A Look at SpaceX’s Mars Plans

Interplanetary Transport System (Credit: SpaceX)
Interplanetary Transport System (Credit: SpaceX)

Upper stage of Interplanetary Transport System with passenger area. (Credit: SpaceX)
Upper stage of Interplanetary Transport System with passenger area. (Credit: SpaceX)
The Interplanetary Transport System compared with other boosters. (Credit: SpaceX)
The Interplanetary Transport System compared with other boosters. (Credit: SpaceX)
Interplanetary Transport System compared with the Saturn V. (Credit: SpaceX)
Interplanetary Transport System compared with the Saturn V. (Credit: SpaceX)
Interplanetary Transport System first stage details. (Credit; SpaceX)
Interplanetary Transport System first stage details. (Credit: SpaceX)
Raptor engine specifications (Credit: SpaceX)
Raptor engine specifications (Credit: SpaceX)
Interplanetary Transport System has 42 Raptor engines in its first stage. (Credit: SpaceX)
Interplanetary Transport System has 42 Raptor engines in its first stage. (Credit: SpaceX)
Raptor engine hot fire. (Credit SpaceX)
Raptor engine hot fire. (Credit SpaceX)
Interplanetary Transport System architecture for Mars voyages. (Credit: SpaceX)
Interplanetary Transport System architecture for Mars voyages. (Credit: SpaceX)
Tank for the Interplanetary Transport System. (Credit: SpaceX)
Tank for the Interplanetary Transport System. (Credit: SpaceX)
Interior of Interplanetary Transport System tank. (Credit: SpaceX)
Interior of Interplanetary Transport System tank. (Credit: SpaceX)
A view from martian orbit. (Credit: SpaceX)
A view from martian orbit. (Credit: SpaceX)

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  • disqus_bramcan

    35 engines. I don’t get it? Surely multiple launches is much safer and efficient! You got to love Elon though, where would we be without people like him.! Totally bonkers is how some thought of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and nobody’s arguing now.

  • mlc449

    It’s a bit more than 35 engines. Try 42 for the first stage and 9 for the second. That’s a lot of engines.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    The fuel can go up on much smaller launch vehicles but the 150 t passenger compartment and lander needs something big to lift it.

    Or he would have to design the ship in 3 parts that can be fitted together in an aerodynamic shape.

  • Snofru Chufu

    Is there another usage for Raptor engines at SpaceX, aside this Mars Transporter?

  • ThomasLMatula

    I bet that will really shake the viewing area at KSC when it launches 🙂

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    The base is the schematic is different from the animation (somewhat to be expected). I’m liking the architecture generally, but still feeling twitchy about landing back on the launch mount.

  • nathankoren

    It’s 42 engines *and* multiple launches for propellant transfer.

    For decades, space geeks have argued over how to achieve cost-effective spaceflight. It always comes down to economies of scale, but there are different ways one can think of “scale”.

    NASA has always gone for economies of *physical* scale. The larger your vehicle, the better the ratio of propellant to mass, so that’s more cost-effective in some respects.

    Most of the alt.space crowd has gone for economies of *operational* scale. Make your vehicles reusable and fly them often. You always need a decent-sized army of personnel to support *any* space programm, so it’s more cost-effective to amortise this over many routine flights (which also encourages the development of more efficient operational procedures) rather than fly once or twice a year. Given that labor is a far bigger portion of the spaceflight budget than propellant, this is a more compelling argument to me. This doesn’t make the first argument *wrong*, per se — just somewhat marginal.

    There’s a third type of efficiency, argued by the “big dumb booster” advocates. Building a spacecraft by hand is always going to be expensive. If you built the equivalent low-end Kia using entirely customised and hand-crafted parts, then it would probably cost millions of dollars (mostly in labor). So rather than worrying about propellant efficiency or reusability, just build it on a production line, automating the process as much as possible. That’s efficiency of *manufacturing* scale.

    You can make good arguments for all three of these concepts, and I’ve seen people literally spend decades arguing that one type of efficiency was superior to another. It becomes a strikingly partisan issue.

    Part of Elon Musk’s brilliance was that he is uninterested in partisanship, so h can see that these types of scale are not mutually exclusive. His solution has always been to build large vehicles, on production lines, that are reusable and fly often. All the economies of scale, all at once.

  • therealdmt

    The US Air Force has given them some funding towards developing a Raptor-powered 2nd stage for the Falcon Heavy.

    Beyond that, I wonder how the current Merlin-powered Falcon rockets fit into their plans after the ITS is developed. Considering each use reduces the per flight cost of a reusable system, they’ll want to fly the big booster as much as possible. If they can aggregate payloads, they would have an incentive to combine what would have been many Falcon 9 flights into a ITS booster flight. Of course, some payloads will need to go to unique orbits though, so I wonder if they will make smaller Raptor-powered rockets, perhaps in the Falcon 1, Falcon 9, and Falcon Heavy size range. That would have side benefits of simplifying manufacturing, fuel manufacturing and handling, reuseability (no coking with methane) and even the elimination of the Falcon rockets’ pesky helium bottles.

    We’ll see…

  • hightimber

    All of a sudden, Falcon Heavy looks like Falcon Husky. This is definitely one BFR.

  • windbourne

    omg. That tank is a MONSTER.
    And they are already building this. Amazing.

  • windbourne

    why? I would guess that it is just as easy to land back at the launch point as anywhere else. And if it has very little fuel left, it should not matter.

  • windbourne

    Lots of good points.
    That is also why I think that this will be used for the moon.
    Seriously, the GOP and many others wish to go to the moon. The SLS is way way too expensive.
    BUT, flying the BFR 1x / month with cargo to send to the moon, will make the moon CHEAP, but also Mars.

  • windbourne

    Why? All he needs to do is fly the BFR 1-2x / month to keep costs low.

  • windbourne

    There is, but a better question to ask is, is there another usage for the BFR?
    And there is. Going to the moon.

  • Chad Overton

    Really wish Elon would have taken more questions from the actual space press. So here are some of mine and I hope these trickle up to the people that are in position to ask them.

    -How will crew and cargo be removed from the spacecraft once on Mars?
    -Where will the 42 engine Beast be test fired? My understanding is that McGregor cannot support that much sound/vibration due to local legislation.
    -Has SpaceX evaluated logistics for consumables for 100 people, for instance food and water for 2 years before being replenished?
    -Are they planning on pre-positioning supplies?
    -Have they reviewed landing sights for crew and Red Dragon?
    -Will there be any pathfinder tech sent on Red Dragon flights such as ISRU or greenhouses?
    -Could the BFR be used as a SSTO with a smaller payload?
    -Will there be fairings created for the BFR when not using the spacecraft/tanker?
    -Who has SpaceX consulted with regarding Human Factors such as radiation and such?

    I’m sure there are more questions to ask but these where the first to come to mind after watching the presentation.

    Side note: What the hell was up with the crowd and some of those questions?

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    SpaceX is short of development money and time. He may have given an estimate of 6 years but using Elon’s track record several people have estimated 16-20 years.

    He cannot afford to add an army of people so something has to go. There is no existing replacement for the large Moon and Mars passenger lander, consequently the BFR is the item to be axed.

    The 50 tonne limit is the payload of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, due to have its maiden flight within a few months.

  • disqus_bramcan

    Insightful points just got those grainy films of the n1 in my head. And always believed what I was told about it being over complicated compared to sat5.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Well being 5 metres off on a concrete pad is OK. Not saying they can’t get super accurate with a 12m wide booster, just that the thought of it induces a high pucker factor.

  • therealdmt

    Sounded like the questions were coming from Margaritavile. I bet Elon wasn’t thrilled either — kinda took away from a momentous occasion.

  • windbourne

    Other than the Model X and FH, he has typically had times increase be less than several years.
    And in light of raptor being tested NOW, AND his putting parts together, I would guess that he will be on musk time(2 yrs or 25% late).

    And once moon shots start, I have no doubt that if SpaceX is running late, that a DEM CONgress/president will happily give him money. After all, landing 150 tonnes on the moon would be a HUGE deal.

  • therealdmt

    Good point. Any use of these rockets outside the Mars stuff, which can only be done over a relatively short time frame that swings around every 2 years, will help lower the per seat costs of the Mars venture.

    Other than solar power satellites or some giant space station, neither of which are really on the boards yet, the Moon is the only thing that could really use all that lift. And the moon, to varying extents, actually is on the boards. Elon might not be interested in the moon, but he sure will be interested in amortorizing the development costs of that Interplanetary transport system…

  • JamesG

    So, how many centuries of Tesla carbon credits will each BFR launch use up do you figure?

  • JamesG

    Built.

  • windbourne

    bingo.
    The GOP runs around screaming that we should be on the moon. In addition, they are backed by Bigelow.
    However, the SLS at 1-3B / shot is just too f***ing expensive.
    There is NO WAY that we can do anything on the moon with it.
    However, if this can put up 150 tonnes or more to LEO AND will costs .5B and under, that makes the moon a go for private space. I have no doubt that CONgress will be happy to spend money on Boeing, L-Mart, ULA, Bigelow, and possibly SpaceX to get us to the moon.

    It will depend who controls CONgress and president. If Dems Control CONgress, well, they love to spend money on eveyrthing. If the GOP does, then they would just as soon cut off their nose as opposed to allow SpaceX up there.

  • JamesG

    You are really going to drag politics into this? Poltics or “religion”, but not both in one thread please!

  • patb2009

    I kind of doubt it, absent a major war or a killer asteroid.

    They need to spread it around

  • windbourne

    Spread what? The money or launches? If you want to spread the money, than it makes sense for America to invest into SX now. The reason, assuming that they will be at .5b or so to launch, is that it will enable us to do the moon, mars, Leo space stations, etc.
    With cheap launches of that size, it will enable us to spend money on Bigelow going to the moon. Ideally, we would also spend on other systems while expanding into earth-moon area. Ultimately, companies like BO will compete in same size.

  • windbourne

    Tesla no longer owns those. Other car makers have been buying them because they refuse to compete.

  • windbourne

    CONgress funding of NASA is PURE politics.

  • JamesG

    DOH!

    But wait, the are just pieces of paper. They could produce a million more VIN plates for ecars, throw them in the bay and wallah! New ones to sell!

  • Emmet Ford

    My understanding is that he did a follow-up Q&A with just the press for that very reason.

  • Douglas Messier

    He did. I was able to call in. Audio was a little difficult to understand in parts, but he did take questions.

  • Douglas Messier
  • windbourne

    good point.
    But, hopefully, CA kills that stupid program soon and simply follows the other nation in saying that in 2025, that no more gas/diesel passenger vehicles will be sold in their state. Ideally, they would also say, no new ones would be allowed in to be licensed as well.

  • Emmet Ford

    “Elon, where are you going to build this monster?”

    “Maybe Mischoud.”

    “Mr Musk, you have the congressional delegation from Louisiana on line one.”

    “Suborbitally, we could put 100+ tons anywhere on the planet in under 45 minutes.”

    “Mr Musk, you have the Air Force on line two.”

    “Mr Musk, you have the Marines on line three.”

  • JamesG

    Yep. Those were entirely intentional.

  • JamesG

    What is the US national debt again?
    Other than relatively “small change” funding, that an’t going to happen. Recall that NASA has its own little heavy lift project.
    No matter what breadcrumbs Musk suggests around. SLS is not a competition program. There is pretty much zero chance of any Federal money coming to the BFR/ITS, unless SLS gets canned. And (to go political) that is not going to happen under a Dem Congress or President.

  • jon_downfromthetrees

    The hardware looks doable to me. It’s been 50 years since Saturn 5. Building a marginally larger vehicle using current tech to generate 3x-4x thrust does not seem a stretch.

    What I take to be living quarters on the spaceship itself seem small for 100 people. Tough to guess, tho, from an artist’s sketch.

    The higher-speed transit surprised me. That’s a good idea for all sorts of reasons. No secret that what we really need to open up the Solar System are propulsion systems that can push us to Mars in a few weeks, not months.

    Harder problems surround supporting and protecting a settlement on Mars. I didn’t see much of that in Musk’s briefing.

    Really hard problems: Funding. Don’t really believe he can do this for $10 billion. Also, identifying the right people and getting them on the passenger list. Early European colonization efforts in North America offer examples of what not to do: From get-rich-quick Englishmen who got sick, starved and died at Jamestown to religious fanatics in New England who executed “witches”. Pretty sure the unqualified and the fanatics will line up for this, too.

  • JamesG

    He’s got the Mars One list of candidates already.

    $10B is conceivable because its not a government program.

    The interior animation is just a basic visualization of the stripped hull and “pretty”. When actually fitted out? It will be packed with cubicles and storage. Ever been below decks in an old passenger ship? People will put up with a lot.

  • jon_downfromthetrees

    Somewhere I saw a mention of prepositioning a robotic methane/oxygen facility. Would make all kinds of sense, though, to also use an initial uncrewed flight to preposition one of the spaceships loaded with supplies. It would also provide a redundant way off the planet. (I think the initial prospective Martians will want a very quick way to get off planet, and they won’t want to rely on just one vehicle to do that.)

    Musk mentioned the rocket in expendable mode could put 500 tons in LEO. Don’t think he said SpaceX will put 500 tons up. But, since he needs the money, I imagine he’d welcome a buyer for that kind of mission.

    Besides the text location, I wondered about the impact on the Cape if a BFR blows up? The Soviet facility saw a lot of damage when the N-1 exploded.

  • jon_downfromthetrees

    Didn’t know he had candidates. Hope there’s thought given to the selection process.

    Yes, $10B is conceivable since, among other reasons, the private sector jacks the price when the Feds show up. I’ll take that number as a best-case guesstimate.

  • windbourne

    NASA does NOT have a SHLV. CONgress does.

  • JamesG

    NASA is executing the program. NASA has resources invested it in. It’s “theirs”.

  • Richard Malcolm

    Say what you want about the religious fanatics (and it was actually their children and grandchildren who did the witch executions), but the Puritans who set up the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1628-1640 actually pulled off the most successful colonization programs of the early modern period – arguably, the most successful one of all. It was vastly better organized and manned than anything in Virginia or the Carolinas, or what the Dutch and Swedes managed.

    This isn’t to defend their moral or legal code (which would have been lethal to a Catholic like me). But they picked good human capital for colonization, and organized and resourced it very well. The colony (again, unlike Virginia) was profitable almost immediately.

  • HyperJ

    Hah, good observation! 🙂 It doesn’t help to have political friends…

  • Augustín Jávorka

    I find small mistake in the numbers about weight of the system: the gross lift mass 10500 ton (metric), but the empty weight+propellant of booster only 6975 ton, and ship 2400 ton fully fueled at start, or tanker 2590 ton, tis is about 9500 ton, 1000 ton is missing. i do math (ciolkovsky rocket equation) and this weight is missing from the booster propellant mass, (must be about 8000 ton wet mass) without this mass the ship can go to orbit without cargo.
    can anyone control this numbers?