Elon Unbound: Musk’s Giant Leap to Mars

A view from martian orbit. (Credit: SpaceX)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Since Elon Musk unveiled his Big [Expletive] Rocket (BFR) in Adelaide last month, there has been a lot of analysis of the engineering aspects. Musk’s Ask Me Anything session on Reddit was an engineer’s dream, with the billionaire providing detailed answers about the Raptor engines, thrust to weight ratios and a host of other technical issues.

Amid all the technical talk, there has been little attention paid to what a giant leap this venture is for Musk, SpaceX and possibly the entire human race. Not only will BFR be larger and more powerful than any other rocket ever built, the audacious things Musk wants to do with it – ranging from point to point transportation on Earth to satellite delivery to sending colonists to the moon and Mars – are on a scale never before attempted. They are certainly beyond anything contemplated by the world’s space agencies.

There is an interesting dichotomy here for the ambitious billionaire with Mars in his eyes. On the one hand, Musk is putting everything he’s learned about rocketry since he founded SpaceX into one giant roll of the dice. On the other hand, the Mars venture is a massive departure from the way he has operated so far.

Musk’s career has involved carefully studying existing industries, identifying the weaknesses of his competitors, hiring away the best people from them, and proceeding to build better mouse traps. Through these methods, he has developed electric cars, partially reusable satellite boosters, and an alternative to banks for transferring money.

Many of these advances have built upon the work of others, e.g., improved battery technology for his Tesla cars, and the reusable vertical take-off vertical landing techniques pioneered by Masten Space Systems and Armadillo Aerospace. Musk’s rockets, spacecraft and cars have been constrained by existing safety regulations and the demands of organizations like NASA that are funding development.

BFR (Credit: SpaceX)

With Mars, we’re seeing Musk’s ambitions unbound and unconstrained. There is no existing Mars human transportation system to study. No competitors to best. NASA’s plans for Mars are vague at best; the agency has nothing on the books about constructing a large colony there. The space agency has no program like commercial resupply or commercial crew to drive requirements or limit the scope of Musk’s ambitions.

Having no constraints on your dreams can be a liberating thing that can lead to amazing advances in technology. The lack of limits can also lead to hubris, overreach and disaster. And Musk is a gambler; he came perilously close to bankrupting both Tesla Motors and SpaceX.

You need to look no further than Mojave to see an example of hubris and overreach. Following the success of SpaceShipOne in 2004, Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites were given hundreds of millions of dollars by Virgin Galactic to build a successor, SpaceShipTwo. Thirteen years and four deaths later, SpaceShipTwo has not flown anywhere near space.

Musk and his SpaceX team have considerably more experience in rocketry and flight operations. However, there is part of Musk’s Mars venture that is curious: the human element. The entire point of the exercise is to send people to the Red Planet, but that appears to be the part of the plan that is least developed.

Stacked Up Like Cord Wood?

BFR pressurized spacecraft area. (Credit: SpaceX)

When he first unveiled his giant rocket at a conference in Guadalajara, Mexico back in September 2016,  he talked about the trip to Mars being akin to a cosmic pleasure cruise. The 100 colonists would have space to perform zero-g gymnastics and games inside the ship. There would also be a restaurant and a cinema for watching the latest films sent up from Earth.

It was an intriguing vision, but not everyone bought it. “They’d be stacked up like cord wood,” remarked one engineer I know about the passengers on that trip.  “Where are the bathrooms?” asked another  experienced in environmental control and life support systems (ECLSS).

These engineers believe that Musk has not done a full analysis of what it would take to keep the colonists alive and well during the month-long transit to Mars. As you start adding additional systems, the vehicle’s weight increases while the payload capacity and habitable space decrease. That means fewer passengers and less cargo.

The BFR that Musk unveiled in Adelaide last month is smaller than the one he put forth the year before. Yet, he still expects it to be able to carry 100 passengers to the Red Planet.

Artist conception of a martian colony (Credit: SpaceX)

As for how the colonists would live on Mars, what they would exactly do there, and how the colony might become self sufficient, that’s where things get even more opaque.

“Our goal is get you there and ensure the basic infrastructure for propellant production and survival is in place,” he said. “A rough analogy is that we are trying to build the equivalent of the transcontinental railway. A vast amount of industry will need to be built on Mars by many other companies and millions of people.”

It’s difficult to know exactly what Musk is actually doing here. He might be genuinely focused on the transportation aspect with the expectation that others to carry the load on colonization. Or he might have plans in stealth mode that he doesn’t want to reveal yet.

It wouldn’t be a total surprise if Musk was simply not very focused on the human aspect of his venture. It’s not one of his strengths. He is a man more comfortable with engines than with people. He has a bold plan to establish a second home for humanity on a distant planet, yet he seems to have difficulty connecting with his fellow human beings.

“Elon’s worst trait by far, in my opinion, is his complete lack of loyalty or human connection,” one former employee told Musk’s biographer Ashlee Vance. “Many of us worked tirelessly for him for years and were tossed to the curb like a piece of litter without a second thought. Maybe it was calculated to keep the rest of the workforce on their toes and scared; maybe he was just able to detach from human connection to a remarkable degree. What was clear is that people who worked for him were like ammunition: used for a specific purpose until exhausted and discarded.”

Whatever the case, the lack of details about the colony raises a lot of questions. Who will pay for the enormous amount of infrastructure needed for a large colony on the frozen plains of Mars? Will this be a commercial venture? How much government money might go into a martian colony? What would be the returns on investment?

Infrastructure is a tricky thing. We largely take it for granted because most of us have grown up with it. We pay it little heed until it breaks down; behold the example of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, where practically everything they depended upon – power, communications, transportation, water, sewer and emergency services – was destroyed simultaneously.

Trying to build it on a frozen planet for hundreds and then thousands of people from scratch on a frozen world is going to be a massive challenge. It will be very expensive to built, maintain, expand and repair. Musk seems to have a general understanding of how much would be required, but he has put forth no plan for doing so.

Here’s the other issue: basic infrastructure is usually a government responsibility. Business will pay taxes to support it, they will sign contracts with governments to build it, but they generally don’t fund a lot of it on their own. So, the question of where the money will come from for it is an extremely important one to answer.

Creating a Consensus From Scratch

The Golden Spike ceremony celebrating the meeting of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads at Promontory Summit, Utah in May 1869.

Musk sees BFR as the equivalent of the American Transcontinental Railroad, which connected the eastern part of the nation to California and helped to open up newly acquired territories along its path to settlement.

This analogy doesn’t exactly fit. The Transcontinental Railroad was only built after the United States had acquired California and the rest of the Southwest in a war with Mexico. By the time the railroad was completed in 1869, California had been a state for nearly 20 years and had already experienced an influx of hundreds of thousands of people seeking their fortunes in the gold fields.

The railroad was an audacious infrastructure project that was built only after there was a broad societal consensus that it made sense for a wide range of economic, political and strategic reasons. There were  clear returns on investment for the government and the companies involved. The former was willing to spend a boxcar loads of cash and the give away millions of square miles of public land to make it a reality.

It’s that societal consensus and clear returns on investment that are lacking for Elon’s railroad to Mars. Outside of a small group of enthusiasts within the space industry, there is no broader desire to create a 51st state on the frozen plains of a distant planet. No governments have annex lands on the Red Planet. There are no famous newspaper editors saying, as Horace Greeley did four years before the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country.”

Musk is facing the reverse of the conditions that led to the Transcontinental Railroad. He is betting that BFR will create a consensus for Mars missions by proving it’s possible to send people there.

This is typical of Silicon Valley, which is where Musk made his first fortune. The valley is a place where people work night and day creating a demand for things – the Internet, smart phones and tablets come to mind – that people never knew they needed. So, why wouldn’t a massive rocket cause a Mars Rush of settlers looking to stake their claim to part of the Red Planet?

Will this actually work? Nobody knows for sure. It’s become a cliché to say you shouldn’t bet against Musk, that he always accomplishes what he sets out to do. That could very well happen here. On the other hand, this venture is way beyond anything he – or anyone else – has ever attempted. And there are aspects of it — the human element, in particular — that don’t play to his strengths.

Time will tell.

  • Larry J

    I don’t know how many BD-1s were ever built. Some of the original design features such as folding wings and being fully aerobatic were dropped in the production version. The AA-1 is placarded against spins and for good reason. Back in the late 1970s, NASA conducted extensive spin tests of the AA-1. The plane was equipped with an emergency spin recovery chute. IIRC, the test pilot had to use it more than once.

  • windbourne

    Different conditions lead to different IP.
    And as to survive, there will be lots of new conditions on mars that we have not dealt with.

  • ThomasLMatula

    In order to issue the license the State Department needs to inform them that no treaties the U.S. is party are being violated. So they will just refer them to the State Department who will refer them to NASA who will point to the guidelines for planetary protection. That is how the process works.

    But Elon Musk does have the money and inclination to challenge any decision in court, and that could result in it being over ridden. it will be an interesting court case to say the least.

  • ThomasLMatula

    But of course everything important has been invented 🙂

    “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” — Charles Duell, Commissioner of US Patent Office, 1899

  • ThomasLMatula

    Depends on what you find there. The Virginia Company settled Virginia to mine gold. They found timber and tobacco provided the actual ROI.

    That is the problem with settlement, the really profitable imports from space are still to be found. PGMs – maybe. Or maybe some new combination of metals refined and processed in micro-gravity that will place existing metals. Or ???

    Until entrepreneurs, inventors and researchers get their hands on space resources, in quantity, and have the opportunity to explore the real potential of high vacuum, micro-gravity and low gravity in material processing, we really don’t know what wealth is possible from space.

  • duheagle

    Once again, the lunar quarantine was about what notional lunar microbes might do to us. The Andromeda Strain had been published about 10 weeks before Apollo 11 returned to Earth. As I recall, NASA went along with the quarantine nonsense only for Apollo’s 11 and 12.

    The Antarctic Treaty was a product of the 1950’s. No one in the petroleum and mining industries of the time thought they were giving up anything thereby as the technology to economically exploit any potential Antarctic resources simply didn’t exist. And, as the place had never even been surveyed with an eye to possible resource deposits, Antarctica was pretty much a pig in a poke.

    The Law of the Sea treaty that created the Seabed Authority dates from the 1970’s. The world was a much leftier place in those days.

    The U.S. had the technology to do seabed mining, the Communist Bloc didn’t. So the latter ginned up the Seabed Authority by getting votes in the U.N. from all the Grasshutistans of the world. The Soviets sold the idea based on the free money to be had by forcibly “sharing the wealth” to be extracted by the wicked capitalist West.

    Only the wicked capitalist West declined to play. Seabed manganese might have proven cheaper than manganese from other places, but not enough to justify the considerable expense of going after it given the huge rakeoff the Seabed Authority seemed sure to impose on any revenues.

    If there is ever a future resource crisis that could only be usefully addressed by seabed mining, I don’t expect the LOS Treaty to be much of an obstacle. The U.S., for one thing, never signed. But it’s hard to imagine what such a crisis might be. It sure doesn’t look like it would have anything to do with manganese.

    The politics of planetary protection don’t have any large, nation-state patrons today as did the LOS in the 1970’s. It’s true that wacky Greens now hold even more sway over Democratic Party policy than they did in the 1970’s, but I don’t see even the Dems wanting to expend any significant political capital on trying to quarantine Mars.

    And, unlike the case of the 1970’s seabed, neither Russia nor China have any interest in supporting such a regime. Both nations pretty clearly want to be players in the coming extraterrestrial economy and, while I think the Russian’s hopes are based mostly on huffing their own farts, the Chinese have some credible reasons to expect to be players. A Martian quarantine doesn’t really fit with the plans of either nation.

    Nor are the Grasshutistans of the world going to throw in. I think the example of Luxembourg has gotten a lot of the small nations of the world, even some very poor ones, looking to set up national space agencies in hopes they can carve off at least a sliver of any future extra-terrestrial economic activity for themselves.

  • Laura M

    Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty does not mention planetary protection. Instead, it says “States Parties” must explore “so as to avoid harmful contamination.” NASA and others have interpreted this to mean avoiding contamination of their science, but that is not what the treaty says, so PP is not an international obligation under the FAA’s regulations. Additionally, that provision of Article IX applies to States Parties, not to commercial operators. Again, for a private entity to take off without a good scrub would not violate that provision because a private entity is not a State Party. It may be a “national” or a “non-governmental entity.”

    Until Congress imposes that provision on commercial actors, the FAA could not legally use planetary protection as currently practiced to deny a private actor access to space.

    The process is that the FAA consults with the other agencies, including NASA, all at once. The last time I checked the case law on this, consultation requirements do not provide the other agencies the ability to veto an activity, just to provide their advice. The FAA is a regulator subject to U.S. law, and that requires a literal reading of the treaties and that it not attempt to enforce non-self-executing treaty provisions. Also, the FAA has its own foreign policy authority under the Commercial Space Launch Act, which would be another ace up its sleeve if it chose to exercise that power.

  • duheagle

    Flawed analogy. By the late 1970’s, one of the ways the Greens had managed to demonize nuclear power was by conflating it with nuclear weaponry. And nuclear weaponry had long since ceased to be an object of naive enthusiasm on the part of the general public. In 1979, The China Syndrome opened and 12 days later the Three Mile Island reactor meltdown occurred. In June that year, John Wayne died of cancer calling renewed attention to the huge number of cast and crew members of The Conqueror who had died of cancer in the years since it was shot in a part of Utah downwind from atmospheric nuclear tests that had been conducted as little as two years before. 1979 was an ongoing anti-nuclear perfect storm.

    I foresee no conceivable series of comparably high-profile events occurring that would similarly energize any Mars Quarantine campaign. There is essentially no chance, for instance, that unambiguous signs of present-day life are going to be discovered on Mars prior to BFR’s first manned departure, even if said departure is later than 2024.

  • Steve Burrows

    Ha! You said “meatbags!”

  • duheagle

    I’m not a lawyer and it sounds as though you might be; or at least someone who is far more conversant with the labyrinth that is federal regulation than I. But I have read other legal commentaries on this subject and you say nothing that conflicts with any of the ones that were sympathetic or neutral on the issue of exploration vs. planetary protection.

    Legal considerations aside, however, I think the thing that militates most strongly against some functionary at NASA, State or the FAA electing to try halting a notional SpaceX human Mars mission on strictly planetary protection grounds would be the fact that it would require said functionary to stick his or her neck way out in doing so. That simply isn’t the behavior one tends to get from career bureaucrats.

  • duheagle

    There are certainly some sizeable pieces of present-day NASA that hate Elon Musk’s guts. Most recently, they seem to have engineered the spiking of Dragon 2’s powered landings on “certification” grounds. I see the Adelaide BFR proposal as, at least in part, Elon’s riposte to this.

    That puts the ball very much back in the court of the NASA SpaceX-haters. At this point, it’s hard to see anything substantive they have left in the way of ammunition or options. The SLS and Orion schedules will continue slip-sliding to the right while Elon puts on a full-court press to get BFR actualized.

    It is by no means out of the question that BFR might fly – even if it’s only the booster stage on a sub-orbital hop – before even EM-1 gets off the ground. If this occurs, and the test hop is successful, it will constitute a body blow to SLS’s already badly diminished credibility. If BFR can actually do an initial orbital test that succeeds before SLS flies, I think that’s going to be the lede in SLS’s obituary.

    By the time the first squadron of human-carrying BFR’s departs for Mars, I think SLS and Orion will be long dead and MSFC a shell of its former self. Jeff Bezos, not Richard Shelby – should he even still be alive and a Senator – will be the new Emperor of Huntsville.

    There will be no anti-SpaceX cabal left within NASA nearly big enough to try jamming up Elon’s works by that time.

    And, yeah, Robert Heinlein grokked homo sap pretty well.

  • duheagle

    Falcon 1 to Falcon 9.

  • duheagle

    “Nothing” except re-engineer it on paper about six times, build it, test all the pieces and ship them to Florida where, even now, they are likely being mated up inside the LC-39A HIF. Assuming, of course, that this work hasn’t already been completed.

    Still to come: roll-out, multiple hot fires, then launch. I think there’s a better-than-breakeven chance we’ll see all that happen before year’s end.

  • duheagle

    Are you really trying to assert that FH exists nowhere but “on paper or CAD screens?”

  • duheagle

    Bustling growth of a colony might well prove a fantasy. Getting to Mars, though, is not in the least fantastical.

  • duheagle

    I think the idea of an export-to-Earth-based Martian economy is a non-starter. Mars, in my view, will export a lot – almost all of it propellant – to other toehold outposts of the coming extra-terrestrial economy. But the economy of Mars, and all the other early human outposts off-Earth, will grow mostly based on trade with one another, not with Earth.

    The American South started with an export-led economy and largely retained it. It was also the poorest area of the U.S. The American North’s economy relied far more on intra-national trade than it did on international trade. That drove vastly higher levels of infrastructure investment and much greater wealth creation. The same will prove true of Mars, the Moon, the Lagrange points of various body pairs, the Martian moons, The Belt and wherever else humankind gets itself to in the next few centuries.

  • duheagle

    Every vehicle is “fictional” until it’s built and operational. “Fictional” is not a useful criticism unless said vehicle depends upon technology that actually defies, or is at least well in advance of, known physics. BFR requires no such elements. If you have any substantive criticisms of the feasibility of BFR, state them please. Witless and factually-challenged yibbling based on an apparent belief that nothing that has not already been done can ever be done except by taking tiny microtome-sliced incremental steps, is not an argument, it’s a neurosis.

  • Laura M

    I was the FAA’s space lawyer for a couple decades. I’m glad to hear that you’ve not seen anything that conflicts with what I’ve said. There are those who do disagree with me, but I guess those would be the ones who aren’t sympathetic or neutral. 🙂

    As for sticking one’s neck out, folks in the international fora might view not imposing planetary protection as sticking one’s neck out. Lots of people read into the treaties more oversight of the private sector than is there. IMO.

  • duheagle

    A lander filled with two tons of cow flops, say.

  • duheagle

    Yes. Not to be confused with “funbags.”

  • duheagle

    Two decades a regulator without going irretrievably “native” eh? My congratulations, ma’am.

    About people in international fora – for which I read “the UN” – you are doubtless correct. America-bashing is always on the agenda at the UN.

    Functionaries within the executive branch departments of the US government, though, are another matter. Fortunately.

  • Laura M

    Thank you, sir. I’m a rule-of-law kind of gal.

    And, I hope you’re right about the functionaries.

  • I certainly could be wrong but I don’t think that space resources are going to play a major role except for reducing the costs of settlement. Historic analogies are usually tenuous because the factors involved are usually substantively different. Colonists of the New World didn’t come to a land with no biology nor did the have multispectral data of the continent. PGMs might be an export product but, despite all our information about the Moon, I don’t think that there will be much else. Again, could be wrong but normally, at this point we’d expect something to be intriguingly possible. Water for propellant is the obvious low-hanging fruit but this just reduces the cost for transportation. We aren’t going to be shipping water to Earth to satisfy a market demand there. So, for a business case, I’m looking at those activities for which there is a demand but which, in and of themselves, don’t produce a profit such as #1 – Satisfy the desire for American leadership in space, #2 – Satisfy the desire of many countries for national pride, #3 the desire to be part of making history by settling off Earth, and #4 lunar tourism.

  • ThomasLMatula

    True, but if the Planetary Protection office at NASA came out strongly against a private mission to Mars, do you think the FAA CST would go against their “advice” and take the political risk of providing a launch license for it? Especially if the Planetary Protection office made it position known to the public?

    Also note this recent statement from Kevin Coleman at the FAA CST

    http://www.thespacereview.com/article/3260/1

    ““We don’t have the expertise in-house when it comes to planetary protection,” said Kelvin Coleman, acting deputy associate administrator
    for commercial space transportation at the FAA. His office licenses commercial launches, a process that includes a payload review that would, potentially, include a planetary protection review. He said the FAA would “be leaning on” NASA to provide planetary protection expertise.”

    “He added that SpaceX has started the payload review process for its Red
    Dragon missions, which will require FAA launch licenses, and that the
    review will include planetary protection issues.”

    So even if there is no legal requirement it appears that it is being addressed as an element in the decision for a license.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, but don’t expect that part of NASA to go quietly into the night and not try to muck things up on the way out. Nothing is as dangerous as a government agency, and its Congressional protectors, that fears it will lose its power and funding.

  • windbourne

    Musk has promised the FH for 2013, so it is 4 years overdue.
    Still, in this industry, that is not horrible.
    SLS was supposed to be done AGES and BILLIONS ago.

    And Having F9 already flown with 9 engines and landing, combined with their having tested 3 at a time, says that they will likely succeed.

  • windbourne

    yeah, there absolutely has not been any design, building, and testing at all.
    It is just a clean slate project on nothing but paper.

  • Laura M

    Between what you pointed out and if we are going to allow a human presence on Mars, it would be a shame to impose planetary protection costs on the private sector. Also, there’s the legal issue.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, I agree it would be a shame. But I have heard NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer, Catharine Conley, talk at the New Worlds 2016 Conference in Austin about how private firms would be doing harming science by contaminating the planet before scientists have finished their search for life on it. Personally, if there is life on Mars, I expect it will be those private missions, or more accurately the human scientists sent to Mars with them, that are likely to find it. There is only so much a robot is able to do.

    And you are right, there is indeed the legal issue. The good thing is Elon Musk has the funds to fight it if he decides to. But since he has dropped Red Dragon in favor of BFR in going to Mars, there is no need for him to rock the boat for now. But it is likely a battle that New Space will need to fight as some point.

  • Michael Halpern

    On Tesla and SolarCity, a lot of that “debt” is because of Musk’s heavy focus on R&D and from spending on projects that once the kinks are worked out are fully expected to massively increase revenue, based on basic economic principles, namely the Gigafactories, and SpaceX went through a similar phase when they were working out the kinks with deep cryogenic fuel, with far less certainty of success. Also he isn’t quite throwing all the eggs in one basket with BFR, well he is but he isn’t, during its development and until there is enough of them and it is matured significantly the F9 and FH will still be doing a lot of work, I mean remember what they are expecting out of the F9 block 5? And as is typical of Musk companies, vast majority of profit goes to R&D no matter what, now while that is conventionally risky, long term while he has the market (EV and launch service) or a significant portion of the market (solar) it is the smartest thing to do, because it will keep those companies ahead and enable them to get further ahead, he knows that as market viability becomes more and more proven, new competitors will form and existing ones will catch up.

    also remember, as the Falcon family is eventually phased out, there are lots of financial opportunities in parting out the cores and donating disabled cores to museums for tax deductible, for instance, even though both the BE-4 and the Raptor engines are more than likely to beat out the Merlin 1D in virtually every way, its still a very powerful rocket engine, and they will have already have paid the cost of fabrication, likely several times, and because of their size, they can be attractive to a wide range of customers. SpaceX is often compared to the early Ford motor company, the F9 as the space analog to the Model T, however Ford made a mistake that almost ended the company, not moving past or changing the Model T until they had no choice, Elon is keeping that from happening in the first place. SpaceX is very likely to be part of the Space equivalent of the American automotive “Big 3” almost certain, so now is the time to establish firmly the ideology and ideal niche in which SpaceX will be built around for the far future.

  • Michael Halpern

    Umm technically both the Falcon Heavy and New Glenn are what are currently classified as super heavy launch vehicles, max payload variable on degree of reusability (with the FH its at least 3 boosters, 2 boosters or full expendable options 2nd stage recovery unknown likely fearing recovery on all)

    BFR needs a new classification, as its payload is giant in all configurations, 150t leo reuse 50t return, 250t leo (I believe) “expendable” 2nd stage but remember, orbital refueling, which drastically expands mission capability as any spacecraft you can get into an orbit where orbital refueling is available can get more delta v from that point, you no longer have to think about it in terms of taking all your fuel in a single launch, so instead the rocket equation practically restarts every time you can be refueled, obviously not entirely and in a practical system you have to factor it in for each rocket, the spacecraft, tanker ships, the fuel the tankers need to go return, or reach a lower orbit to be refueled to either go back up or return to earth, the tankers needed to do that, and so on, so really, its still the old rocket equation that has plagued space agencies, launch providers and enthusiasts from the beginning, except you can potentially have it so that you are at nearly full tanks when you reach escape velocity, kinda like rocket staging, just on a MUCH larger scale,

  • Michael Halpern

    the point of PP is to make sure that we can be certain that a lifeform began on the planet of discovery, once that is ascertained and the lifeform reasonably studied, PP on that planetary body will have served its purpose, plus you know imminent capability.

  • Michael Halpern

    Robotic missions can do quite a bit, they are mainly limited by speed and quantity, if you were however to take say a cargo BFR make it PP rated, and have it filled with PP fast moving rated rovers with significant automation, you could cover the a large portion of mars much quicker, and with sufficient planning they dont have to all land where the bfr touches down, instead a number can be deployed en-route in capsules to various areas of mars and help complete the survey far more quickly. humans would by necessity contaminate too much to retain scientific value.

  • Michael Halpern

    Actually the certification was a relevant thing Musk was aware of from the beginning, as it involved putting holes in the heat shield, my guess is that it was more of weighing “cost to get this certified for only a few real uses where its needed” vs the BFR’s rather different descent profile, not requiring holes in the heat shield anyways.

    as to the SLS’s obituary, that isn’t the BFR, that is Falcon Heavy and New Glenn. The thing is NASA already knows this and has pretty much accepted it, so what will likely happen is the contractual obligations related to the SLS will be met and it will have its few missions that the contracts basically necessitate and then that is it. as for Orion, that might actually have a longer service life, or at least elements of it, because it is a very capable spacecraft that can remain relevant for quite some time, now you might be asking “how when both SpaceX and Blue Origin have their own capsules” it isn’t just the capsule its the spacecraft built around it, and how versatile it is meant to be. And I am not entirely convinced that it will be rendered completely obsolete by BFR, not immediately anyways, as it could be used as a crew return craft for various stations, when BFR, or other vehicles arent available.

    But then again, Orion is really the only modern part of SLS.

  • Michael Halpern

    F9 block 3 booster can only be flown twice, but we dont know about the block 4 and the Block 5 is to be the culmination of lessons learned from reusing the Block 3 and 4. FH has to wait on LC 40 to finish repairs so they can modify 39A, as it is the only pad they currently have available that can feasibly handle the FH, the modifications of 39A haven’t really started beyond removing the rotating service module, so he cant give a date. if the pad explosion in September last year never happened, it is feasible the FH would have launched but the fact is, they dont have a launch pad that can physically handle the Falcon Heavy at the moment in their current states.

  • Michael Halpern

    Most WWII technology in comparison to pre-war, Horseless carriage to Model T, Mercury/Gemini to Apollo,

  • Michael Halpern

    long R&D times are nothing in the Space Industry, and Musk’s reputation kinda allows him some extra leeway, especially because there are almost always clear signs of progress towards his goals, even when they are a little bit late, and the FH is built on the F9 architecture, and while there were some challenges this lead to, it also means progress on the F9 is also progress on the FH, yes they needed structural upgrades, but the FH isn’t a brand new rocket, similar things are considered alternative (added booster) configurations to the main rocket with other launch systems, the main difference is that those added boosters are identical (or nearly identical) to the main core of the first stage, in the naming convention of other launch services, it might be called F9-3 (Falcon9 x3) or F9B5-3 (Falcon 9 block 5 x3) or something similar.

  • Michael Halpern

    Actually it does, indirectly anyways its called economies of scale, if you can send more out, you produce more, and the engineering costs are spread out across multiple units, this has successfully been applied to nearly every industry to date.

  • Michael Halpern

    NASA is only committed to Orion (or at least SLS) until the contracts for the first few are completed, basically for the EM missions and some of those might be slashed, thanks to FH and New Glenn, for the BFR we must remember early 2020s is “Elon time” and that the history of space travel with the exception of Apollo where they made serious sacrifices to safety during the development of the Saturn V is filled with launcher systems not being completed on time. The big difference is leveraging the full reuse ability (having already proven it is feasible and viable to reuse rockets that have returned from orbit) and orbital refueling, and applying that to anything you would use space for.

  • Paul451

    Belatedly:

    To understand Publiusr’s comment, you have to know that he’s an SLS supporter. He finds it eye-rollingly ironic that SLS-haters are suddenly mindless BFR supporters. And no, explaining that the issue is costs, not being for/against HLVs, doesn’t help him understand. No matter how many times you explain. And yes I speak from experience.

  • Douglas Messier

    I’ll do my best.

  • Michael Halpern

    Also I dont think anyone is against heavy lifters, I think you will find people are against reconfiguring 70s technology from a very “marginally” successful project in a 21st century lifter a project that was notoriously over priced and the lifter we get out of it is also over $1 billion to launch the space industry doesn’t need another over priced launch vehicle, regardless of whom is operating it, it is finally starting to become self sufficient, the most launches I see coming out of SLS is 4, more likely 3 and the last set of engines staying on the shuttle they intend to pull them from. FH and New Glenn make SLS obsolete before it reaches the pad.sure FH cant carry 70t to lunar, but it can carry 35t for at least an order of magnitude less,

  • publiusr

    I’d still call Falcon Heavy and New Glenn Medium heavy–payload shroud not a lot better than Titan IV (even if mass is greater–so Medium heavy.

    SLS and BFR–are HLLVs–with AMLLV or Sea Dragon super-heavies.

  • publiusr

    It was Mike Griffin who was with him on that trip to Russia, after all.

  • publiusr

    It was Dwayne Day who talked about the hostility toward shuttle-derived HLLVs–but they were facing off against EELVs–and five Delta IVs would still cost more than one SLS Block 1B–still.

    BFR **MAY** give us SLS performance (minus LH2) for EELV prices.

  • publiusr

    Here is an idea for Musk. Push for Griffin to support the New Space Corps. But call it the old ABMA Call for a Medaris style troop rocket–and BFS new name?

    Rombus

    May the spirit of Phil Bono forgive me.

  • Michael Halpern

    2 Falcon heavies can lift the same mass as 1 SLS, for much less, we don’t know how much the New Glenn 2 and 3 stage versions will lift but even so still less expensive than the shuttle dirived SLS

  • Michael Halpern

    Based on current NASA classifications, Falcon Heavy and New Glenn are super heavy, ferring size can be adjusted if need be, with modular payloads, 2 x 35t trips to cislunar is no different than 1x 70t trip to cislunar except for cost

  • Michael Halpern

    Think about it a Falcon Heavy with 3 NEW cores will be around 150m verses 2b for an sls

  • publiusr

    But no hydrogen capability for NTR. That’s my sticking point