Elon Musk presented an update on progress SpaceX is making with plans for missions to Mars at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Adelaide, Australia on Sep 29, 2017, giving insight on the company’s ambitious vision to build a foundation and infrastructure for colonizing the Red Planet beginning in the next decade.
SpaceX’s ever evolving concept for reaching Mars aims to launch the first pair of cargo missions in 2022, followed by the first crew missions in 2024 (along with more cargo flights), taking advantage of every window of opportunity where the orbits of both Earth and Mars align in such a way to allow for trips to and from in a reasonable amount of time, which occurs about every 26 months.
Launching these missions would be the BFR (you can interpret that yourself), an updated version of the rocket and spacecraft they plan to phase out their Falcon 9s and Dragons with; the idea being to serve interests anywhere from Earth to the moon and to Mars, and further, all with one evolvable and reusable vehicle (or variants of)
The mammoth 9m (30 ft) diameter rocket would be powered by 31 SpaceX Raptor engines, producing a liftoff thrust of 5400 tons to launch the full 4400 ton rocket and spaceship.
“In fully reusable configuration, without any orbital refueling, we expect to have a payload capability of 150 tons to LEO, compared to about 30 for Falcon Heavy” said Musk.
Together, the booster and ship would measure 106m (348 ft) in length.
The ship is essentially designed based off a Falcon 9 second stage and Dragon crew capsule combined into a single vehicle, according to Musk, and can be configured for a variety of missions with six engines at rear, propellent tanks in middle, and payload bay and crew areas in front.
“The payload bay is actually 8 stories tall, you can fit a whole stack of Falcon 1 rockets in the payload bay,” said Musk.
A Delta Wing with a split flap for pitch and roll control is now designed into the ship too, to expand its envelope and make it capable of landing on Mars, the Moon, Earth, or most anywhere else in the solar system. Heavy payload or no payload, thick atmosphere, thin atmosphere or virtually none, SpaceX wants one spaceship that can handle flying in all conditions.
A crew of 80-100 could fly and live comfortably on the large vehicle to and from Mars, with room for storage, galley and solar storm shelter, and even considerably more people can fly if being crammed together on the trip is not a concern.
Watch Musk’s full presentation at IAC 2017 above
BFR ships will also be capable of automated rendezvous in-flight refueling, utilizing the same mating interface they use with the rocket at liftoff to, instead, exchange fuel in space.
At some point one has to wonder how to pay for any of this, but Musk believes SpaceX can build the foundation with already existing multi-billion dollar NASA CRS and CCP contracts and a growing manifest of private customers.
Eventually, Musk hopes BFR services to the moon would also help fund the overall program and reaching Mars, building a “moon base Alpha” as a stepping stone before making the journeys across millions of miles.
Missions to Mars would depend on the capability of producing propellant on Mars as well, utilizing the planet’s CO2 atmosphere and H2O water ice (watch the above video for more details).
A trip departing Mars could reach Earth with one tank of fuel too, as long as the payload stays under 20-50 tons, according to Musk.
These goals seem unlikely in such a short span of time, especially since SpaceX has yet to fly a single Falcon Heavy or crew to date, but their goals are based in reality, and the company is proving they can meet such goals, such as having already landed 16 rockets in a row after launching payloads for NASA and others, when critics said for years they couldn’t.
They spoke too soon, as SpaceX is now deep in ULA’s territory, having started launching missions for USAF and NRO, keepers of the nation’s most secretive and classified satellites.
Earlier this year, two paying customers bought the first lunar orbit trip atop the Falcon Heavy for an undisclosed amount of money, expected to launch after the rocket has established itself as a safe and dependable operational booster.
Musk’s vision for the BFR also makes it useful on Earth too, potentially providing travel services from point A to point B on Earth in 30 minutes to an hour, tops.
Watch above, I’m sure folks in the airline industry raised their eyebrows to this video…
Musk says work building BFR ship will begin within the next year.
Falcon Heavy is expected to make its inaugural launch from KSC pad 39A late this year or early next, along with the return of regular ops to nearby SLC-40 on Cape Canaveral AFS, and the first crew missions to the ISS for NASA on Falcon 9s and Dragons from KSC 39A.