As SpaceX and NASA huddle at Kennedy Space Center in Florida to launch an extraordinary mission to search for Earth-like worlds beyond our solar system, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that the city would host the construction of humanity’s first interplanetary passenger ship.
That ship? The SpaceX BFR or Big Falcon Rocket, built by the Elon Musk-founded private spaceflight company. Within a decade, SpaceX hopes to retire its current line of Falcon 9 rockets and Dragon capsules while utilizing the BFR as a multi-purpose vessel with the capability to fly missions to just about anywhere in the solar system.
That includes low-Earth orbit where the International Space Station currently flies, the Moon, and of course, Mars––the company’s first planetary destination. BFR will be the largest spacecraft ever brought to manufacturing and SpaceX is taking a large swath of the port in San Pedro to house the assembly of BFR and house its engineers. The port is also pretty close to SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, where a giant recovered Falcon 9 booster is parked outside.
“Today, I am pleased to officially announce that SpaceX will start production development of the Big Falcon Rocket in the Port of Los Angeles,” said Mayor Garcetti. This is a vehicle that holds the promise of taking humanity even deeper into the cosmos than ever before.”
The BFR is a two-part, fully reusable vessel being designed with concepts proven by regular operation of the Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft––vehicles SpaceX has used to make a staggering breakthrough in hardware reusability. That includes retro-propulsion which SpaceX uses to begin flying the booster back to Earth after delivering a payload to orbit. Along with that, the propulsive landing technology being proven every time a booster touches down on Cape Canaveral or on one of the twin bi-coastal drone ships.
Dragon’s automatic rendezvous technology and the automatic docking that will be a feature on the Dragon 2 crew vehicle, is essential to BFR’s in-orbit refueling operation. In simplest terms, SpaceX will launch BFR to orbit where they will park it until they can launch a fuel-tanker version of BFR to refuel the first ship just minutes later. This will allow a full tank of gas for the long journey through deep space.
SpaceX has been conducting an array of other tests on high-retro thrust propulsion as we witnessed during the GovSat-1 launch at Cape Canaveral earlier this year. It was the mission right before SpaceX began operations to launch the Falcon Heavy. They decided to dump or “expend” the GovSat-1 booster instead of recovering it, to use the opportunity for an engine burn test right before it crashed into the water.
SpaceX failed to destroy the rocket and the booster essentially landed on the surface of the ocean––an incredible feat and a first for space travel.
SpaceX is also working hard to recover the rest of the Falcon 9 rocket. While the booster is a meat of the meal and most of the cost associated with rocket launches, every piece matters. On the west coast, SpaceX has equipped a boat named Mr. Steven to catch the payload fairing that houses the satellites being launched. They’ve been getting closer and closer to catching the “nose cone” in a giant net attached to Mr. Steven.
(Photo: Pauline Acalin)
Elon Musk also announced that SpaceX will attempt to recover the upper-stage of the rocket which continues flying the payload after the booster heads back to Earth. The plan? To float it back from an orbital velocity using a “party balloon” according to Elon Musk on Twitter. For clarification, it seems to be a little bit more complex than that. Musk had a public exchange on Twitter with a team at the University of Maryland who is working on such “balloon” technology and Musk agreed to hear their ideas.
SpaceX knows they’ll need every penny for a human mission to Mars and that is why a $6 million-dollar payload fairing is worth catching while it falls from the sky. And speaking of money in the sky, SpaceX will be hoping to generate a significant income from launching thousands of ‘Star Link’ broadband satellites that would help serve internet to the almost 50% of the planet that doesn’t have access to it.
To help with that cost, SpaceX will be getting a rent-free lease from the city of Los Angeles for at least 20 years but is expected to fully renovate the properties that have been vacant since 2005. The city of Los Angeles gave SpaceX $40 million in rent credits to improve the area and bring over 700 hundred jobs to the area.
“SpaceX has called the Port of Los Angeles home to our west coast recovery operations since 2012 and we truly appreciate the City of Los Angeles’ continues partnership,” said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell. “As announced today by Mayor Garcetti, the Port will play an increasingly important role in our mission to help make humanity multi-planetary as SpaceX begins production development of BFR––our next generation rocket and spaceship system capable of carrying crew and cargo to the Moon, Mars and beyond.”
(Photo: Pauline Acalin)
According to Elon Musk, the key to making Mars happen is full and rapid reusability and SpaceX’s next big goal is to reduce the launch to relaunch of a single rocket to 24 hours. The technology needs to be exacting and perfect for BFR to be cost-effecting and of course, have the ability to bring its passengers back from the Moon or Mars.
To accomplish this magical 24-hour turnaround, SpaceX will fly a new incarnation of the Falcon 9 designed for just that: The Block 5––built with an increased thrust, permanent and retractable landing legs, thermal heat protection coating instead of paint, and titanium grid fins. SpaceX’s very next launch will be the debut of the Block 5, coming up in early May at Kennedy Space Center. With Block 5 complete, SpaceX can begin the divert more and more staff to BFR.
“We are building the first ship, or interplanetary ship, right now,” Elon Musk said at SXSW this year. “And we’ll probably be able to do short flights, short up and down flights, during the first half of next year.” Gwynne Shotwell has mentioned a similar timeline but added that those test flights will be flown from SpaceX’s newly-constructed launch pad in Boca Chica, Texas.
Some are speculating whether SpaceX will launch BFR exclusively from Texas given that they’ll have far more control than they do at Cape Canaveral, where a government shutdown has affected them before. Regardless if BFR launches from Texas or Florida or both, the massive ship will have to be shipped through the Panama Canal to reach a launch site.
BFR is being designed to carry up to 100 passengers per ship to begin building a settlement on the red planet. The first BFR mission to Mars would be uncrewed, packed with hardware and supplies to build a fuel-processing facility once the next BFR arrives with a crew. Being able to make fuel on Mars and the Moon is essential for regular round-trips at a sustainable cost.
By 2028, SpaceX could be preparing to launch the first Mars settlers on a pair of BFR ships.
(Love the images in this article? Check out our article with Pauline Acalin here!)