Elon Musk got on stage today to talk about upcoming plans for his rocket company, SpaceX, and as always, it was an adventure. Speaking at the International Astronautical Congress in Australia, Musk detailed plans for possibly the most important rocket in the history of SpaceX — one that would not only replace the rest of SpaceX’s rockets, but could compete with passenger airplanes, too.
That rocket is called the BFR and, well, BFR stands for what you think it does (considering Musk wanted to name his first three Teslas Models S, E, and X, it’s certainly in his wheelhouse). It’s also not a completely new development — Musk talked about it exactly one year ago as the Interplanetary Transport System, the combination of an enormous rocket and a capsule capable of ferrying humans to Mars. During his presentation last year, Musk also mentioned that the proposed rocket could be used to fly passengers to virtually any other city on Earth in under an hour, although at the time he didn’t expand much on that idea.
This year, he provided a short video showing how that kind of travel would work. The BFR would launch a spaceship with passengers into low-Earth orbit, at which point the spaceship would break off and head toward the destination city (the rocket would thrust back to Earth to land and be reused). That means what you think it does — your intercontinental trip will come with a bonus bit of weightlessness! The spaceship would land on a floating pad similar to the proposed BFR launchpads, with passengers taking a ship back to land — at least for now, it looks like this would only be used for coastal cities. The video indicates that any trip to another city on Earth would take no more than an hour.
His speech today also provided some of the details about the proposed rocket, including that wonderful BFR code name. The rocket will now be a bit smaller than originally proposed, but it’ll still be far more massive than anything else SpaceX has launched. And, like their Falcon 9 rocket, the BFR will be reusable, saving the company tons of money on subsequent launches.
In fact, reusable rockets are exactly how SpaceX will fund the development and construction of the BFR. Now that SpaceX has successfully launched, landed, and reused their Falcon 9 rockets, Musk expects that the company can profit from launching satellites and running ISS supply missions. Those profits will all be funneled into the BFR — eventually, Musk plans to halt development of SpaceX’s current rockets, with the BFR eventually to make them all obsolete. The money saved from not developing those and making the proposed BFR smaller should, per Musk, make the whole project affordable. He also plans to use oxygen and methane in the propulsion system, which would keep the cost of fueling and refueling the rocket low.
For now, Musk still isn’t budging from his goal of putting people on Mars by 2024. He expects the first two cargo trips to Mars to happen in 2022 — both ambitious timelines, but that’s par for the course for Musk, who has often made (and failed to meet) self-imposed deadlines for SpaceX and Tesla projects.