SpaceX’s founder and CEO published an academic paper earlier this month outlining his vision for a future where the Red Planet is permanently inhabited.
The paper published in the journal New Space is based on Elon Musk’s October 2017 talk that he gave in Australia. This is his second published academic paper. Previously, in 2016, New Space also published a summary of Musk’s first audacious vision for Mars.
If you followed last year’s presentation, as well as Musk’s SXSW appearance, you won’t be particularly surprised by the content of this paper. However, there are some juicy details as to how the entrepreneur plans to fly SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) fully reusable rocket system to Mars.
The 348-foot-tall (106-meter) BFR system is powered by 42 Raptor engines and should be fully reusable. According to the latest design outlined in the new academic paper, BFT will be capable of carrying up to 100 people in a pressurized passenger space that’s larger than that of an Airbus A380 airplane. BFR consists of a 190-foot (58-meter) tall booster for its first stage, and a 157-foot (48-meter) tall spaceship that also doubles as a second stage. Besides people, the launch system will be capable of ferrying cargo across the globe or to and from the International Space Station. A BFR flight could take a person from Los Angeles to New York in 25 minutes. Being capable of launching satellites, BFR will also become an important contributor to the company’s bottom line. Eventually, the BFT will make all other SpaceX vehicles obsolete.
“We want to have one system—one booster and one ship—that replaces Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and Dragon. If we can do that, then all the resources that are used for Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and Dragon can be applied to this system. That’s really fundamental,” Musk wrote in his paper.
To propel it to Mars, the BFR will be fitted with a huge a 39-foot (12-meter) tank, which can fit 265,000 gallons (a thousand cubic meters) of liquid nitrogen. To contain the fuel, SpaceX engineers designed a new carbon fiber matrix that is much stronger and better suited for cryo than anything before. The tank will support refueling operations in orbit. This latter key step is currently being perfect in the Dargon capsule, which already has automated rendezvous and docking capabilities with the International Space Station.
In his most recent public appearance, Musk said that he’d like to see the first BFR take off for Mars as early as 2022. A second trip planned for 2024 would leave with a crew. “People have told me that my timelines, historically, have been optimistic,” Musk said at SXSW. The company plans on test-launching the first BFR on short “up-and-down flights” before the summer of 2019.
“We’ve already started building the system—the tooling for the main tanks has been ordered, the facility is being built and we will start construction of the first ship around the second quarter of next year. In about six to nine months we should start building the first ship. I feel fairly confident that we can complete the ship and be ready for a launch in about five years. Five years seems like a long time to me. The area under the curve of resources over that period of time should enable this time frame to be met, but if not this time frame, I think pretty soon thereafter. But that is our goal, to try to make the 2022 Mars rendezvous. The Earth-Mars synchronization happens roughly every two years, so every two years there is an opportunity to fly to Mars,” Musk wrote.
Musk did not address all the practicalities of how the first manned crew will establish a Martian colony in his new paper. At SXSW, however, Musk at least acknowledged that these first missions will not be for the faint of heart.
“For the people who go to Mars, it’ll be far more dangerous. It kind of reads like Shackleton’s ad for Antarctic explorers. ‘Difficult, dangerous, good chance you’ll die. Excitement for those who survive.’ That kind of thing,” the entrepreneur warned.
“There’s already people who want to go in the beginning. There will be some for whom the excitement of exploration and the next frontier exceeds the danger,” Musk continued.