Big Fat Rocket, Big Friendly Rocket, Big Falcon Rocket, Big ###### Rocket

The Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) has another name that interchanges ‘Falcon’ with a more colloquial expression relating to amorous activity. The rocket is what SpaceX is going to build to take humanity to Mars, and it will probably work. The question that many people are asking is, how can this privately owned company seemingly appear to do things that bigger corporations that have been around forever don’t seem to be able to. Mostly it’s because of the leadership and innovative ways of doing business that Elon Musk gives SpaceX, he challenges the status quo, doesn’t take no for an answer, accepts risk and doesn’t give up in the face of failure. More importantly, he’s not spending any tax payers money (not directly anyway) so he’s not encumbered with the conditions that NASA has when it comes to building rockets, he doesn’t have to support certain areas or industries based on the influence of particular politicians who support appropriation bills. This means that Mr Musk will probably build the BFR and he will probably fly it in 2019 and he will probably have it heading towards Mars by 2022. So given we think this is likely to happen, we wanted to know a bit more about this enourmous rocket.

The BFR was first announced in September 2017. It’s ingenious design and concept aims to replace all of the current SpaceX range, currently the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy. The rocket will be huge and be able to put 150 tons into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). This is more than the Saturn V rocket from the Apollo program and well above the payload of anything currently in the offering. The rocket will be 106m long wth the booster being 58m and the ship at 48m. It’s a wide rocket at 9m in diameter so will be able to offer many options for payloads. This is the beauty of the design, it’s going to be used for everything from getting stuff into LEO, to the Moon, to Mars and there’s even a proposal to use the rocket for intercontinental travel. The 150 ton payload is higher than the Saturn V payload at 135 tons and nearly three times as much as the Falcon Heavy’s payload.

5A7CD833-07EB-47F9-AC53-182BF5DF674A
Comparison of rocket payloads (Credit: SpaceX)

The really interesting thing about the SpaceX BFR concept is the reuseability of the whole system and the ability to refuel the spaceship component in LEO. Basically the first launch puts the ship into LEO and then the booster is recovered. A second launch is with a fuel payload that that refuels the ship, this can happen a few times until the ship is completely filled with fuel and then ready for its trip to Mars. This way a 150 ton payload can be sent to Mars, and then, possibly, a 50 ton payload returned. We no longer have to worry about just doing a one way trip to Mars, SpaceX has made it a very real possibility that the first human travelers to the red planet don’t have to stay there forever. Part of the plan is to have the ship on Mars be refuelled from locally reduced propellant which would then enable it to take off and fly directly back to Earth.

The plan is to fly the BFR in 2019 and then, in 2022 launch two cargo missions to Mars to take up supplies such as power supplies, mining and life support material to help future landings. During these initial missions SpaceX wants to confirm water resources and conduct reconnaissance for safety and resources. By 2024 two crewed missions will take the first humans to Mars, as well as two more cargo missions to bring more equipment. The key first job is to build a propellant manufacturing capability to ensure that return missions can happen. This will be the beginning of what will hopefully grow into a much larger base to accommodate future human travellers.

C57FCF63-B151-454E-8F37-D39BEC4BDFF4
What a SpaceX Mars settlement might look like (Credit: SpaceX)

The other factor which makes SpaceX’s plans even more tantalising is the cost. They are aiming for each launch to cost as little as $7 million. This is tiny when you compare the cost of the other heavy launch rockets currently on the market at more than $150 million per launch. The key is the reusability of the components of the BFR. The booster will be recovered after each launch, refurbished and certified and ready for another launch. The ship itself will be recovered and also refurbished, recertified and relaunched making the entire system reusable. This dramatically cuts costs to only cover fuel and recovery and refurbishment costs, no need to build new engines and other hardware. The engines to power this monster are the currently being tested Raptor engines that are also going to be fully reusable with 31 of these powering the booster stage of the BFR and seven engines powering the spaceship stage.

What SpaceX is planning to do is really exciting and has the possibility of actually happening. It could only be seven years before the first humans set foot on Mars, something which we didn’t think would happen until at least the late 2030s. By the late 2030s there could be a flourishing Martian settlement.