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What we learned from Elon Musk's speech about Mars, moon base


The SpaceX CEO admitted that cost prompted him to scale back the new rocket system’s physical size in favor of a new system known as the BFR.
MELBOURNE, Fla. — Industrial superstar and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk took the stage during a conference in Australia early Friday to expand on his vision of humanity as a “multiplanetary species,” introducing a new, multi-role rocket in the process.
Musk’s speech at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide built on his presentation last year in Guadalajara, Mexico, where he detailed plans that envisioned a self-sustaining civilization on Mars in the not-too-distant future.
Spearheaded by a massive new rocket system, Musk on Friday admitted that cost was a major concern, prompting him to scale back its physical size — but not his ambitions — in favor of a new system known as the BFR.
During the 2016 IAC conference, Musk introduced the Interplanetary Transport System, a proposed 400-foot-tall rocket and attached vehicle that would take up to 100 people to the red planet. Citing cost concerns, Musk on Friday said SpaceX is seriously working on the development of BFR, a new two-stage rocket with a smaller diameter — 9 meters, or about 30 feet — and a height of nearly 350 feet.
For comparison, the storied Saturn V rocket of the Apollo era stood about 360 feet tall, but SpaceX’s BFR would be more powerful, allowing it to take more to orbit and beyond.
“It’s really quite a big vehicle,” Musk said. “The booster is lifted by 31 Raptor engines.”
Atop BFR would be a second spacecraft capable of being crewed by up to 100 people or filled with cargo. Much like first stages of the company’s existing Falcon 9 rocket, the BFR would be fully reusable.
Musk said the first iteration could be ready as soon as 2022, which aligns with an Earth-Mars synchronization, or point at which the two planets are closest. The next wouldn’t occur until two years later in 2024.
“I feel fairly confident that we can complete the ship and be ready for launch in about five years,” he said. “If not this timeframe, then soon thereafter.”
Even compared to the previously planned ITS, the BFR is still a massive vehicle — but Musk thinks using it for all of SpaceX’s needs will help reduce costs and eventually transport humans to Mars.
The BFR system, he said, would replace SpaceX’s entire fleet of vehicles and perform tasks ranging from International Space Station resupply to lunar missions to Mars, streamlining production and development for the company. Thanks to its much wider second stage, the spacecraft would be capable of taking larger, heavier payloads to orbit.
“It’ll be capable of doing what Dragon does today in terms of transporting cargo and what Dragon 2 will do in terms of transporting crew and cargo,” he said. “It can also go much farther than that — for example, the moon.”
The BFR system would play a role in and monetarily bolster SpaceX’s ambitions in four ways: The launching of satellites, trips to the space station under NASA contracts, missions to the moon and, finally, the transportation of people to Mars.
Musk did not mention SpaceX’s plans to build a constellation of thousands of satellites that would beam broadband Internet down to Earth, which could provide a major source of revenue if successful.
Be it ITS or BFR, plans for SpaceX’s eventual vehicle for Mars colonization may have been slightly reduced in size, but long-term dreams are still out in full force.
Ideally, Musk said 2024 would be the year to fly four BFR ships to the red planet: two crewed, two loaded with cargo. This mission would enable the construction of a propellant depot to fuel return trips to Earth, as well as the establishment of a base that could see further expansion.
If the BFR is ready, an earlier uncrewed mission in 2022 would help set the stage for travelers by identifying hazards and delivering some infrastructure.
The colonization of Mars by hundreds and possibly even thousands of people is still very much an objective for Musk, who presented renderings of a slowly growing city on Mars. First, just ships and a few scattered outposts appeared; then, the development of a futuristic settlement primarily powered by solar panels, which meshes well with his experience as CEO of energy company Tesla.
“Over time, terraforming Mars and making it a really nice place to be,” he said. “I think that’s quite a beautiful picture.”
“It’s 2017,” a slightly frustrated Musk said during the conference. “I mean, we should have a lunar base by now. What the hell’s going on?
Describing it as “pretty captivating,” the billionaire CEO described how cargo would be handled on the moon, but didn’t detail many other operations that would happen there, such as the size of the base or what its primary function would be.
The advantages of the BFR’s capacity, however, means propellant production wouldn’t be necessary on the moon, possibly freeing up more energy and time for other activities.
Musk referred to the settlement, which could serve as an effective launching point for trips to Mars, as “Moon Base Alpha.”
Finally, Musk teased a not-so-new idea in the industry — using spacecraft to significantly reduce travel times around the globe.
SpaceX could, for example, transport passengers to any destination on Earth in under an hour using the BFR. Most trips between popular destinations would take fewer than 30 minutes, not counting time spent traveling to and from the rockets.
An animation released by the company shows passengers in New York City taking a boat to an offshore barge topped with a BFR and flying at 17,000 mph before landing vertically in Shanghai 39 minutes later.
Follow Emre Kelly on Twitter: @EmreKelly

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