Elon Musk, the maestro of SpaceX, has figured out a new way to fly into deep space. In doing so he seems to have disrupted all previous proposals for returning to the moon and reaching beyond to Mars.
Musk is gambling on the success of a project that is a radical departure from anything seen before—and far simpler than any competing space program. It is centered on a 157-foot long spaceship named BFR (Big Fucking Rocket). No kidding: That’s longer than the longest version of the Boeing 737 and, with a width of 29 feet it’s eight feet wider than the Airbus A380 super jumbo’s fuselage.
It will be designed to be used in three ways: to carry three kinds of payloads—people, cargo, or fuel (playing the role of a tanker to refuel other vehicles in space).
The project was first revealed last September at a congress in Australia, and he elaborated on its progress at a conference last weekend. Now, as SpaceX is due to begin building the first BFR, new details make clear how much of a game-changer this could be. (Musk promises a more palatable moniker soon. A suggestion: Why not name it Hawking after the sadly departed navigator of the universe?)
What is driving this highly ambitious technology is the same principle that Musk applies to all the SpaceX projects: economy and utility. The spaceship is intended to be reusable and perform frequent missions to deep space. Essentially Musk is stripping down the main components needed to break free of Earth’s gravity to just two parts, the launch rocket and the spaceship.
Consider how different this is: NASA’s Apollo missions to the moon needed the 36-story high three-part Saturn V rocket to get off the pad and then, once in space, four separate vehicles to get to the moon and back—a service module; a command module (the capsule that returned to Earth); and the lunar lander with a descent stage (left on the moon); and the ascent stage (from which the astronauts transferred back to the command module).
Musk’s breakthrough idea is to conflate all the deep space roles into the one vehicle. This is a really tough call. As Musk said, talking to Aviation Week, “That is a pretty ridiculous set of requirements for a ship.”
It sure is. First, the spaceship has to safely handle a huge range of speeds: subsonic, transonic, supersonic, and hypersonic. No single vehicle has ever done that. To land on Mars it would have to travel through that planet’s atmosphere and land on unprepared terrain and then, its mission completed, takeoff, blast back to Earth and then, depending critically on its heat shield, come safely down through the atmosphere to a landing.
Some of this technology was demonstrated in action with breathtaking effect in February. SpaceX launched its Falcon Heavy rocket from Florida, sending one of Musk’s Tesla Roadsters into a trajectory that will fly by Mars in July. But by far the main attraction was the way in which the main rocket’s two booster rockets returned to launch pads in a perfectly synchronized descent, ready to be used again.
The first test flights of the BFR will be from a new launch complex in the desert near Brownsville, Texas, sometime next year, although last weekend Musk allowed that his timelines “historically have been optimistic.” They will be short sub-orbital hops, followed in three to four years by orbital tests. To get the spaceship into deep space—it will weigh around 330,000 pounds, fully loaded—will require a massive new rocket, with 31 engines instead of the nine used in the Falcon Heavy.
This is the first time that any space program has invoked the word “spaceship” with any credibility. The term has been devalued by other projects that will never fly beyond low Earth orbit, if at all, like Richard Branson’s perpetually postponed Virgin Galactic “space tourism” enterprise. In fact, until now no space vehicle has actually looked like they were initially imagined in the early fantasies of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells—with the pointy-nosed profile of a large artillery shell.
The Apollo 11 lunar module, for example, that made the first moon landing in 1969, resembled a bag lady’s cart of strapped-together junk. That’s because in the vacuum of space a blunt-nosed object can move as fast as a pointy-nosed one.
The only time you need streamlining, the fine sculpting developed on Earth to speed through the resistance of air, is to get through the fiery re-entry of the Earth’s atmosphere (or the atmospheres of other planets, if they have them)—hence all the astronaut capsules with pointy-nosed heat shields or the ball-shaped Russian Soyuz capsules, used to ship people and cargo to the International Space Station.
In contrast, Musk’s spaceship looks like we always thought a spaceship should, a very large artillery shell or rocket warhead.
And, suggestively, the SpaceX website is showing the sub-orbital possibilities of the spaceship in which it could fly hypersonically from New York to London in 30 minutes. Just exactly who or what would take that ride and at what cost is not explained.
What is for sure is that Musk intends to open a pathway to the moon and Mars that is far cheaper and simpler than that of any rival.
Take, for example, the NASA program designed to return to the moon, called Constellation. After delays and cost overruns this was canceled by President Obama in 2011. Yet it lives on in the form of a capsule called Orion, being built by Lockheed Martin, that is planned to make an unmanned flyby of the moon, and return to Earth, late next year. Orion is basically an upgraded version of an Apollo command module with none of the capacity or reusability of the BFR.
Jeff Bezos, the other significant disruptor in the space business, who is spending a billion dollars a year of his own money on his space projects, is also devoted to reusable, not expendable, rockets. He is developing a huge three-stage rocket, New Glenn, named for pioneering astronaut John Glenn, with reusable engines intended to replace the Russian-built engines that NASA still depends on for deep space missions.
The traditional players in the space business, established when NASA was the only game in town, like Lockheed Martin and Boeing, have been overly complacent in their attitude to Musk and Bezos. A Boeing spokesman, for example, sneered at Musk’s Falcon Heavy as a mere “golf cart” alongside Boeing’s future heavy lifter rocket—but that was before Musk unveiled the BFR and his Falcon Heavy demonstrated its reusable boosters.
The other people likely to be outpaced by the disruptors are the Chinese. They plan to get to the moon by 2030. Their national agency, China Aerospace and Technology Corp, CASC, is still figuring out how to overcome the problems of building the large rockets needed to launch conventional NASA-style missions.
But in trying to deal with that problem the Chinese have come up with a novel idea that others might copy.
Instead of using a giant rocket to lift all the components of a moon mission at one time they have talked of a “park and assemble” plan in which the vehicle used in deep space would be broken down into three parts. Each part would be launched into Earth orbit, needing only smaller rockets to lift them. The first two would be parked until the third part arrives, when they would all be united in space through docking procedures. When the mission returned to Earth it would be reduced to the one manned section, like the Apollo command module, for re-entry.
However, by the very nature of their official bureaucracy, the Chinese are stuck with the party-run state as the master of their space program. There is no room there for disruptors like Musk and Bezos, who approach everything as hard-nosed businessmen.
Bezos told a conference of space industry chiefs in Colorado last year that their industry was too small. As he did when he conceived Amazon, a business that for years lost millions, Bezos is the prophet of scale—a believer that once a business reaches a self-determined critical mass it becomes a profit gusher.
His point was that the real promise of deep space as a viable business depends on the reliable, frequent and cost-effective movement of cargo and people, taking it from the slow and cautious pace of scientific exploration to an everyday delivery system—Musk makes the same point by calling his spaceship an “interplanetary transportation system.”
In this scheme the moon will become not just a place where its rare minerals can be mined but a handy transportation terminal where the larger spaceships needed for exploring and colonizing Mars—and planets beyond—will be assembled and, once in regular use, be serviced on their return, with Earth just a commuter trip home.
We can already see that much of this traffic will involve unmanned flights; for many missions humans will be redundant. The overall operations will be planned and executed by robots using artificial intelligence, demonstrating a new age of technological hubris unlike any seen before.
Indeed, it has become a commonplace now to look at the Apollo missions and be stunned at how relatively little computing power they had available, far less than in an iPhone. However, it’s essential to remember that at the time that endeavor represented the ultimate of what our technology could then achieve—the whole enterprise served us well by pushing innovation to the limits of the possible and brought out the best in human vision and courage.
If the end result—the docking and undocking of the modules, the strange boxy contours of the lander and its final bifurcation—looked like some aberrant Rube Goldberg contraption, which it did, the remarkable thing is that every piece of it actually worked. Even when hit by catastrophic failures during the Apollo 13 mission the system was capable of being reconfigured on the fly to allow the astronauts to survive.
In 1970 this did seem to be America’s greatest “can-do” moment. But since December 1972, at the completion of Apollo 17’s mission, when Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders made a Christmas Eve TV broadcast reading the first 10 verses from the Book of Genesis, nobody has walked on the moon. The Space Age seemed to be in abeyance, with no appetite to revive it.
But we have now reached another and very different stage in the journey to deep space. There is clearly a creative tension between the ingrained habits of state-funded projects where defense contractors have grown used to burning up billions of dollars performing on contracts made with sclerotic bureaucracies and people like Musk and Bezos who cut through all the orthodoxy with the energy of entrepreneurs and the experience of building huge businesses from scratch, like Henry Ford and Bill Boeing before them.
Musk has admitted that his two bets on the shape of things to come, Tesla cars and SpaceX, are both stretching his resources to the limit: “Space X is alive by the skin of its teeth. So is Tesla. If things had gone a little bit the other way, both companies would be dead.”
Bezos has deeper pockets: His net worth is $131 billion and the piggy bank of Amazon stock that funds his space business is $125 billion, and growing by the day. The New York-based Explorers Club just gave him their Buzz Aldrin Space Exploration Award, where he said, “The price of admission to space is very high, but I’m in the process of converting my Amazon lottery winnings into a much lower price of admission so we can go explore the solar system.”
After the Apollo missions the word “moonshot” became a wistful synonym for the kind of giant leaps of imagination and daring that once seemed uniquely American. Part of a lost spirit needing new will power to bring it back. Now the hope of rekindling that spirit is in the hands of a few individuals like Musk and Bezos.