Elon Musk’s economic version of SLS


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Last night Elon Musk gave a speech providing an update on his vision for building an interplanetary spaceship, and in the process described at length how he intends to make such a rocket/spacecraft affordable, efficient, and profitable. His update included outlining how he hopes this rocket could even be used as a transportation vehicle on Earth. However, this was what I consider the most significant:

But most importantly came a timeline that, while aspirational – something even Mr. Musk noted – is encouraging.

Currently, SpaceX will begin full-scale construction of the first BFRs in the second quarter of 2018, with the aim to launch the first two BFR missions in the 2022 interplanetary alignment and launch window to Mars. Those first two BFR missions will be scouting missions of sorts to “confirm water resources and identify hazards and place power, mining, and life support infrastructure for future flights” on the surface. Those two missions will then be followed by four BFR missions in 2024 to the red planet.

Excitingly, two of those missions will be crew missions taking the first people to Mars, while the other two will be cargo ships bringing more equipment and supplies.

Will Musk achieve this schedule? I have doubts, but I also think he has a reasonable chance, based on his track record. More important, if he even comes close he, along with Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin with their New Glenn rocket, will demonstrate the utter absurdity of our federal government spending a further dime on SLS, Orion, or NASA’s new boondoggle, a lunar space station.

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5 comments

  • wodun

    With refueling in LEO and a direct return to Earth from the Moon, it removes the need for a lunar gateway station. Being able to plop a hundred people on the surface of the Moon allows for the rapid construction of a lunar outpost and for resupply.

    But the BFR also allows for the construction of massive new space stations in LEO or interplanetary space ships because the launch costs are potentially so low. Would full re-usability lower the cost lower than current F9’s? Tough to say but even a similar cost would be a huge breakthrough allowing many more participants to enter the market.

    Bigelow and his competitors must be really happy.

  • ken anthony

    A midsize ship is just what I’ve been predicting. Building it in their time-frame shouldn’t be the problem. Making it work will be. That they propose sending two with cargo in 2022 suggest they feel very comfortable with the landing technology (otherwise they’d only send one as a first test.)

  • John E Bowen

    “With refueling in LEO and a direct return to Earth from the Moon, it removes the need for a lunar gateway station. Being able to plop a hundred people on the surface of the Moon allows for the rapid construction of a lunar outpost and for resupply.”

    Wodun – I agree, and in the short term it’s good to do without a station around the Moon. A surface station only has half as much radiation, being protected by the Moon itself on one side, even before shielding. There are other reasons too.

    However, I’d still like to see stations in lunar orbit at some point, just because it’s one of the milestones on the way to being able to go anywhere, live anywhere in the Solar System. It’s hard, but worthwhile. Perhaps it will be accomplished with Bigelow habitats.

  • Mitch S

    As the article stated, even Musk considers the timeline “aspirational”.
    But anything close to that is still impressive.
    Imagine rockets landing on the moon and Mars upright just like in old sci-fi movies!
    Though 100 people to mars per rocket sounds high – does it really have the room to house and support them for that long a trip? Not to mention the need for radiation shielding – the requirements of seem to still be undetermined.
    Was it here I saw a link to a recent report that mammals may be more sensitive to cosmic rays than previously thought?

    https://www.sciencealert.com/scientists-have-discovered-that-going-to-mars-might-be-twice-as-deadly-as-we-thought

    I find the plan to retire the smaller rockets in favor of the “BFR” interesting.
    Reminds me or the thought behind the A380. If you fly 500 people on one plane it’s cheaper per passenger than flying them on two smaller planes.
    But what happened is not all 500 want to fly at the same time. If you have a route that handles 500 passengers/day you have to put them on one A380 but a competitor can offer two flights using smaller planes (such as a B787) and thereby better accommodate passenger schedules.
    Likewise for the BFR to be economical it will have to carry many more satellites per launch than the Falcons. One launch limits all those satellites to a fixed choice of orbits. And the consequences of a launch failure will be greater.

  • Edward

    Mitch S asked “Though 100 people to mars per rocket sounds high – does it really have the room to house and support them for that long a trip? Not to mention the need for radiation shielding – the requirements of seem to still be undetermined.

    Zero G makes the available space seem larger. Compare Space Shuttle and ISS bedrooms with your own. SpaceX’s concept has been reduced in diameter, so it may be harder to pack 100 people into the smaller space. I hope they all get along.

    If you have a route that handles 500 passengers/day you have to put them on one A380 but a competitor can offer two flights using smaller planes (such as a B787) and thereby better accommodate passenger schedules.

    This is he beauty of competition. It allows the customers to determine whether price or service are preferred, or whether the lower price allows for enough additional customers to keep both companies profitable.

    It may be that BFR does not find enough customers, in which case SpaceX may have to scramble to retool for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. There is not yet a market for BFR, but that could change.

    So far, no one is seriously working on any hardware to colonize, mine, or seriously explore either the Moon or Mars. Even SpaceX is not making the structures it says it wants in either place. A large spacecraft is a lot of overkill for initial explorations, but if it is inexpensive enough, then maybe it does not matter. If all Magellan had was a modern cruise ship, I am sure that he would have taken it, despite it being overdesigned for the use.

    for the BFR to be economical it will have to carry many more satellites per launch than the Falcons. One launch limits all those satellites to a fixed choice of orbits.

    Right now the only popular orbit that BFR could serve with a lot of satellites is geostationary orbit. But perhaps the Moon and Mars will become popular destinations, once the transportation is available. Perhaps a market will come into existence for one-hour travel around the world to keep BFR afloat while the other markets develop — although he does not seem to have launch/landing pads under construction anywhere.

    On the other hand, if each BFR can be used as many times as an airliner then it may not be very expensive to operate, and taking a single satellite could be less expensive than a pair on an Ariane VI.

    I think that Musk is taking quite a risk in (seemingly) betting the company on BFR, but he may also have an option to regroup into his current successful rockets, if necessary.

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