Today, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said he hopes to finance his plans to colonize Mars by making SpaceX’s entire fleet of vehicles — the Falcon 9, the Falcon Heavy, and the Dragon spacecraft — obsolete.
Speaking at the International Astronautical Congress, Musk said that SpaceX will eventually start stockpiling these vehicles and then focus all of its resources into developing the company’s next monster vehicle: the Interplanetary Transport System, codenamed the BFR (for Big Fucking Rocket).
“All our resources will turn toward building BFR,” Musk said. “And we believe we can do this with the revenue we receive from launching satellites and servicing the space station.”
Musk also announced he’s planning to scale down the ITS, proposing 31 main engines this year. Last year at the same conference, Musk unveiled the combo rocket-and-spaceship’s design, which included 42 main Raptor engines that could send up to 450 metric tons to Mars. Most of the rest of the major design elements, such as in-orbit docking and landing propulsive landing, remained the same.
Musk also proposed a variety of new uses for the scaled-down rocket beyond just going to Mars. Supposedly, the ITS can be used to launch satellites, take cargo to the International Space Station, and even do lunar missions to set up a Moon base. SpaceX’s current Falcon 9 fleet is used to do a few of those things already, but Musk says eventually the company will turn to the ITS to do all of its space missions.
“We can build a system that cannibalizes our own products, makes our own products redundant, then all the resources we use for Falcon Heavy and Dragon can be applied to one system,” he said at the conference. Musk says the cost of launching cargo on the ITS will be fairly cheap, too, since the rocket and spaceship will be a fully reusable system — unlike the Falcon 9, which is only 70 to 80 percent reusable. However, SpaceX will still keep the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy on hand in case customers want to launch on flight-proven vehicles once the ITS starts flying.
Advertising how the ITS can be used for Moon missions is a savvy business move for Musk — as well as a political one. While launching satellites and servicing the space station is lucrative, it probably isn’t enough to fund the rocket’s development, despite what Musk says. SpaceX will need other funds — and the US government is a good source of cash.
That may explain the newfound interest in the Moon. Vice President Mike Pence, who is in charge of the new National Space Council, has hinted at directing NASA to return to the Moon. And a few key space advisors — including Scott Pace, the executive director of the council — have been vocal about their desire to do human lunar missions.
And a lunar mission won’t require going solo, like Mars does: many national space agencies, such as Russia, China, and the European Space Agency, all have their sights set on the Moon. Recently, Russia and NASA signed an agreement to study concepts for stations that could be built near the Moon.
Of course, Musk’s ultimate goal is still Mars, and he’s still making incredibly optimistic predictions about when the company is going to get there. Last year, Musk claimed the first crews would start flying to the Red Planet as early as 2024. This year, he said the first two cargo ITS ships will launch to Mars in 2022. That’s just five years to create an entirely new rocket, send it to another planet, and land it on the surface intact. If it does land successfully, it’ll be the heaviest vehicle to ever make it to the Martian surface in one piece. (The most we’ve ever landed on Mars has weighed about 2,000 pounds, but the ITS can supposedly land between 20 to 50 tons.)
It’s an unrealistic timeline; Musk’s word for it was “aspirational.” SpaceX has yet to launch any people into space — and has blown plenty of deadlines before. The company was supposed to start sending astronauts to the International Space Station as early as this year. Now the absolute earliest is 2018 or 2019. Meanwhile, SpaceX initially promised to launch its new heavy-lift rocket, the Falcon Heavy, in 2013. The rocket hasn’t yet flown, though Musk said today it should launch before the end of the year. Its development was much more difficult than he’d originally expected, Musk said.
Again this year, Musk didn’t address what kind of habitats people will live in on Mars, or how a Martian colony would sustain itself. Last year, he did mention that SpaceX considers itself a transportation company first, akin to the Union Pacific Railroad, and that other companies would answer the call of how to keep people alive on the Red Planet. Instead of showing his audience more details on his Mars plans, he proposed using rockets to fly people around on Earth.
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