For the second year in a row, Elon Musk has used the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) to unveil plans about his dream of developing a colony on Mars. During this year’s event – held in Adelaide, Australia – Musk disclosed plans that were much more practical than the ones he revealed at last year’s event in Guadalajara, Mexico. However, his plans are still a long way from becoming a reality.
During this year’s presentation, Musk spent much more time talking about the rocket itself – currently known as the BFR. The majority of the 41-minute presentation was spent discussing the rocket, while only a few minutes were dedicated to establishing bases on the Moon and Mars. This seems to be Musk’s way of recognizing that the challenges associated with establishing a Mars colony are more than what a single company can overcome.
The challenges range from protecting colonists from radiation to making sure they have sufficient food and water, as well as a method of waste disposal. Instead of tackling these challenges, SpaceX will focus on an area where it is already developing core competencies: building, launching, and landing rockets.
To that end, Musk proceeded to discuss technical details, development details, and future plans for the next-generation SpaceX rocket. Right away, Musk indicated that his ultimate goal is for the BFR to replace the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and Dragon capsules. The BFR would conduct missions currently performed by the Falcon series of launch vehicles, such as carrying satellites into orbit and servicing space stations. However, the BFR would also expand SpaceX’s interplanetary transport mission, and possibly even rapid transport between cities.
SpaceX has already been hard at work developing the BFR, including conducting pressure tests on the fuel tank and Raptor engine prototypes. SpaceX also intends to use lessons learned from the Falcon 9 and Dragon operations, such as propulsive landings of Falcon 9 first stages, and orbital docking conducted by Dragon capsules.
Plans are for the BFR to be 106 meters tall with a 9-meter diameter. Its 31 Raptor engines will produce liftoff thrust of 5,400 tons, enabling the 4,400-ton rocket to carry up to 150 tons to low-Earth orbit (LEO). The BFR’s core rocket stage will carry a 48-meter ship that will handle the payloads as well as crew and passengers. Musk envisions that when the BFR is in the Mars transport configuration, the ship will have 40 cabins that will be able to accommodate between two and five passengers each. The rocket will also have a central storage area, a galley, and a solar storm shelter.
Even though the BFR is larger than any launch vehicle that SpaceX has ever developed, Musk projects that the cost per launch will actually be less than one conducted on the company’s discontinued Falcon 1 rocket. The fact that the BFR will be designed from the ground up to be fully reusable will enable SpaceX to sell launches on the rocket for $7 million and still make a profit.
One major question that remains unanswered about all these plans is how the BFR will be funded. Musk indicated that the company has attempted to fund the project in multiple ways, including the use of crowdfunding. However, none of these methods have provided enough funding to pay for such a major project. In response, SpaceX has reduced the size of the planned rocket to make it less expensive. The company will also cannibalize its current product lineup so that all its resources can be dedicated to BFR development and production. SpaceX will stockpile reusable Falcon 9s and Falcon Heavy rockets to serve customers while the BFR’s development is conducted. Once the BFR is complete, the use of older rockets will be phased out while the BFR is phased into service.
Musk plans to conduct a first flight in 2022, with two missions being sent to Mars to search for water. In 2024, four missions will be sent to Mars – two with equipment and two with crew – to create a propellant plant on the Red Planet. Eventually, missions will be sent to establish a Mars colony.
Questions remain about the project. Musk is notorious for creating ambitious development schedules, and the BFR is no exception. Musk is proposing to develop an entirely new rocket in about five years. When the Falcon Heavy was first announced in 2011, Musk estimated that it would launch in late 2013 or early 2014. We are still awaiting the first launch of that rocket in late 2017. Musk readily deflects accusations of delays by claiming that developing the Falcon Heavy was much more difficult than originally thought. However, that is usually the case with rocket development, meaning that one can almost guarantee that there will be delays with the BFR’s development due to unforeseen difficulties.
Another question that remains is about the Mars colony itself. Despite the advancing business case for the colony, the BFR’s reason for being is to serve colonies on Mars. And SpaceX has done little to provide answers to the questions that arise about such a colony. In order for the BFR to be truly successful, SpaceX will need to develop partnerships with organizations that can overcome such challenges.
Still, the plan presented by Musk in 2017 is much more practical than the one he introduced in 2016. He focused more on aspects of the mission that SpaceX can control, while reducing the focus on establishing the colony itself. SpaceX has developed core competencies in rocket development and operations and would do well to stick to those capabilities. Musk also made strides in developing a business plan for the BFR outside of transporting colonists to Mars. This makes it far more likely that BFR development will be completed and that the launch vehicle will become operational, even if it will likely be delayed beyond what Musk’s ambitious goals suggest.
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