was then allowed to drift into the net which was then raised, lifting the fairing aboard the ship.
Wet recovery of fairing halves
A major problem with the two fairing catcher ships was that the rough sea often damaged its delicate arms. In October 2020, after a recovery operation, the net on Ms. Tree gave away and the fairing dropped to the deck. And when Ms. Chief returned to port, one of its antennas was damaged and the fairing was upside down.
By 2020, SpaceX realized that the fairing catch operation started since 2018 had a low success rate and was unreliable. It opted for wet recovery, wherein the parachute-descended fairing halves safely touch the sea surface to be then lifted by the crane of a recovery ship stationed nearby. This method supported economic reuse of fairings and often proved to be more reliable and less high-risk than catch attempts, which at times ended with significant damage to fairings and the catcher ships.
The last mission of Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief was in February 2021.
Of the 32 fairing catch attempts with net, only 9 were successful: Ms. Tree made 7 successful catches, Ms. Chief made 2 successful catches.
Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief were slowly de-rigged of all SpaceX equipment including the catching structure, computer systems, communications, and rigging – a process that took well over a month to complete.
SpaceX temporarily brought in contracted ships with cranes to recover fairing halves. An ultra-light subsea exploration ship Shelia Bordelon was contracted from March 2021 to May 2021 to take on the sole responsibility of fairing recovery.
GO Searcher and GO Navigator, that were helping in Dragon spacecraft splashdowns in the Atlantic, temporarily took on the additional responsibility of fairing recovery until Shelia Bordelon’s arrival, and then, from May 2021 to June 2021.
A contracted vessel HOS Briarwood, equipped with a crane and helipad, was used in June 2021 on two fairing recovery missions.
It was successful in recovering the fairing halves…
Ms. Tree was officially retired from SpaceX recovery operations on 6 April, 2021. The crew of the vessel conducted a ceremonial water salute to spectators as they departed Port Canaveral for the very last time.
Ms. Chief departed on 12 April, also with a water salute.
In May 2021, SpaceX purchased and converted two offshore supply ships, Bob and Doug, for towing and supporting drone ships as well as fairing recovery operations on the East Coast, where the company has a higher launch rate.
The wet fairing recovery operation has been successful in reducing launch costs through reusability.
In October 2022, a new fairing scooping system being tested with support ship “Bob”
Fairing Recovery Ship in the Pacific Ocean
NRC Quest is the fairing recovery ship chartered by SpaceX for Pacific Ocean missions on the West Coast. The ship has a crane, communications equipment and a lifting frame.
NRC Quest joined the SpaceX fleet in 2015. Originally a platform supply vessel (cargo ship designed to serve oil rigs and other offshore platforms), it was modified by SpaceX for Cargo Dragon-1 recovery operations. It has recovered Cargo Dragon-1 fifteen times.
Ahead of splashdown, the ship would depart from its homeport of Los Angeles and wait near the pre-determined Cargo Dragon-1 landing zone. After the capsule’s landing, it would proceed with the recovery process. Smaller fast-approach vessels deployed in the zone would collect the parachutes from the ocean surface and assist in manoeuvring the capsule.
As soon as the capsule was recovered, NRC Quest would quickly return to its homeport for an immediate handover of the space experiments from the capsule to NASA.
Following the retirement of Cargo Dragon-1 in April 2020, SpaceX moved all Dragon-2 splashdowns to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico to be recovered by East Coast ships.
NRC Quest was then reassigned as the West Coast fairing recovery ship, recovering fairing halves from the water after splashdown.
NRC Quest has also hauled fairings for fairing catcher ship Ms. Tree to use during offshore helicopter drop tests.
In the past, NRC Quest also supported Pacific Ocean drone ship landings on “Just Read the Instructions” until the drone ship’s transfer to the East Coast in August 2019. It supported seven booster landings.
In May 2021, NRC Quest was moved from the port of Los Angeles to SpaceX’s new West Coast rocket recovery facility in Long Beach…
Multi-purpose recovery ships for fairing recovery & drone ship operations in the Atlantic Ocean
Owned by SpaceX, “Bob” and “Doug” are two identical multi-purpose recovery ships designed for fairing recovery and drone ship operations at sea. Both multipurpose ships operate out of Port Canaveral, Florida along with two small fast boats.
They were named “Bob” and “Doug” in honour of the two NASA astronauts who flew on the SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo-2 test mission, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.
“Bob” was deployed for the first time on a Starlink mission in November 2021, “Doug” was deployed for the first time on another Starlink mission in January 2022.
Originally platform supply vessels, both ships underwent changes from May to August 2021 in Louisiana. Their large crane with an estimated boom of around 45 meters, is used to lift fairing halves from the water, following soft-splashdown under parafoil control.
Bob and Doug are also designed to tow and support drone ships offshore. For towing, the ships are equipped with a large towing winch underneath a raised platform. This winch pulls in the drone ship towing line.
With this, the two ships are able to tow drone ships to and from Port Canaveral and then release them once offshore.
Fast boats Maverick and Goose joined the SpaceX fleet in February 2022.
They are deployed from the upper deck of Bob and Doug, one each for the two ships to support them in fairing recovery and drone ship operations.
Dragon is a free-flying spacecraft designed to deliver both cargo and people to orbiting destinations. It is the only spacecraft currently flying that is capable of returning significant amounts of cargo to Earth.
SpaceX uses a fleet of ships to recover and return the Dragon capsules to land for re-use.
Dragon-1 flew from 2010 to 2020, resupplying the International Space Station (ISS) under a contract with NASA. Dragon-1 capsules made splashdowns in the Pacific Ocean.
Since joining SpaceX in 2014, NRC Quest was the only West Coast ship used to recover Dragon-1 capsules. Its first mission was CRS-5 in February 2014.
NRC Quest recovered Dragon-1 capsules 15 times until the spacecraft was retired in 2020 and replaced by the upgraded version Dragon-2.
Dragon-2 has two variants, cargo, and crew. Both make a splashdown either in the Atlantic Ocean or in the Gulf of Mexico. The crew variant of Dragon-2 first flew during its demonstration mission in March 2019 for NASA. The cargo variant of Dragon-2 first flew in October 2020, resupplying the International Space Station (ISS) under a contract with NASA.
Two identical ships, Megan and Shannon, recover the Dragon capsule and crew after splashdown at the end of a mission or in unlikely abort scenarios.
Originally being platform supply vessels, these modified recovery ships are fully equipped with a medical treatment facility, helipad, lifting frame and communications equipment.
Following splashdown of the capsule, recovery teams in small fast-approach boats connect lines between the recovery ship and Dragon, and then the capsule is carefully lifted from the water by the large lifting A-frame installed on the stern of the ship.
The ship heads back to port to drop Dragon off for cargo removal, inspections, and refurbishment.
In the case of Crew Dragon, “crew egress” from the capsule is done once the capsule is secured on the ship’s deck.
NASA requires SpaceX to egress astronauts from Dragon within 60 minutes of splashdown. They are taken to Port Canaveral on board the recovery ship. In case of a medical emergency, or a splashdown elsewhere, a helicopter will land and transport the astronauts back to land.
Between March and June 2019, both Megan (previously named GO Searcher) and Shannon (previously named GO Navigator) were temporarily re-assigned to fairing recovery operations. They were fitted with inflatables and sent for fairing retrieval. They were successful on each mission, returning with intact fairings back to Port Canaveral.
In August-September 2021, both GO Searcher and GO Navigator carried out drills with a practice Dragon capsule…
Dragon Recovery Ships
Megan (GO Searcher)
GO Searcher has been a part of the SpaceX recovery fleet since 2016. It recovers Dragon-2 capsules on the East Coast.
When SpaceX purchased the ship from the previous owner in February 2022, it renamed GO Searcher after NASA astronaut Megan McArthur, SpaceX’s second female astronaut passenger who flew on the Crew-2 mission.
Megan is the primary Dragon-2 recovery ship. The ship had been preparing for Dragon recovery operations since early 2018, completing countless hours of training and upgrade works.
It also completed a demonstration of a helicopter evacuation for NASA.
Megan recovered a Crew Dragon capsule for the first time during the first flight test mission of Crew Dragon, named as the Crew Demo-1 mission. The second time was during the In-Flight Abort test mission, where SpaceX purposefully destroyed a booster in a demonstration test to prove that Dragon’s escape system worked as designed.
Megan’s first recovery of Crew Dragon with humans on board took place on 18 September, 2021, during the Inspiration4 mission.
Shannon (Go Navigator)
Go Navigator has been a part of the SpaceX recovery fleet since August 2018. It recovers Dragon-2 capsules in the Gulf of Mexico.
When SpaceX purchased the ship from the previous owner in February 2022, it was renamed GO Navigator after NASA astronaut Shannon Walker, SpaceX’s first female astronaut passenger who flew on the Crew-1 mission.
Shannon is the secondary Dragon 2 recovery ship and is usually placed in the Gulf of Mexico. The ship was slowly upgraded to match “Megan” throughout 2018 and 2019. It played a supporting role during the Crew Demo-1 and the In-Flight Abort test missions.
Shannon recovered Dragon for the first time during the Crew Demo-2 mission on 2 August, 2020. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley were egressed (or carried out) from the capsule and taken to the vessel’s medical facility for checks. Shortly thereafter, they were flown back to land by a helicopter that landed on the ship.
This post is part of my 6-part blog series which covers the phenomenal rise of
SpaceX – the world’s no.1 aerospace company and manufacturer.
The series published on 01.01.2023 comprise the following posts:
Discovering SpaceX: Falcon Rocket Family
Discovering SpaceX: Fleet of Recovery Ships
Discovering SpaceX: Dragon Spacecraft
Discovering SpaceX: Starlink Satellite Constellation
Discovering SpaceX: Super Heavy Starship
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