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Sunday, May 13, 2018

Full speed ahead--Mars by 2024

After Musk announced the new all-purpose BFR and BFS at the International Aeronautical Congress in Adelaide in September, there were all sorts of questions and doubts about whether what he announced was even possible, let alone whether he could do it in his time scales.  We've all heard of "Elon Time"--although many who mock his timetables forget about Elon Time's close relative "Elon Achieves".   We've seen that with the Tesla Model 3: delays, it's true, and yet all in all, extraordinary achievements.  We've seen it with SpaceX too.  16 years ago it was just a few people and a mariachi band.   Now it is the world's premier space launch organisation.

The first question raised was: how would SpaceX transport something so massive as the BFR through the congested streets of Los Angeles from its Hawthorne factory?  Aside from the disruption and the time, it would cost $2.5 million to move the BFR the 15 kms from the factory to the port of Los Angeles.  SpaceX obviously agreed.  So, nothing daunted, it leased some land in the Port of Los Angeles right next to the water.  And, so that production could start at once, they didn't wait to demolish the existing building on the site or build a new factory but started building the BFR in a giant tent!  By the way, when Elon announced the BFR in September 2017, he said construction would start in Q2 2018.  Which it has.

Elon stated that the first test flights of BFR would begin in the first half of 2019.   Now, note, he didn't say that flights to Mars would begin then.  These would be test flights of the BFS, the upper stage of the BFR, the actual space ship which would make the trip to Mars, flights like the "grasshopper" tests at SpaceX's McGregor Texas testing site.  Elon has stated that the BFS would be built first, because SpaceX understands what's needed to build the first stage.  Even though that's 3 times wider and 20% longer (58 m vs 48 m) than the Falcon 9 first stage, the principles are the same.   The BFS, though, will be quite new, entering the Earth's atmosphere at orbital velocity (roughly 26,500 kms/hour), carrying humans, landing on the moon and Mars.

The first tests (after the static fire test) would take the BFS up towards the Kármán line (one technical definition of the edge of the Earth's atmosphere, 100 kms above the Earth.)  Later tests would have it "hop" from one launch site to another.  Then SpaceX would test orbital flight and the BFS's ability to survive the heat of re-entry and be ready for re-use within 24 hours (incidentally, it seems that this will be achieved by the block 5 iteration of the Falcon 9 which has just had its maiden flight and landing).

The timetable for all this is relatively optimistic.

 At Satellite Conference 2018, the typically reserved and pragmatic executive [Gwynne Shotwell, COO of SpaceX] confirmed beyond any doubt that she had become aggressively bullish [optimistic] on the Mars rocket, stating that she believed the spaceship would be ready for suborbital testing in 2019, while the booster-spaceship system could potentially reach orbit by 2020. Musk and Shotwell’s suggestion that BFR’s first suborbital testing – akin to an extreme version of SpaceX’s Grasshopper and F9R programs – is expected to begin in 2019 meshes well with a recent explosion of activity at Port of San Pedro in Los Angeles, CA, thanks to a combination of land acquisition, successful bureaucracy-wrangling,  and the first hints of construction and BFR production. It’s highly unlikely that SpaceX would have chosen to temporarily move BFR prototyping into a giant tent on abandoned dock space rather than waiting for port and city approvals for their permanent port factory if they were not keen on moving full speed ahead with the fully reusable launch vehicle’s development.

Early phases of in-house BFR structures prototyping is taking shape behind the flaps of a custom-ordered temporary tent, something like 60m long, 30m wide, and ~15m tall at the highest point – half an acre of eccentric but functional space for Mars rocket R&D, in other words. The primary benefit of these facilities’ dock-side locations is the minimization of the transportation hell that SpaceX would have had to suffer through to transport 9m-diameter rocket hardware through downtown Los Angeles – feats that would cost as much as $2.5 million one way each time components had to be moved from the Hawthorne factory to the Port of LA, where it would be finally shipped to Texas or Florida.

Speaking at a private talk given to MIT campus members in October 2017, attendees reported that Shotwell stated that although “[BFR’s] composite tanks [would] be a challenge [for SpaceX],” the company was already working on maturing the technologies required, and also noted that SpaceX was “building a larger [version of] Raptor right now.” Half a year later, outsiders have heard nothing of any additional carbon composite propellant tank testing at the new 9m diameter, but the existence of custom-ordered (i.e. very expensive and specialized) composite fabrication tooling of the same diameter as BFR effectively guarantees that SpaceX has settled upon and is confident in its approach to manufacturing the massive composite tankage and structures. Along with a similar line of thought, expensive tooling with a fixed diameter also indicates – albeit with less certainty – that the vehicle’s Raptor propulsion system is not expected to change significantly as BFR marches closer to suborbital and orbital testing. Raptor, in other words, is probably considerably more mature than SpaceX’s composite tankage expertise, itself fairly advanced given the mandrel and additional fabrication tooling already present at Port of San Pedro.

And yet, Shotwell’s most telling display of confidence occurred just a handful of days ago at the TED2018 conference. In a lengthy and fairly well-orchestrated interview with the session’s host Chris Anderson, Shotwell repeatedly and happily made comments indicating that she has become extremely bullish on BFR and BFS in the last several months. In her opinion, BFR (and point-to-point Earth transport) will be deployed “within a decade, for sure.” Prices would nominally be “between business and economy,” or a few thousand dollars per person. Speaking on the trip from Earth to Mars, she estimated a three-month journey with BFR Block 1, “but [SpaceX is] gonna try to do it faster.” She further confirmed that SpaceX intends to build much larger BFRs, meshing with Elon’s suggestions that 2016’s ITS concept is now perceived internally as a sort of BFR Block 2. Perhaps most importantly, she qualified her timeline estimates as “Gwynne-time” when Anderson jokingly deadpanned about the infamous Elon-time. Overall, Shotwell came across as more bullish than she has ever been before on BFR’s development and future prospects, including both point-to-point transport on Earth and crewed missions to the surface of Mars – both of which she expected to begin “within a decade, for sure.” Smirking, she quipped that she was “sure Elon would want us to go faster.”
[Read more here]

Musk said in Adelaide the goal was for the first manned ships to reach Mars in 2024.  He said that goal was "aspirational".   But judging from the speed with which SpaceX is moving on the BFR/BFS, it might actually happen.  The next Mars/Earth opposition dates are December 2022 (when SpaceX plans to send two unmanned cargo ships to Mars) and January 2025 (when they will send 2 cargo and 2 manned ships) and February 2027 (if those "aspirational" dates slip.)

I'm beginning to believe that Musk and SpaceX will do it.  What a remarkable achievement that would be.  I really hope I live to see it.


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