SpaceX successfully launched Falcon Heavy last month, sending a Tesla Roadster into solar orbit for the next billion years. But their next mission will be a profound moment in human history.
It’s 1999. Britney Spears is top of the charts. Keanu Reeves is dodging bullets in ‘The Matrix’. ‘Friends’ is midway through its fifth series. And, tucked away somewhere in the South San Francisco Bay Area, Elon Musk is standing outside his house gawping at his new $1m McClaren F1, the fastest car in the world. An oversized geography teacher suit jacket hangs loosely over his shoulders. He’s scrawny, nerdy and balding. Just one day earlier he sold zip2, his online city guide company, for $400m cash.
“It’s pretty wild man. Just three years ago I was showering at the YMCA and sleeping on the office floor. Now, obviously I’ve got a million dollar car, and quite a few creature comforts”. Even at this early stage of his entrepreneurial escapades, Musk could afford his own island in the Bahamas. But he was “more interested in trying to build and create a new company”.
Nearly 20 years later and Musk’s SpaceX are on the cusp of taking humans to Mars. Transporting humans that far (33.9 million miles to be exact) requires enough energy to tear through the earth’s atmosphere, zip through space at 62,000 mph, and land via rocket-powered retropropulsion. For that, you really need a big f–king rocket. Literally, you need Space X’s BFR, the ship Musk claims will take us to Mars by 2024.
“Fundamentally, the future is vastly more exciting and interesting if we’re a space-faring civilisation and a multi-planet species than if we’re not. I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars”
So what actually is the BFR? Well, it’s an enormous spacecraft attached to an enormous rocket. The volume of its fuel tank is 1000m cubed, more volume than an A380, the world’s largest passenger airliner and will contain 1200 tons of liquid oxygen. That’s heavier than five blue whales, the largest animal on earth. Luckily, BFR’s boosters will have the “highest thrust to weight of any engine of any kind ever made”, according to Musk.
BFR is capable of taking up to 100 people to Mars. They would share 40 cabins for the journey, which would take between three to six months. There’s an “entertainment area” too and of course, a viewing platform. Before humans make the journey however, the payload area will consist of equipment and supplies necessary for constructing a Mars base. The payload area is so large it could carry a whole stack of SpaceX’ first rocket (the Falcon 1) as cargo.
The plan is for BFR to replace all current SpaceX models, so all of their resources can be focused on the project. Costs are likely to be astronomical, but Musk insists, “I think I’ve figured out how to pay for it. This is very important”.
How will he pay for it?
SpaceX will generate revenue for their Mars mission by taking supplies to the International Space Station and launching satellites. BFR is capable of taking a telescope 10 times the size of Hubble into orbit, this will likely excite potential investors. But it’s the following innovations that will truly make it possible:
Cost cutting in space flight is all about re-usability. But you can’t land rocket boosters on a runway like a plane. Absolutely not. In order to reuse them, you have to go with propulsive landing (shooting the ground with rockets until you land). “We can get to a landing reliability that is on par with the safest commercial airliners” Musk claims. Currently, the boosters have supporting legs which help prevent them from tipping over on landing, but that’s not good enough for uncle Elon; the next ones will fly with such precision, that they can land directly back onto their launch mounts, ready to take the next ship to Mars.
“I can’t emphasise enough how profound this is and how important reusability is”
Without refilling, BFR can only get to low earth orbit. With refuelling, it can go all the way to Mars. A minute or so after launch, around 200 miles above the earth’s surface, the booster rocket will detach and land safely back on earth, leaving the spacecraft floating in low earth orbit. For progression to Mars, the spacecraft will then need to be refuelled while traveling at roughly 28,000 miles per hour.
To travel back to earth, it will need another refuel on Mars, but that’s okay because SpaceX is going to build a “Large array of solar panels, everything to mine and refine water… draw c02 out of the atmosphere, then create and store deep cryo ch4 and O2”. Everything they need for rocket propellant. Easy.
For the colonisation of Mars to become an affordable reality, launch rate needs to increase exponentially. How does this reduce cost? Many of these launches will be purely for refuelling, saving money in the long run; the propellant itself is very cheap. “In terms of how many landings are occurring, you need to be looking at your watch not your calendar”. The current rates are low compared to what will ultimately be needed.
Construction of the first BFR will begin around the second quarter of 2018 and will be ready for launch in roughly four years time. There’s only a window to fly from earth to Mars every two years, given the nature of their orbits. So, the plan is in 2022, two cargo ships will land on Mars, placing the infrastructure for future flights and sourcing water resources.
Then in 2024, the next available window, ships will take the first people to Mars, who will set up a propellant plant and build a base. Musk is known for his ambitious targets. His electric car company Tesla is almost as famous for missing production deadlines as it is for innovation. But there’s no doubt SpaceX and Musk are capable of taking us to Mars, and within a very short timeframe indeed.