Musk’s Updated Vision — BFR and Only BFR

Musk’s Updated Vision — BFR and Only BFR

Elon Musk gave his much anticipated talk at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Adelaide, Australia today. The fast-paced pitch raised more questions than it answered, but the bottom line seemed to be that he plans to shift SpaceX’s focus to building the new Mars-capable BFR rocket to replace Falcon 9, Dragon and the upcoming Falcon Heavy.

The early part of the speech was peppered with technical details about the capabilities needed to fulfill his goal of creating a new civilization on Mars — to make humanity a multi-planet species.  He first laid out those plans at last year’s IAC in Guadalajara, Mexico.

SpaceX illustration of its BFR servicing the International Space Station. Screengrab from Musk presentation at IAC, Adelaide, Australia, Sept. 29, 2017.

Since then, he said, he has been focused on figuring out how to pay for it all.  His solution is to build a smaller rocket than he proposed last year, 9 meters in diameter instead of 12, and use it for everything — from launching satellites, to servicing the space station, to making round trips to the Moon, to creating a civilization on Mars, even for point-to-point travel on Earth.

He plans to build a stockpile of SpaceX’s existing products — Falcon 9, Dragon, and Falcon Heavy (FH) — and then divert all the company’s resources into BFR.

The fully reusable BFR is being designed to take 150 metric tons (MT) to low Earth orbit.  (Musk said today that compares to 30 MT for FH, although the SpaceX website states that FH will be able to lift 54 MT.)

SpaceX illustration of its BFR rocket (the payload bay on the right end can accommodate crews). Screengrab from Musk presentation at IAC, Adelaide, Australia, Sept. 29, 2017. For scale, note the person depicted just right of the center of the BFR.

Falcon 9 is the company’s workhorse rocket, used for launching commercial and government satellites and the Dragon capsule that is currently used to take cargo to and from the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA. SpaceX is developing a new version, Dragon 2, for taking astronauts to and from ISS for NASA’s commercial crew program.  The first flights are expected in 2018.  FH has not flown yet.  Musk said today he still expects the first flight “towards the end of this year,” but conceded it was a much more complex system than he expected and hence was taking longer to build.

Today, however, he signaled the end of that program along with Falcon 9 and Dragon.  They all would be replaced by the BFR, which will be completely reusable and therefore highly cost effective. He asserted that he is “fairly confident” BFR could have its first flight in 5 years.

It is impossible, however,  to avoid comparing his concession that FH is taking longer because it is more complex than he anticipated with his enthusiasm that the significantly more complex BFR will be ready in just 5 years.

He went further, showing a slide positing that two BFRs would deliver cargo to Mars in 2022.  He joked that it was not a typo, but was “aspirational.”  He then added that two years later, 2024, there would be four BFR flights to Mars, two with crew.  That would be the beginning of a city on Mars.

SpaceX illustration of a notional Moon Base Alpha with a BFR in the foreground. Credit: SpaceX

Although he has not been known as an advocate for returning humans to the Moon, he was today, presenting a slide depicting a Moon Base Alpha and explaining how BFR could be used for lunar missions.  “It’s 2017.  We should have a lunar base by now,” he exclaimed.

The dizzying array of missions he envisions for BFR can best be experienced by watching the video of his talk, which is posted on SpaceX’s YouTube channel.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the plan he laid out today is that he wants to stop building Falcon 9, FH and Dragon as soon as there is a sufficient stockpile to meet current customer needs and then go all-in on the BFR.  That could be a risky business move.

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