On Friday, at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, Elon Musk of PayPal and Tesla Motors fame announced his plans for the future of his rocket company, SpaceX. And it’s pretty epic.
SpaceX has come a long way—from having trouble getting off the ground a few years ago to making regular supply deliveries to the International Space Station and satellite launches by last year. But even when Elon spoke a year ago, SpaceX had been suffering failure after failure at its self-appointed task of landing a rocket booster after launch. This year, they’ve had 16 successful landings in a row, and Elon is ready to dream bigger.
The Falcon Heavy, with triple the power of the current Falcon 9, is set for its first test flight in a few months, but this is not the endgame. On Friday, Elon announced his new project, one that will eventually serve the purposes of the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and much more. It doesn’t have an official name yet, but he calls it the BFR (short for Big %#@$ing Rocket).
The BFR will be the largest rocket ever built by far, including NASA’s upcoming Space Launch System (SLS). 9 meters (30 feet) in diameter, 106 meters (348 feet) tall, with a payload to Low Earth Orbit of 150 metric tons reusable, and 250 metric tons expendable—twice the power of the Saturn V—and it will of course land on its engines.
The upper stage will be a configurable, vaguely shuttle-like spaceship with a pressurized volume larger than an Airbus A380, capable of carrying 100 people fully supplied to Mars. And that is exactly what Elon wants to do. He mapped out an ambitious, “aspirational” timeline to launch cargo missions to Mars in 2022 and manned missions—and colonists, not just explorers—in 2024. With flight time, he means to put humans on Mars in 2025.
(Seriously, parts of Elon’s talk made me think he read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars and said, “Let’s do that.”)
Is this possible? I have to say yes. Elon has mapped it out and believes he can pay for the BFR with Falcon launches, and they’ve already started manufacturing. It’s a real plan now, not just a pipe dream.
Will they make it to Mars in 2025? Probably not. Will they make in 2027? Probably not. SpaceX has had loads of setbacks in the past. Will they make it in 2030? I don’t know. Maybe. But the important question is, will they make it there before NASA? I’d bet good money that they can and will. NASA’s track record over the past 15 years if much worse—not because of quality, but because of money and bureaucracy.
Elon Musk wants the BFR to fly in 2022. NASA wants SLS to fly in 2019, but crewed flights won’t start until possibly 2023. Elon wants to go to Mars in 2024, but there’s a good chance he’ll miss that deadline. Meanwhile, NASA has been doing a decent job for the past decade of keeping a target date to go to Mars in the early 2030s, but the fact is, the funding doesn’t exist to do it…pretty much ever. And personally, I’d bet good money that either the Falcon Heavy or the BFR will replace SLS, maybe even before it gets a single manned flight off the ground.
And that’s not the only possible use of the BFR. A 9-meter diameter means that it could launch a telescope bigger than the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope as a single piece instead of NASA’s crazy folding design. It could launch space station components far larger than NASA can. And in what I think might be an even wilder plan than his Mars aspirations, Elon says that an entire fleet of BFRs could be used for a commercial “airline” service to fly anywhere on Earth in under an hour.
Bottom line: this timeline is wildly optimistic, but the fact that Elon Musk wants to put humans on Mars in 2025 and has a remotely plausible plan to do it puts him so far ahead of everyone else on this planet, including every major government, that it’s just ridiculous. But maybe he’s just the kick in the pants the rest of the world needs to get serious about space again.