(USA Today) Humans venturing to Mars as soon as 2024, establishing a moon base or hopping from New York to Los Angeles in 25 minutes.
All those things would be possible with the giant rocket and spaceship that SpaceX hopes to have off the drawing board within five years, CEO Elon Musk said Friday.
“It’s 2017 — I mean, we should have a lunar base by now,” Musk said in a presentation to the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia.
Musk unveiled a system he jokingly calls the “BFR,” for Big Freaking Rocket (in its less profane interpretation), updating a Mars system he first proposed a year ago.
Standing 348 feet tall and 30 feet wide, and lifting off with 31 engines blazing, the revised design is downsized slightly from last year’s but still comparable to NASA’s Saturn V moon rocket.
The biggest difference, Musk said, is cost.
“I think we’ve figured out how to pay for it,” he said. “This is very important.”
SpaceX would use the new rocket for everything from launching satellites to ferrying supplies and astronauts to the International Space Station to Mars voyages.
The system eventually would replace the company’s current fleet of Falcon rockets and Dragon capsules, building upon the technologies they developed.
Most important among those: the ability to precisely land and then reuse rockets, a breakthrough that has disrupted the industry's historic one-and-done approach with big rockets.
“It’s really crazy that we build these sophisticated rockets, and then crash them every time we fly,” he said. “This is mad.”
Musk said SpaceX’s existing operations could fund the BRF’s development. Last year, he had joked that he might resort to a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the estimated $10 billion cost of his larger Interplanetary Transport System.
So far, SpaceX has invested in prototypes of a massive composite propellant tank and the methane-fueled Raptor rocket engine, both of which Musk showed last year.
The company’s interest in a lunar outpost was new.
Musk is best known for wanting to establish a city on Mars, his stated reason for starting SpaceX in 2002.
The moon option acknowledges that more companies and international partners are likely to want to go there, at least in the near-term. Having more destinations could help reduce the system's cost per flight.
But Musk made sure he didn't appear to be pulling back from Mars, showing a graphic with plans to launch a pair of cargo ships to the Red Planet in 2022.
“That’s not a typo, although it is aspirational,” he said.
Musk said construction of the first Mars-class ship would start within nine months, and he felt “fairly confident” it could be ready for launch in about five years.
Astronauts would depart for Mars landings in 2024, the next time the planets lined up, planning to build a fuel plant needed for the ships to make it back home.
Each ship ultimately could fly about 100 passengers, with Musk hoping to get the cost of a ticket to $200,000 or less.
They'd occupy 40 cabins and enjoy amenities like those found on cruise ships during the roughly six-month journey. A shelter would offer protection from blasts of solar radiation.
Over time, settlers would attempt to make the Martian climate more Earth's — as scientists believe it may have been long ago — "making it a really nice place to be," said Musk.
Besides planetary flights, the same system could be used to deploy large scientific payloads such as a super-sized Hubble Space Telescope. Or it could rocket people between points on Earth at 18,000 mph, cutting trips between New York and L.A. or Hong Kong and Singapore to less than a half-hour.
“If you’re building this thing to go to the moon and Mars, then why not go to other places on Earth as well?” he said, without discussing ticket costs.
If SpaceX achieved Musk’s wildly ambitious timeline, the private company would deliver humans to Mars a decade or more before NASA hopes to.
The space agency is building its own big, non-reusable rocket, the Space Launch System, and Orion crew capsules with the goal of sending astronauts to orbit around the moon by 2023, and on a flyby of Mars by the early 2030s.
The 46-year-old Musk, who was speaking on the ninth anniversary of SpaceX launching its first, small rocket, hopes to move faster.
“The future is vastly more exciting and interesting if we’re a spacefaring civilization and a multi-planet species than if we’re not,” he said Friday. “I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”