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ITS-System-Architecture
A diagram detailing the steps in the cycle that the Big Falcon Rocket will follow.

Graphic by: Spaceflight101

On July 20, 1969, the first humans set foot on the moon. Nearly half a century later, humanity is finally ready to take on Mars. As in the 1960s, NASA remains one of the major organizations seeking to put the first humans on Mars, but there is also a new force in play this time: SpaceX, the most prominent of several private companies that are making progress by leaps and bounds toward beating NASA in the race to make humanity an interplanetary species. SpaceX has already made a name for itself in its astonishingly bold innovations in spaceflight, standing in stark contrast to NASA’s traditional slow and steady approach.

A few weeks ago, Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, gave the second of two speeches outlining a radical plan, known as the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), to take humans to Mars by the mid 2020s. Musk’s plan involves a new game-changing rocket, nicknamed the BFR (Big Falcon Rocket), which is expected to be even larger than the Saturn V, the rocket that flew in the Apollo missions and the largest rocket that has ever been successfully flown.The BFR would be composed of two sections: the ship, which would go directly from Earth orbit to a landing on Mars, and the other, the booster section, which would return to Earth after lifting the ship into orbit. On Mars, fuel can be made on site using carbon dioxide and ice–ingredients naturally found on Mars–and the BFR would be ready to return to Earth.

By 2024, Musk believes that the BFR will take the first human crew to Mars.

Once perfected, the ITS would make Mars trips extremely simple, without need for a complicated landing procedure such as the “sky crane” used for the Mars Curiosity rover. Musk claims that by 2022, a mere five years from now, the BFR will begin landing cargo on Mars. Even more impressive is that by 2024, Musk believes that SpaceX will take the first human crew to Mars.

For Musk’s dream to colonize Mars to become a reality, he needed to overcome the most significant barrier for interplanetary colonization. This barrier is neither a matter of politics nor the limitations of technology, but instead the cost of the trip. As Musk explains, the number of people who are willing to travel to Mars is by no means small, but the price of one trip is so high–approximately $10 billion–that there is almost no one who can afford it.

The BFR addresses this problem primarily through reusability. Just as plane tickets would cost tens of thousands of times more if the airplane is destroyed and rebuilt every flight, spaceflight has, until now, been so expensive because the entire rocket has either crashed into the ocean or burned up in the atmosphere by the completion of the mission. While SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets have already achieved 80% reusability through the groundbreaking ability to land their rocket boosters, the BFR achieves full reusability by having the capability of landing the upper stage.

Refueling in orbit reduces the cost by a further five to ten times, and switching from kerosene to methane allows fuel production on Mars, which further reduces the cost.

The BFR rocket will not only be the most powerful rocket ever, but also the cheapest.

Once completed, the BFR rocket would not only be the most powerful rocket ever, but also the cheapest. It would be able to lift 150 tons of cargo, compared to Saturn V’s 135 ton lift capability, while also being more cost efficient per launch than the previously cheapest rocket, SpaceX’s own Falcon 1 rocket.

But the BFR has a host of feasibility issues, some of which Musk has attempted to address. Cost is once again the chief problem; after all, the development of the BFR is an extremely expensive undertaking. Musk explains that, to address the problem the BFR would take over the jobs Falcon 9 currently performs under contracts for NASA, such as supplying the International Space Station and bringing satellites to orbit. Musk even suggests that the BFR could be funded by a series of lunar missions.

But more extraordinarily, Musk believes that the BFR could become an entirely new form of transportation between destinations on Earth. By traveling above the atmosphere, the BFR could substantially decrease travel times. Indeed, Musk claims that via the BFR, one could travel anywhere in the world in under one hour.

Elon Musk’s BFR could therefore revolutionize the way the world is connected. In the next century, Musk expects that there will be thousands of ships making trips to Mars, supporting a colony of millions. Despite the seeming ludicrousy of this plan, SpaceX has already pulled off feats that were once thought to be impossible. Perhaps within our lifetimes, humanity will have become a truly interplanetary species, thus fulfilling what Elon Musk believes to be the only future worth aspiring to.

Update: February 6th, 2018

February 6th saw the successful launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, the current most powerful rocket in the world. The rocket is carrying a payload of a Tesla Roadster – one of the electric cars designed by another of Musk’s companies, Tesla – headed for a flyby of Mars. Despite Falcon Heavy’s truly incredible first launch today, it remains only a stepping stone for the BFR. While the Falcon Heavy is the most powerful currently in-use rocket by far, it still falls short of the Apollo missions’ Saturn V, which in turn pales in comparison to the expected performance of the BFR. As Musk reminds us, SpaceX will soon shift toward focusing on the BFR, with Falcon Heavy joining Falcon 9 as their primary sources of income.

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Connie Miao