SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced Thursday that the 15-year-old rocket maker will soon switch gears to focus entirely on a new deep-space rocket and will no longer produce its current repertoire of space-going systems.
The announcement comes as the Hawthorne-based company prepares for the first launch later this year of its newest model, the 5-million-pound thrust Falcon Heavy, and crewed launches with NASA next year.
“I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars,” Musk said, during a presentation at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia. “We want to have one booster and ship that replace Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and Dragon. If we can do that, then all the resources used for Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and Dragon can be applied to this system. That’s really fundamental.”
The company is coming off a string of 16 successive post-launch landings of the first stage of its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket, which replaced the original Falcon 1 model in 2015. Musk said SpaceX will build up a stockpile of the current equipment before moving solely into BFR development.
Not only is SpaceX the first commercial rocket maker to deliver payloads to space and handle national-security missions, it has developed a close relationship with NASA. The company is gearing up to launch its fourth rocket this year from Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc on Oct.9, just two days after it delivers a satellite to orbit from Florida.
All together, SpaceX has launched 13 rockets this year while also returning most of the first-stage boosters to its Florida landing pad and at-sea barges on both coasts.
But Musk has bigger plans.
Here are six things to know about how he plans to pave the way to human colonization of Mars and the Moon beginning in 2022.
It’s called … BFR?
SpaceX has already begun development of the mysteriously named new rocket, which goes only by the undefined acronym BFR.
“We’re sort of searching for the right name,” Musk said. “But the code name, at least, is BFR … It’s really quite a big vehicle.”
The 4,400-ton vehicle will be powered by 31 Raptor engines that can produce “about 5,400 tons” of thrust to lift it off the ground.
It will be the largest rocket ever built.
“BFR has more capability than even the Saturn V,” Musk said. “Even with full reusability.’
Musk didn’t lay out any figures but said it would the cheapest rocket ever, too.
“If we can build a system that cannibalizes our own products — makes our own products redundant — then all the resources from Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and Dragon can be applied to one system,” he said. “What we plan to do is build ahead and have a stock of Falcon 9 and Dragon vehicles. If (customers) want the old vehicle, they can do that but all of our resources will turn toward building BFR.”
Musk offered an image of a potential future base on Mars, with the BRF on his Instagram account.
SpaceX already made its gas tank
They developed a “new carbon-fiber matrix much stronger and more capable than anything before” to hold the massive amount of propellant it will take to get to the Moon and Mars, Musk said.
It can hold 1,000 cubic meters of volume — more than a Boeing 838 commercial airliner.
“We’ve now got a pretty good sense of what it takes to create a huge carbon-fiber tank that can hold cryogenic liquid,” he said. “That’s extremely important for making a light spaceship.”
And the lighter your spaceship, the farther and faster it can go. This ship will rely on oxygen and methane to get around.
“We’ve already started building the system. The tooling for the main tanks has been ordered, the facility is being built,” he said. “We will start construction of the first ship in about six to nine months.”
Though he didn’t specify the facility, SpaceX is now building a site in southern Texas.
“I feel fairly confident we can complete the ship and be ready for launch in about 5 years.”
Lots of thrust
The Raptor engine “will have the highest thruster rate of any engine ever made,” Musk said.
And, since the company has already mastered propulsive landing, BFR will be very versatile.
“To land on a place like the Moon where there is no atmosphere, you really have to get propulsive landing perfect,” he said. “That’s what we’ve been practicing with Falcon 9. I think we can get to a landing liability that is on par with the safest commercial airliners.”
SpaceX is so good at propulsive landing that it’s ready to get rid of its rocket booster’s legs, he added.
It’s Dragon spacecraft, which has been used to deliver science payloads to NASA, is almost fully automated and can soon get rid of the arm it uses in its final attachment to the International Space Station.
Many more launches
Colonizing Mars and the Moon will require a major jump in the number of global launches, which is currently about 60 per year.
“For a self-sustaining base on Mars or the Moon or elsewhere, seriously, you need thousands of ships and tens of thousands of refilling operations,” Musk said. “Which means you need many launches per day. In terms of how many landings are occurring, you need to be looking at your watch not your calendar.”
Passengers on Musk’s massive fleet of will ride in cabins near the nose.
Traveling to Mars will take 3 to 6 months so, he said, “you probably want a cabin not just a seat.”
And, while they’re at it, SpaceX may use the BFR to take passengers to any destination on Earth in less than an hour.
“The great thing about going to space is there’s no friction. It’s smooth as silk – no turbulence, nothing,” Musk said. “And you can get to most long distance places in less than half an hour. If we’re building this thing to go to the Moon and Mars then why not go to other places on earth as well.”
Mission critical: Reusable equipment
The key to pulling all this off is making rockets that can be repeatedly flown and returned intact.
“It’s really crazy we have all these sophisticated rockets and then crash them every time we fly,” he said. “This is mad.”
The BFR rocket will have two landing engines but only needs one.
“You can land the ship with either one of the two center engines,” Musk said. “When you come in for a landing, it will light both but, if one fails at any point, it will be able to land with one. Within each engine, there’s also redundancy.”
Don’t forget: SpaceX has come a long way
Musk reminded skeptical listeners that he’s taken the company a long way since its founding in 2002.
“We started off with just a few people who really didn’t know how to make rockets,” he said. “The reason I ended up being chief engineer or chief designer wasn’t because I wanted to. It’s because I couldn’t hire anyone. Nobody good would join.”
The first three launches of the Falcon 1 model failed and Musk said he would have given up if the fourth one hadn’t succeeded.
“Today is the ninth anniversary of that launch,” he reminisced. “Falcon 1 is really quite small compared to Falcon 9. And Falcon 9 has reused the most expensive part of the rocket.”
Soon, he added, the nose cone would be reusable.
While the Falcon Heavy will be able to carry 30 tons, BFR is designed to hold 150 tons.
He ended the talk on a final thought: “If we’re building this thing to go to the Moon and Mars, then why not go to other places on earth as well?”
What will that Mars Colony look like? He shared a rendering:
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