SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has added moon missions to his grand plan for Mars, in a bid to capitalize on what’s expected to be the Trump administration’s shift in space policy.
Lunar operations at “Moon Base Alpha” are among the big updates that Musk unveiled today before a packed house at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia.
The rocket being planned for missions to the moon and Mars — nicknamed the BFR, for “Big Frickin’ Rocket” — could also come into play for trips to the International Space Station, satellite launches and travel between spaceports on Earth.
Today’s presentation followed up on last year’s big reveal at the IAC meeting in Mexico, during which Musk laid out a plan to build a monster rocket and send thousands upon thousands of settlers to the Red Planet starting as early as 2024.
As an economizing move, Musk said the monster rocket would be scaled down to be a little less monstrous. That way, it could take on the missions currently envisioned for SpaceX’s existing Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule, as well as the yet-to-be-flown Falcon Heavy rocket.
“If we can do that, all the resources … can be applied to this system,” he said.
Musk said the marginal cost per launch for the BFR would be cheaper than the cost for expendable orbital-class rockets, including SpaceX’s now-retired Falcon 1, due to its full reusability.
“I can’t emphasize how profound this is, and how important it is,” he said.
Musk said SpaceX would build up a stockpile of Falcon rockets and Dragon capsules, and then focus exclusively on developing the BFR.
The BFR’s first stage would have 31 methane-fueled Raptor engines, compared with 42 engines for the previously planned configuration, Musk said. It would be capable of launching 150 tons to low Earth orbit, compared with 300 tons for the earlier design and 30 tons for the Falcon Heavy.
To refuel the ship in space, it could mate with a tanker ship, rear-to-rear, for the transfer of propellants.
Musk said the pressurized area of the BFR spaceship would have as much volume as an Airbus A380 superjumbo jet, with enough room for 40 passenger cabins plus large common areas.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) September 29, 2017
The BFR could be used for all the jobs that the Falcon 9 currently handles, such as launching satellites and transporting cargo and crew members to the International Space Station, Musk said.
He said the rocket’s 30-foot (9-meter) diameter would be a “huge enabler for new satellites,” such as a space observatory with a mirror that has 10 times as much surface area as the Hubble Space Telescope.
Musk said operating the BFR appeared to be so economical that it could be even be used to send travelers from one point on Earth to another — for instance, going from Los Angeles to New York in 25 minutes.
“Most of what people consider to be long-distance trips would be completed in less than half an hour,” he said.
In a follow-up Instagram post, Musk added, “Cost per seat should be about the same as full fare economy in an aircraft. Forgot to mention that.”
The BFR would also be suited for missions to the moon, Musk said.
The vicinity of the moon, known as cislunar space, is emerging as the top priority for beyond-Earth exploration during the Trump administration. SpaceX’s BFR could take on shipments to lunar orbit as well as landings on the lunar surface, for cargo and potentially for people as well.
“It’s 2017. We should have a lunar base by now,” Musk told the audience in Adelaide. “What the hell is going on?”
Musk will be competing for a piece of the cislunar pie with a host of rivals — including the contractors building the Orion deep-space capsule and heavy-lift Space Launch System for NASA. Another prominent competitor is Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, which has proposed a landing system known as “Blue Moon” to deliver cargo to the lunar surface.
Assuming that SpaceX can meet all the technical challenges of building the BFR to Musk’s specifications, the company also would have to work its way through a tangled regulatory route to win its acceptance for all the applications that Musk has in mind, including airplane-like passenger service on Earth.
Musk made clear that those applications were merely steppingstones to his long-term objective: sending settlers to Mars and turning humanity into a multiplanetary species.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) September 29, 2017
He said SpaceX planned to start construction of the first BFRs next year, and would aim to launch the first two cargo ships to Mars in 2022.
“That’s not a typo, although it is aspirational,” Musk said when the date flashed onto the IAC’s giant screen.
Two more cargo ships, plus the first two passenger ships, would follow in 2024.
BFRs would be launched every two years, to take advantage of favorable orbital opportunities and gradually build up a city on Mars.
Over time, Musk said he expected to see settlers “terraforming Mars and making it a really nice place to be.”
“You can do it, Elon!” one of the attendees in Adelaide called out.
“Thanks,” Musk replied. “It’s quite a beautiful picture.”
Musk reiterated his view that turning humanity as a multiplanetary species was a worthy goal — not only as a cosmic insurance policy against earthly catastrophes, but as an adventure that would make life more interesting.
“It’s about believing in the future, and thinking that the future will be better than the past,” he told the crowd.