SpaceX Unveils Rocket for Mars

For those who believe that ancient Mars was once home to a technological civilization, the odds of proving it in our lifetime have just gotten shorter—in fact, much shorter. Elon Musk, founder and president of SpaceX, announced in September his company plans to build a completely reusable rocket and spacecraft capable of ferrying, not only, “millions” of colonists to the red planet—beginning in less than 10 years—and establishing/servicing a moon base but also of carrying passengers on Earth to any other spot on Earth in less than an hour. While many may scoff, Musk has already demonstrated that when he says he will do something, it is not smart to bet against him.

His giant new rocket is now affectionately called BFR (the letters stand for either ‘Big Falcon Rocket’ or something else—your call). Though somewhat smaller than the Interplanetary Transportation System (ITS) that Musk unveiled a year ago, it will still be the biggest rocket ever built on Earth, by a long shot. For comparison, the Saturn 5, which took astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and ’70s, would be dwarfed. Millions of space fans (including Atlantis Rising editor Doug Kenyon) present at those Saturn launches still recall watching, awestruck, from many miles away as that 65-story monster machine rose brilliantly into the night sky, shaking the ground like an earthquake. For these, the audacity of Musk’s plan is inescapable. Doubters, however, must reckon with the record of SpaceX, which has apparently mastered the elusive technology of making reusable spacecraft. By press time, the company had launched, and recovered, over 17 orbital-class rockets.

Announcing his new plan on September 29 at the 68th International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, Musk provided plenty of sensational news. The new SpaceX rocket is set to replace the Falcon Heavy, planned for initial launch by the end of 2017 (when you read this, you will know if he succeeded). Unlike the previous SpaceX rockets, the BFR will be fully reusable, and capable of refueling in space, an essential capability for missions like resupplying the International Space Station (ISS), landing on the moon, and sending missions to Mars by 2022. By refueling in space, the BFR will be able to make trips to the moon without needing to re-fuel there. That should make “Moon Base Alpha” doable.

The new BFR will be 106-meters tall and 9 meters in diameter, somewhat less than the 122-meter height and 17-meter diameter laid out in 2016 for the ITS. The booster stage will use 31 Raptor engines (instead of 42), and there will be six Raptor engines on the spacecraft itself (not nine). The changes will make it cheaper and help SpaceX pay for it. SpaceX still plans to build up enough of the company’s previous Falcon rockets to serve its satellite launching business and for resupplying the ISS. That will make it possible to focus fully on one rocket to serve all of its applications, the BFR.

With space for 150 tons of cargo, compared to Falcon Heavy’s 30 tons, the BFR will still be fully reusable. Its nose is big enough, Musk said, to launch a mirror that has ten times the surface area of the current Hubble telescope without folding it at all. With multiple engines, it’s designed to be as reliable as a 747, capable of landing even if it loses an engine. Unlike the current Falcon 9, the BFR’s control will be so precise that no landing legs will be needed.

Musk has often said his goal is to make humanity a two-planet species, but just in case such a thing has already been accomplished in the forgotten eons of the past, it will certainly be worth our while to finally learn the truth.