SpaceX: Everything to Know About Its Groundbreaking BFR and Mr. Steven

Even for an Elon Musk venture, SpaceX’s plan to reach Mars and trailblaze a future of fully reusable rockets is basically something out of a comic book. Key to pulling off these two monumental goals is the BFR, a massive, possibly Mars-bound rocket.

And in the other corner, a less monolithic but still crucial Mr. Steven — a boat that will be used to catch the fairings from SpaceX’s other Falcon 9 rockets as they plummet back to Earth.

As Batman-esque as this all might sound, the aerospace company has set the gears in motion for an uncrewed test flight of the BFR as early as 2020 with another uncrewed cargo mission to Mars slated for 2022. Mr. Steven, on the other hand, could be back on catcher’s duty as early as the Iridium-7 mission now scheduled for July 25.

SpaceX’s February launch of the Falcon Heavy shattered records, making it the most powerful operational rocket in the world. But if BFR actually takes off in next couple of years, it will be an even more impressive milestone in the nascent space travel industry.

Here’s everything we know about SpaceX’s twofold initiatives to get humans to Mars and make space travel more affordable than it’s ever been.

SpaceX: That’s One Big Fuckin’ Rocket

There is no concrete date as to when BFR will be ready to blast past the atmosphere, Musk recently showed off the “main body tool” that will be used to mold the carbon fiber that will comprise the rocket’s upper stage.

BFR ship engine section.

This photo is believed to have been taken off the coast of California, where SpaceX is planning on constructing a state-of-the-art rocket factory to build the sky-scraping booster. In March, the company leased Berth 240 — an abandoned shipyard near the southwestern part of Los Angeles’ Terminal Island — as the grounds for this facility.

SpaceX’s director of construction and real estate Bruce McHugh, told the the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners in April that he estimates construction of the rocket would begin in about two or three years.


According to SpaceX schematics, the booster will tower 348 feet tall (106 meters), that’s 43 feet (13.1 meters) taller than the Statue of Liberty. This behemoth will be lifted off the ground by 31 Raptor engines capable of producing 5,400 tons of thrust.

SpaceX: Mr. Steven, the Yacht-Sized Catcher’s Mitt

One of the major differences between SpaceX’s other rockets and BFR is that the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy both make use detachable heat shields — known as rocket fairings.

Fairings are found at the nose of the rocket and keep the payload from disintegrating when it’s blasting off. They cost millions of dollars to fabricate and are usually discarded once a rocket leaves the atmosphere. BFR won’t be doing this, because it’ll use a built-in cargo door to protect its payloads. But Musk intends to catch the fairings of other rockets using a repurposed offshore utility boat named Mr. Steven.

The vessel is currently being retrofitted with an enormous net that will span around 1.5 acres in order to catch SpaceX’s parachute-deploying fairings as they glide back down to Earth. This will hopefully improve Mr. Steven’s lackluster catch rate in time for Falcon 9 launches this year.

"Mr Steven" fairing catcher ship.

Elon Musk/Instagram

The boat was first deployed in February, but failed to catch either of Falcon 9’s fairings. That prompted Musk to increase its net area by “a factor of four.”

SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell stated that the company would aim to conduct 24 launches next year. If Mr. Steven is able to recover the fairings from a few of these missions, it could be the start of considerably more affordable space travel.

SpaceX is inching closer to fully reusable rockets, which would make spaceflight more affordable than it has ever been. While there is still a lot left to do for the Mars initiative, succeeding at the aforementioned goal could lay the groundwork for a future where interplanetary travel is no longer seen as an insurmountable mountain.

Correction 7/10/2018: This article was updated to reflect the fact that BFR will have a cargo door, and not detachable fairings and that Mr. Steven will only be used to recover fairings from Falcon 9.

Related Tags