From our Obsession
The private sector is heading out of the atmosphere.
If Elon Musk has to make his big rocket smaller, he’s going to make sure it still has enormous ambitions.
SpaceX’s chief executive updated his company’s plans to colonize Mars at a global space conference in Australia. He described a rocket and spacecraft suitable for transporting humans safely to the surface of the moon in 2022, to a Martian colony by 2024—and from New York to Shanghai in less than 40 minutes.
The serial entrepreneur’s speech at the International Astronautical Congress is a sequel to one delivered in 2016 that described the architecture for a rocket system that could take humans to Mars at $200,000 a ticket. While the rocket in question is still referred to by the codename BFR—Big Falcon Rocket or Big F**ing Rocket, depending who you ask—it is 16 meters (52 feet) shorter and half the mass of last year’s version. But the new rocket would still be the largest and most powerful ever built by humans, capable of carrying 150 tons of cargo into orbit, and almost entirely reusable.
The biggest criticism Musk faced last year was that he didn’t adequately explain how his rocket would be financed—a reality Musk conceded with a joke about Kickstarter. This year, he aimed to answer the question.
First, Musk said that the BFR is designed to effectively replace the company’s current vehicles for launching satellites and servicing the International Space Station for NASA, the US space agency. That, Musk says, will allow his entire company to focus its resources on one vehicle instead of splitting its attention between several. Musk described building up an inventory of his Falcon rockets and Dragon spacecraft while beginning construction of the new rockets in six to nine months. The manufacturing equipment has already been ordered.
“I had a profound realization that if we can build a system that cannibalizes our own products and makes our own products redundant, then all of the resources, quite enormous, that are used for Falcon 9, [Falcon] Heavy and Dragon, can be applied to one system,” Musk said.
A wise move in theory, the decision could prove difficult in practice; as the challenges of NASA’s Space Shuttle show, designing a spacecraft to satisfy a wide variety of missions can result in a vehicle that’s not particularly good at any of them.
Next, the vehicle is intended to be able to visit the lunar surface and return to earth. While Musk founded his company in 2002 to fulfill his dream of seeing humans colonize the red planet, most government space agencies are interested in stopping on the moon en route. This is both to develop the needed technology and because it is a far cheaper and thus more saleable goal. US space policy in the age of Donald Trump is expected to have a distinctly commercial and lunar flavor, which represents an opportunity for SpaceX.
NASA is already contemplating public-private partnerships, akin to the one that helped SpaceX develop its own technology, to explore the moon. At a congressional hearing in early September, NASA’s director of advanced exploration systems, Jason Cruzan, described the agency’s plans to use privately-developed lunar landers and rockets to perform robotic science missions on the lunar surface, and lay the groundwork for human exploration. The administration’s decision to tap Oklahoma congressman Jim Bridenstine to lead NASA is seen as confirming that view, though the Senate has yet to confirm him.
SpaceX’s rivals haven’t missed this trend. The hearing featured a representative from Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ well-funded rocket company, describing the company’s Blue Moon lunar lander. Another came from Astrobotic, a company which plans to launch a moon mission for its own lander, Peregrine, on a rocket built by United Launch Alliance, SpaceX’s chief competitor for government launch business. The real-estate baron and space entrepreneur Robert Bigelow had made it simple with a cartoon case for returning to the moon.
In cannibalizing the lunar business plans of his competitors, Musk is only behaving like a self-respecting tech CEO. His presentation also borrowed from Virgin Galactic, which hopes to use a suborbital space plane to carry people like an ultra-fast airliner. To close out the show, Musk shared a rendering of his enormous rocket flying passengers from point to point on earth’s surface, reducing the time of any trip to less than an hour. While it is hard to imagine daily service between major metropolitan areas provided by a rocket the size of the Saturn V, it’s possible with the technology the company is imagining.
SpaceX has said in the past that it hoped to finance its Martian plans by operating an internet-broadcasting satellite constellation, but that scheme has faced regulatory difficulties and Musk did not mention them during his talk.
The proposed system depends on a number of still-unproven technologies, including enormous carbon fiber tanks to carry propellants; a new engine called the Raptor that runs on methane; the ability to mine propellants on the moon and Mars; and re-fuelling the vehicle in space. This year, Musk did not share any dollar figures about the cost of developing the rocket or the tickets to ride it, but he did say that it would be cheaper per unit of mass than any existing rocket.
SpaceX has already developed the world’s most advanced and cost-effective rocket booster technology in the Falcon 9, and has captured a huge share of the private satellite launch market while flying missions for the US Air Force and NASA. In 2017, the company has outstripped rivals by flying 13 successful missions, eight of which returned the booster rocket to earth, in its most productive year ever. SpaceX is valued by its investors at more than $20 billion.
But the company has faced some recent setbacks in its quest to colonize the solar system. At a conference in July, a visibly disappointed Musk said that a plan—known as the Red Dragon program—to modify the Dragon spacecraft, which services the International Space Station, and send it to Mars would be cancelled to prioritize the system he described today. Red Dragon turned out to require a serious redesign of the vehicle’s heat shield, which would have made it impossible to achieve on time while accomplishing the company’s other goals.
Musk’s new plan envisions sending a cargo mission to Mars without humans on board in 2022—the next window when it is easy to fly from earth to the red planet. Then, in 2024, he hopes to follow up with human colonization. The BFR is designed to carry about 100 passengers, with 40 cabins and several community spaces during a mooted three- to six-month voyage. Such a mission is far more ambitious than anything currently contemplated by space exploration agencies, and for that reason many are skeptical of the timeline described by Musk, who has been a serial over-promiser when it comes to delivery dates.
At the same time, few organizations have SpaceX’s engineering talent, finances, and recent experience in developing new space technology.
Pivoting its business plan to make best use of existing technology has allowed SpaceX to thrive where other rocket start-ups have failed. Musk’s remarks came on the ninth anniversary of the company’s first successful launch. But SpaceX abandoned that vehicle, the Falcon 1, because it could not make enough money from it. It adapted the design for a space capsule to win a series of contracts from NASA that became the foundation of its business.
Now, with its inter-planetary vehicle, SpaceX is following the money once again. After all, there’s no shame in returning humans to the moon.
“It’s 2017,” Musk said. “We should have a lunar base by now. What the hell’s going on?”