Meet the Son of Shuttle: Elon Musk’s BFR Will Do It All

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk introduced a renamed version of his Martian colonial transport vehicle on Friday that was simultaneously shrunken somewhat in size but much larger in its ambition.

The big change in the newly renamed BFR  — for big effing rocket — involved reducing the number of first stage engines from 42 to 31 engines. Despite the reduction, the second stage booster/spacecraft would still be capable of carrying up to 100 people to the Red Planet.

The biggest change involves BFR’s scope. Not only would it the basis for building a Mars colony and moon base, it would completely disrupt terrestrial transportation by taking passengers between any two spots on Earth in less than an hour.

BFR pressurized spacecraft area. (Credit: SpaceX)

The fully reusable BFR is designed not only to replace everything in SpaceX’s inventory — Dragon, Crew Dragon, Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy — but it would also render the world’s expendable boosters and many long-haul airplane routes obsolete.

More importantly, the giant rocket would be extremely inexpensive to operate while providing sufficient profits to fund Musk’s dream of establishing a colony on the Red Planet.

BFR crew vehicle propulsion (Credit: SpaceX)

NASA had a similar goal in mind when it designed the space shuttle back in the early 1970’s. However, budget limitations forced a series of compromises that resulted in the transportation system being much more expensive to operate.

Musk is not under similar restrictions from a design standpoint. However, it’s not entirely clear how he would fully fund the development of the BFR. In a presentation in Mexico last year, Musk called for a public-private partnership to support the program. He made no mention of it on Friday, nor did he take any audience questions.

BFR servicing the International Space Station. (Credit: SpaceX)

The SpaceX founder said the company would begin manufacturing the first of the giant boosters in 2018. The plan is to send two automated ships to Mars during the 2022 launch window to pave the way for human missions. In 2024, SpaceX would launch four BFRs — two crew, two cargo — to begin colonization of the Red Planet.

  • therealdmt

    Dude thinks big, gotta give him that!

    Holy crap

  • passinglurker

    Yeah the space truck promise sounds familiar at least in private hands they can’t force everyone to use it and kill all the other more near term viable ideas when they screw up.

  • BJW

    Also notable is that he shows the costs in his presentation to be less than Falcon 1, meaning less than $7.9 million per flight in 2008 dollars, or $9 million today.

  • BJW

    The Raptor engines also shrunk from 2.9MN to 1.7MN. There should only have been 21 that fit on the first stage but there are 31 smaller ones instead.

  • therealdmt

    Iirc, the slide said “marginal cost”, which is the cost of producing one additional unit, a strange measure in this case, it seems to me. I’d like to know more about what he was getting at there.

    The cost of producing one additional unit of rocket? That seems absurd. So, I’m thinking he must mean one additional unit (kilogram) of payload to LEO. However, considering the lack of payloads/overcapacity of the rocket (for today’s launch market anyway), the operator may never get to any “additional unit” (if kg to LEO is indeed what’s being measured).

    Hmmm

  • Kenneth_Brown

    The terrestrial passenger/package rocket has been proposed so many times that I can’t keep track of them anymore. Nobody that has done an honest estimate of time and cost has come up with a scenario that would make it feasible. Sure, the travel time might be one hour or so, but it’s a rabbit vs. tortoise race where nearly every advantage is given to the tortoise.

    A Gulfstream private jet can cost in the neighborhood of $3,500/hour to operate. A rocket plane is going to cost a bit more, take time to prepare and won’t launch or land very near major business centers. If you start your day needing to drive (or be driven) 4 hours to get to a spaceport several hours before the flight and must travel 4 or more hours on the other side in addition to the hour in-flight, commercial airplane service starts looking like a faster path. Many times rocket launches are scrubbed such as the recent Atlas launch from VAFB where it took another day to replace internal batteries. A delay like this puts even the most distant destination well under the time of taking a rocket. On top of that, there will be a choice of carriers and classes of travel. Baggage fees will be less too.

  • BJW

    By marginal cost, I think he means the cost to do one additional flight once all the investments (development, manufacturing, testing, pad, staffing, operations, etc) have been made, so probably the variable cost you’re referring to. I agree that sounds like it would need a high flight rate to cover the fixed costs. Should be a lot of launches (30+ per year if no rideshares, but don’t forget the internet satellite constellation of thousands he’s planning) to cover if Falcon goes out of production though. I also have concerns about the point-to-point service considering my understanding is a high percentage of people vomit when they go zero-g for the first time for more than a few minutes.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Actually his use of a barge for launch/landing makes it much easier to operate these near major urban areas. It’s as much an innovation as the rocket itself is as it reduces the travel time from urban centers to less than it often takes to reach an airport. But the real market will be cargo, not people, at least until they reduce the G forces.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Well yes and no. The IAC 2016 number was end state thrust on an end state vehicle. What is currently being worked is the entry level and ramp up to that number over the years same as Merlin. From the beginning Raptor integrated test bed was not a full chamber/injector/pump scale for 2.9MN, so the plan now is to start a entry level production at this scale (slighting higher pressure) and start flying the engines until comfortable tackling a bigger chamber. 10 million pounds of thrust is nothing to sneeze at, at it isn’t like the existing engine will have low T/W or anything.

  • BJW

    The key difference I was trying to point out is that the subscale test version is apparently now the production size. He did mention upping the chamber pressure in the future (but not the engine size), and while the size of the engine bell is not necessarily definitive, if you compare the 2016 engine layout and diameter with the 2017 version, the engines (at least the bells) are smaller. Using the 2016 plan, only 21 engines would have fit on a 9m diameter. So putting all that together says to me that they are ditching the full scale version and the subscale version is long-term, albeit at increasing thrusts (unclear how far they can go of course). Doing a new layout and plumbing for the engines would be a lot of effort and they have a ton of other things they will need to be working on to get to Mars, so I don’t see that part changing.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Yes, that is a good way to reduce the development cost. And with the smaller vehicle now it closes that’s a win. Get a vehicle sooner, cheaper. Once the fleet is flying on BFR there is plenty of room for future development as needed.