SpaceX founder Elon Musk addressed the world Friday about his plans for reaching and settling on Mars at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia. He wasted no time in revealing what he saw as the major takeaway from his presentation.
“The most important thing I want to convey in this presentation is that I think we have figured out how to pay for it,” he said of his ambitious plans to reach Mars and make humanity a multi-planetary species. “In last year’s presentation, we were really searching for how to pay for this thing.”
The key, according to Musk, is redesigning SpaceX’s rocket system to make it more effective for work in Earth’s orbit. Meet the BFR, the new rocket of the future.
“We now think we have a way to do it,” Musk explained. “Which is to have a smaller vehicle, still pretty big, but one that can do everything that’s needed in the greater Earth orbit activity. Essentially, we want to make our current vehicles redundant. We want to have one booster and ship that replaces Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and Dragon.”
The unofficial nickname for this rocket is the BFR — the first and third letters stand for “Big” and “Rocket,” if that helps. Its planned payload capacity is 150 tons, greater even than that of the Saturn V that launched the Apollo astronauts toward the moon.
The key difference, Musk said, is that the planned reusability of the BFR means its proposed cost would actually be the lowest of any rocket on a per-launch basis. And by slightly scaling back the rocket design, it would be able to work effectively in low Earth orbit — including deploying satellites and taking crew and cargo to the International Space Station.
“It is a huge enabler of new satellites,” said Musk. “We can send something that is almost 9 meters in diameter into orbit. If you want to do a new Hubble, you can send a mirror that has 10 times the surface area of the current Hubble. As a single unit, it doesn’t have to unfold or anything. Or you could send a large number of small satellites; you can do whatever you like.”
It is these activities — along with potential trips to the moon — that Musk sees as key to SpaceX’s goal of securing the kind of funds necessary to pay for actual long-term exploration of Mars.
The presentation didn’t offer any specific facts and figures on how this would all work out, but the basic idea is straightforward enough. It offers the clearest indication yet of how SpaceX looks to take the small steps necessary to make its giant leap to Mars a real possibility.