SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket and the colonization of Mars


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Link here. Lots of details about what SpaceX wants to do, as well as the company’s request for help in areas it is weak.

Below the fold is the youtube video from the Mars Society conference last week which forms the basis of the article at the link.

I only have one comment at this time: I worry that SpaceX is developing a rocket, the BFR, that has no marketable value, at this time. They succeeded with the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy because they could market them and make money from them. The commercial space industry needed these rockets that could fly at lower cost, and that has paved the way for SpaceX’s success.

There are real questions whether a similar market exists for BFR. To paraphrase a line from the movie Field of Dreams, it is possible that if they build it the customers will come, but few businesses succeed with that market strategy.

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15 comments

  • Localfluff

    I imagine that ISRO or JAXA could be interested in using a BFR as a space station in LEO. If SpaceX’ costs are low, they might not need too much of a market to make a profit. But it’s certainly a new product for a new market, that relies largely on political buyers since profits are hard to make in space at this time.

  • Andrew_W

    “There are real questions whether a similar market exists for BFR. To paraphrase a line from the movie Field of Dreams, it is possible that if they build it the customers will come, but few businesses succeed with that market strategy.”

    Yep, but on the other hand if we are to ever see lots of people in space as an economically viable reality BFR is the only thing so far that’s come close to making it possible and if it fails I doubt there will be any other launch system capable of making it happen for a very long time.

    Do the numbers stack up to make uses other than Mars settlements an alternative? SpaceX suggests $7 million as the cost of launch to LEO, if we round up to $10 million and squeeze 800 passengers aboard (BFR in theory has the same capacity as an A380) that’s $12,500 / person. Those figures are pretty rough, but there hundreds of millions of people in the world who could afford a ticket at the sort of price. Elon would only need something like 0.01% to sign up each year so it’s possible that we could see one of those revolutionary changes like cell phones, and computers that can happen in a very short time – if the powers that be allow it.

  • Localfluff

    Well, Musk numbers are… special. Dark math. Well launched often enough the costs come down to fuel and ground operations. But I doubt a roaring chemical rocket engine with super cooled fuel tanks can fly nearly as many times as an airplane. And the whole investment in development and infrastructure has to be amortized. If SpaceX had been a public company stock holders would require a pretty hefty risk premium on their capital costs too. RnD, operational risks, new market, regulations, bloody Mars all add up different kinds of risks that are hard to guestimate. But financial markets like new things because the correlation with risks in other investments is quite low. At zero correlation almost 60% of the cost of the risk can be cancelled out by diversification.

  • Diane Wilson

    Another factor is Musk’s plan for his own fleet of communications satellites, providing global internet coverage. If that plan comes to fruition, that would be more than 4000 satellites to launch, and could be a major factor in BFR’s success.

  • Kirk

    Diane> Another factor … [Starlink]

    Absolutely. Without waiver (which was denied without prejudice) they need to have half of those 4,425 initial constellation satellites in orbit within six years of FCC’s 29 March 2018 approval, and the rest up three years after that. (The proposed waiver would have brought that initial fraction down to a third.) Plus, there is the 7,518 satellite Very-Low Earth Orbit follow-on constellation they have proposed. Starlink may well have closed the BFR business case even without any interplanetary aspirations.

  • Kirk

    The “new details” phrase in the BI article title is quite an exaggeration. Paul Wooster offered hardly anything that wasn’t either presented at IAC 2017 or offered up since by Musk. That might have been a fine presentation for an audience unfamiliar with previously revealed plans, but it was a disappointment for those hoping for some news. Anyone could have given that talk based on what is publicly know.

    He was presumably not authorized to make any new reveals or even speak concretely of their current progress, but the fact that he did repeat what was previously said suggests that they are progressing pretty much along the stated plan.

    In the midst of answering one question, Wooster did say “The vehicle is being designed to deliver at least one hundred tons of useful payload — so that’s in addition to the ship and all of its systems — to the surface of Mars.” There has been a lot of debate about the significance of that deviation from Musk ‘s “150 tons”, but that just goes to show how meager were the bones we were thrown during this presentation.

  • MDN

    Not having followed all the details super closely I found this a useful primer. WRT potential markets to justify the cost, I concur that deploying LEO swarms quickly for the comms market makes sense, and that SpaceX could attract a fair amount of VC backing to pursue it.

    I will throw out a rattlesnake of my own as well which is the observation that asteroid mining for profit is going to be all about Delta v, and 100 tons of fuel woul probably give a space tractor enough grunt to haul some pretty interesting rocks to where they’d be accessible. And here too I bet VCs would put some serious money on the line.

  • Wodun

    We can’t forget the difference between price and cost. A cost of $7 million will not be the price.

    We can try and imagine new customers but if the price predictions turn true, SpaceX already has customers to fund their business, their current customers.

    Launching with excess capacity doesn’t matter if BFR/BFS is cheaper/better than the alternatives.

  • jburn

    One planetary use for this rocket system — a 150 ton garbage truck. It will be needed at some point to begin collection of all the junk floating around in orbit. These are relics of the disposable launch era.

  • Kirk

    The Smithsonian A&S museum just might get to display the retired Hubble after all.

  • Andrew_W

    Kirk: ““The vehicle is being designed to deliver at least one hundred tons of useful payload — so that’s in addition to the ship and all of its systems — to the surface of Mars.” There has been a lot of debate about the significance of that deviation from Musk ‘s “150 tons”, but that just goes to show how meager were the bones we were thrown during this presentation.”

    That’s two very different journeys, 150 tons to LEO reusable vs 100 tons Earth orbit (not sure which orbit) to the surface of Mars.

    The 150 tons to LEO does limit the possible passenger load to LEO to around 450 people rather that the 800 figure I was using earlier.

  • Kirk

    Andrew, I should have given more context for that Musk quote, but he was speaking of payload to the surface of Mars as well. (From @27:27 of his IAC 2017 presentation: “However, if you send up tankers and refill in orbit, you can refill the tanks all the way to the top and get 150 tons all the way to Mars.“) So that’s a maximum ascent payload of 150 t, with all of that deliverable to Mars via Earth orbit refueling, per IAC 2017.

    I’ve got no guess why Wooster said “at least 100 t”. Perhaps he was being conservative, or perhaps further analysis has shown it not quite as capable as first thought. It wasn’t part of his initial presentation, but was just dropped in passing while answering a question, so I don’t think we can read too much into it without more context.

    The 150 tons to LEO does limit the possible passenger load to LEO to around 450 people rather that the 800 figure I was using earlier.

    I don’t follow you. Where does 333 kg/passenger come in? I’ve not given the BFR Point to Point architecture much thought, but (per Wikipedia) an A380 can seat 853 passengers in single class configuration and the proposed A380F freighter version has a 150 t max freight load. Assuming those two figures can be compared, it yields 175 kg/passenger.

  • Andrew_W

    “I don’t follow you. Where does 333 kg/passenger come in?”

    My mistake, I just carelessly plugged in a number I’ve used in the past, (MTOW – fuel)/#passengers, without proper thought, which usually works out close to 3 people/ton.

  • wayne

    A Princess of Mars
    Edgar Rice Burroughs
    -audio book-
    https://youtu.be/Ax27Eo3anAo
    (7:19:00)

    >Chapter 20. “In the Atmosphere Factory of Mar”<

  • pzatchok

    I see no reason to send a human to Mars except for the ‘me first’ factor.
    Thats a big factor though.

    Pretty much everything we want to study on Mars can be done with many robots. Much cheaper and much safer.

    And we can use the rockets we have right now to get to Mars. So I really see no need for the BFR. Having plans/designs for it yes. Change the plans with each tech advance to make it better. But nothing needs built yet.

    I would like to see a Falcon Super Heavy with 4 strap on’s instead of just two.
    Thats a logical next step.
    But only if you have a customer.

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