Elon Musk says 1st flight of SpaceX’s Mars spaceship may happen in 2019
While at South by Southwest, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said he believes the first test flights of SpaceX’s “Big Falcon Rocket” (BFR) spaceship could happen in the first half of 2019, although he admits to having optimistic timelines.
The comment came during a surprise March 11, 2018, question and answer session at the annual technology and culture festival in Austin, Texas, and less than 24 hours after Musk made another surprise appearance the night before during a panel with the co-creators of the HBO series Westworld, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. Just like the panel, the Q&A session was run by Nolan, who is a friend of Musk.
The first topic discussed was SpaceX’s ambitions to send humans to Mars and its progress on the BFR, which was unveiled by Musk in September 2016 and further refined in September 2017. The architecture, which will be able to send more cargo to low-Earth orbit than even NASA’s Saturn V Moon rocket and be fully and rapidly reusable, consists of a 190-foot (58-meter) tall booster for its first stage, and a 157-foot (48-meter) tall spaceship that doubles as a second stage. Musk said the Hawthorne, California-based company was “making good progress” on the spaceship portion.
“We are building the first ship,” Musk said. “I think we’ll be able to do short flights, short sort of up and down flights, probably sometime in the first half of next year.”
Musk said that people have told him that his projected timelines have historically been optimistic. As such, he said he is trying to “re-calibrate to some degree,” although it is unclear if the 2019 time frame for the first spaceship tests have been included in his new calibrations. In September 2017, the SpaceX founder said he expected the first full test flight of the BFR rocket and spaceship on a trip to Mars could happen as early as 2022.
Regardless of when the BFR flies, Musk said once SpaceX builds the vehicle, it would be a “point of proof” that other companies and countries could follow.
“They currently don’t think it is possible,” Musk said. “So if we show them that it is, then I think they will up their game and they will build interplanetary transport vehicles as well.”
Musk said that once the BFR and similar ships are built, there will be an economical means of getting cargo and people to and from the Moon as well as Mars and other destinations in the Solar System. He said that is where a tremendous amount of entrepreneurial resources will be needed in order to build out entire industrial bases and everything that allows modern civilization to exist.
“We’ll start off building the most elementary of infrastructure: just a base to create propellant, a power station, glass domes in which to grow crops, all of the sort of fundamentals without which you would not survive,” Musk said of SpaceX’s near-term Mars goals. “Then there’s going to be an explosion of entrepreneurial opportunity, because Mars will need everything from iron foundries to pizza joints.”
In order to do this, the cost of spaceflight will have to be reduced by many orders of magnitude, Musk said, and he hopes the BFR will be able to do that by being fully and rapidly reusable. SpaceX’s current Falcon family of rockets are already partially reusable with first stages regularly returning to Earth via propulsive landing after missions. Soon, the company expects to begin regularly recovering the protective payload fairing as well. Only the vehicles’ second stage is not currently recoverable.
Because the BFR will be fully reusable, the cost per flight really only comes down to the fuel, the ground teams required to launch it, and any refurbishment required between flights.
“A BFR flight will actually cost less than our Falcon 1 flight did,” Musk said. “That was a $5 million or $6 million dollar marginal cost per flight. We’re confident the BFR will be less than that. That’s profound, and that is what will enable the creation of a permanent base on the Moon and a city on Mars.”
Video courtesy of SpaceX
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity.