Privately funded launch to orbit of Mars planned tomorrow

Update 2018 February 7: The launch was successful in every respect but one: The middle of the three booster rockets failed to land on the floating platform as intended because one of the required engine firings didn’t happen. Interestingly, the two side boosters, which landed perfectly back in Florida, were recycled. The central booster was new and had some design modifications required to deal with having boosters on either side, though I don’t think that’s directly relevant to the landing failure. The final second stage burn put itself and its Testla Roadster payload into an orbit around the Sun that will take it not just to the orbit of Mars but a good deal beyond, into the asteroid belt. Original post follows:

Tomorrow a private company is planning to launch the world’s largest rocket on its maiden test flight, and if all goes as planned, its payload will travel as far as the orbit of Mars.

Meanwhile the same folks are working on a replacement rocket system capable of sending large passenger spaceships to Mars and beyond in the next decade. As a bonus, those spaceships will also be able to transport people between any two points on Earth — any two points with launch facilities anyway — in an hour or less. And they plan to make the launch lower than any space-capable rocket now flying.

The company doing this is SpaceX, founded and headed by Elon Musk, a Heinlein character come to life who helped create PayPal and later started the electric car company Tesla. The payload for tomorrow’s launch is Musk’s personal Tesla Roadster, which will be playing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in a loop on the car’s sound system.

Since its beginnings in 2002 SpaceX has been wildly ambitious, sometimes failing on its first several tries but more often than not ultimately succeeding. In 2008 their single-engine Falcon 1 rocket became the first privately-funded liquid fueled launch vehicle to put a satellite into orbit. The Falcon 1 was succeeded by the nine-engine Falcon 9, and in 2012 SpaceX used the Falcon 9 and its Dragon space capsule to deliver a load of cargo to the International Space Station, another first for a privately developed launch system. Other deliveries followed, and SpaceX hopes to carry astronauts to the ISS in a new model Dragon as soon as this year.

Tomorrow is the scheduled first try at launching the newest SpaceX rocket, the Falcon Heavy, whose first stage is three Falcon 9 first stages strapped together in a row. While in a sense only an incremental development in its well-established Falcon 9 system, the Falcon Heavy has a payload capacity double that of the biggest launch vehicle in current service, the similar-looking Delta IV Heavy from the United Launch Alliance (a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed-Martin).

The Falcon Heavy is powerful enough to launch 35,000 pounds to the Moon. Impressive as that it is, it still falls far short of the Saturn V, the biggest rocket ever built, with a lunar payload capacity of over 100,000 pounds.

But SpaceX is already working on a rocket as powerful as the Saturn V, one code-named BFR. (Some refer to it as the “Big Falcon Rocket,” but everybody knows the middle word isn’t really Falcon.) They’re far enough along on the BFR project to have started test-firing its new engines in 2016. A test flight could occur as soon as 2020 or 2021.

One of the main goals of SpaceX is to lower the cost of getting into space. Estimates are that its prices are currently 80 percent cheaper than the competition, and last year they started re-using the Falcon 9 first stage, which after launch can land vertically back at its launch site of on an autonomous barge out at sea. This is expected to lower costs even more.

Everything about the BFR is intended to be reusable, and this is supposed to make the cost of a BRF rocket lower even than the original Falcon 1. At that point it makes sense to use the BFR as the only launch vehicle. They also hope to achieve reliability comparable to that of a modern airliner.

Not just the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy will be retired in favor of the BFT; the Dragon spacecraft will become obsolete as well, but it will not be replaced. Instead, the BFR’s second stage will be a passenger and cargo spaceship. There will also be BFR tanker rocket able to refuel the main BFR in orbit, allowing it to continue on to the Moon or Mars with full tanks.

So just how big a spaceship are we talking about? The BFR’s pressurized volume is planned to be 825 cubic meters, or 29,100 cubic feet. SpaceX says that it can be configured with “up to 40 cabins, large common areas, central storage, galley, and a solar storm shelter in Mars transit configuration.” If you find that hard to picture, take a look at this very short YouTube animation:


For more on the BFR, including some skepticism about how practical all this might be, see this article from Popular Mechanics.

By the way, another component to the SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System, namely a modular, automated, solar-powered ground-based factory that would extract water from below the surface and carbon dioxide from the air in order to produce oxygen and methane to refuel the spaceship. Of course, oxygen and methane are cheap and readily available on Earth, but the plan is to launch the factory to Mars.

While SpaceX’s plans are most ambitious, it has competitors. NASA is working with United Launch Alliance and other contractors on a new Space Launch System (SLS) with a rocket only a little smaller than the BFR that may start flying in 2020. It’s likely to be very expensive (no components are planned to be reusable), but it may be more reliable. United Launch Alliance is working on a Vulcan rocket, also aimed for a 2020 test fight, that appears to be a scaled up version of the Delta IV series and somewhat less powerful than the Falcon Heavy.

There’s also another private company in the game, Blue Origin, funded out-of-pocket by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Its first rocket, which has already flown in several tests, is a suborbital vehicle suitable for space tourism. It’s called the New Shepard, after Alan Shepard, the first American in space, whose short initial flight was similarly suborbital. Their next proposed rocket is the New Glenn, similarly named for the first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn, which may be launched in 2020. Its payload is a little smaller than the Falcon Heavy. Blue Origin is also working on a New Armstrong, possibly comparable to the Saturn V, BFR, and SLS, but with no publicly announced time frame or payload capacity.

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