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Elon Musk Wants To Replace Airplanes With Rockets

It’s all part of SpaceX’s greater plan to build a rocket that can do it all, from ferrying passengers around the globe to hauling cargo to the moon and Mars.

Elon Musk doesn’t want to wait. He doesn’t want to wait in traffic to eat a taco in downtown L.A., so he’s boring tunnels for his car. He doesn’t want to endure a long road trip to drink beers with his pointy-eared buddies at Area 51, so he’s building Hyperloops. And he really doesn’t want to wait to go to Mars, so in an announcement made last night in Australia, he unveiled a new design for his Big Fucking Rocket, or BFR (its official name), and a sound plan to finance his endeavor.

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But there’s one more thing–yes, he actually said those words. Musk doesn’t want to wait the next time he feels like eating street noodles in Shanghai, so he wants to use his BFR to replace airplanes for long-distance travel here on Earth. According to Musk, the cost per seat would be “about the same as full-fare economy in an aircraft.” Imagine that: 24 minutes to fly from New York to Shanghai. Or one hour to fly to your location’s antipodes. In a rocket! Through space! It sounds insane, but he’s bloody serious about it. Watch this:

If you’re laughing, remember that Musk founded his space company just 15 years ago, with zero experience in rocket building. As he told his audience at the International Astronautics Congress in Adelaide, Australia, Musk became his own head of design because he didn’t have the money to hire anyone good, and everyone in the aerospace industry laughed at that PayPal guy. Now the Lockheed Martin-Boeing space oligopoly is terrified because SpaceX is eating its lunch ferrying cargo to the International Space Station (ISS), launching satellites for the military, and putting commercial satellites in orbit using reusable rockets, a concept that goes against the conventional, highly successful “put-lots-of-money-in-our-pockets-to-build-rockets-and-waste-them” design philosophy. Musk and his space corsairs are also the first and only humans to land rockets back on Earth—16 consecutive times so far—and the first to reuse those in other launches.

From zero to all that in just nine years. That’s astonishing. So when Musk says that SpaceX’s new vessel can replace airplanes for long-distance air travel and that he can do it at a cost per seat comparable to an economy class ticket, perhaps we should listen. Especially when he’s ready to bet everything he’s achieved so far on his Greater Plan.

Musk’s projected growth of his first Mars town. [Image: SpaceX]

The Greater Plan

Musk’s idea of Earth-bound space travel isn’t some crazy concept coming out of the blue. It’s all part of his greater plan to make humans a multi-planetary species. (And get his own ass back home?)

It goes like this. Step one, put all his resources into making the new BFR, and ditch the Falcon rockets and the Dragon capsule. Step two, use the BFR to launch everything: People going from city to city on Earth, mega-satellites, flocks of satellites, cargo and people back and forth to the ISS, the moon, or any asteroid someone decides to mine.

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Step three . . . there’s no step three.

If SpaceX only has one product that can be reused under a wide range of scenarios, and everyone is willing to pay for the services it provides, then Musk will be able to not only use that money to pay for his Mars invasion, but also achieve the necessary economies of scale to drive prices down to the point at which a full planetary colonization would be entirely possible over the next century. At least that’s how his theory goes. And Musk says that SpaceX is doing some crucial things to make this business model happen.

It will be able to launch gigantic satellites 9 meters in diameter. [Image: SpaceX]

Size Matters

First, they redesigned their interplanetary ship. BFR needed to be smaller than the ginormous first version, which was a concept meant for Martian travel. But having a specific design for Mars made it unaffordable by design. Nobody wants a vehicle that doesn’t fit their needs. People wanted his other rockets: the Falcons. No company can manage a set of commercial launchers plus a new one, just so the owner can achieve his dream to die on Mars. He needed a concept that could take him to watch a Martian blue sunset and serve all his current and future clients.

BFR will have more load capability than NASA’s Saturn V. [Image: SpaceX]
While the new BFR isn’t as big as the first, it’s still one hell of a BMF, larger and with more payload than the Saturn V that took humans to the Moon. It’s so big that its pressurized space is 825 cubic meters, larger than that of a 525-seater Airbus A380. That’s huge. Even if you can’t just strap your colonists to airplane seats, you can still transport a lot of people (though the ship could use normal seats in the Earth travel version, just like the A380). “In a Mars transit configuration,” Musk says, “we can set it up with 40 cabins . . . Each cabin is big enough to fit five or six people, but you want two to three people per cabin to fly comfortably,” all the way to the Red Planet with a galley, central storage areas, and a solar storm shelter to avoid turning colonists into crispy bacon. A hundred-something humans per flight will do just fine, thank you very much.

There’s also a cargo version of the spaceship, one large enough to transport a mega-satellite or giant space station modules almost 30 feet in diameter. As Musk described, you could use the BFR to put a new Hubble into orbit with a mirror that has 10 times the surface of the original, and you could transport it as one single unit, no unfolding or assembly required. You could unleash a large group of satellites into orbit. 150 tons of them. Or devour old satellites and space debris like Pac-Man to bring the trash back to Earth.

BFR can service the ISS or any station around Earth or the moon. [Image: SpaceX]
The BFR, he pointed out, can also service the ISS or any other station in Earth orbit, moon orbit, or some other place on the way to Mars. In fact, Musk claims the ship is big enough that it has the necessary fuel capacity to fly to the moon, land on a moon base, load some cargo, and get back to Earth without refueling. If he fulfills on all these promises, the design could keep money flowing into the company.

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The fuel tanks are built to take into account the movement in the hypersonic re-entry into Mars atmosphere. [Image: SpaceX]

Automated Docking And Refueling

Refueling is the second factor for success. Musk says that the key for this system is to have an easy way to pour fuel inside these beasts while they’re in orbit. To fly to the moon and back, for example, a spaceship will enter elliptic orbit around Earth and wait for a twin ship to refill its tanks. To fly 150 tons to Mars, you’ll need to do the same operation, except the return will need a refuel on a Martian base (more on that later).

[Image: SpaceX]
SpaceX figured out a way to do this easily without much complication. Instead of using pumps, the two ships will connect at their bases. Once docked together, the two spaceships will move in the direction of the refueling BFR. The propellant will move toward the empty tanks of the other ship, because–magicks! (Or physics.)

To make that possible. you need a perfect and foolproof way to dock the two ships, and that’s where SpaceX’s automated rendezvous and docking system comes into play. So far, the Dragon capsule has successfully used computers, cameras, and radar to automatically rendezvous with the ISS.  After that, the astronauts inside the ISS still have to use the robotic arm to dock it to the station, a time-consuming and risky maneuver. The next version of SpaceX’s flying software, however, will manage docking automatically, just like the Russian Soyuz and Progress cargo ships.

SpaceX’s software also handles re-entry and landing automagically, and that’s the fourth and perhaps most important plan of SpaceX’s Greater Plan to get out of here before everything goes to hell.

Landing and recovery is crucial for his Mars plans. [Image: SpaceX]

Reusability

Elon told the audience that the new BFR design—which looks like a beautiful high-end Swedish vibrator (and now you can’t erase that thought, sorry)—will be able to handle re-entry under “a wide range of atmospheric and payload conditions” thanks to its delta wings and gimbaling rocket engines. Their physics simulations showed that the new rocket system will allow for the propulsed supersonic reentry, deceleration, and precise maneuvering needed to land safely on Mars, Earth, and the “moons.” (Yes, he said moons, plural. What else are you thinking, Elon? Are you planning to take us to Europa one day?)

Safety, he said, is obviously a critical part of the concept: SpaceX wants the BFR to have the same safety stats of the airline industry. That’s a high aspiration, but a critical one if he wants to achieve his colonization and air travel objectives. “You need thousands of launches [and landings] to be able to make it to Mars,” he pointed out. To achieve that, the new BFR will have redundant engines for landing, four big vacuum gimbaled engines that can slowly pivot, and two sea-level smaller gimbaled engines that can pivot quickly to redirect the spaceship for high-precision landing. In theory, the BFR will only need two of the big engines and one of the small ones to land safely.

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If you factor time in cost of a reusable rocket, the BFR will be the cheapest rocket ever built and flown. [Image: SpaceX]
The reusability, combined with the payload capability, will make the BFR the least expensive rocket ever made, Musk claimed. When you factor in the expected life of the design, there’s no comparison with any of the launchers available today, even SpaceX’s own rockets.

According to Musk, the physics for hypersonic rocket landing on Mars work just fine for BFR. [Image: SpaceX]

Betting His Shirt On It

To make this all happen, Musk is ready to bet the entire company. He says that they’re going to build a few of the old Falcons to keep them in stock, and then they’ll turn all their resources to make the BFR. The goal? To launch two cargo models and land them on the surface of Mars in 2022, a target date that seems unbelievable to me (even while I want to believe). By 2024, he wants to launch four ships, two manned, with everything needed to build a fuel factory and depot on the surface or Mars to extract oxygen from the Martian environment using very large solar farms.

The plan is extremely bold. The company is killing all its products to make a single, entirely new one. And Musk believes that they’ll be able to make it all work with the revenue they receive for launching satellites and servicing the ISS—and build from there.

And that brings us back to the beginning: The spaceline. As SpaceX developed the new BFR design–incorporating the safety, the reusability, the refueling, and the right size to serve a variety of purposes–it also started thinking about using it to travel across the Earth, Musk said. “The results were quite interesting,” he said to an enthusiastic audience at the keynote. “You can turn it into an airliner.” Much faster, less waste, and a very smooth ride to Shanghai in just 24 minutes. There’s no turbulence in space, no weather, nothing, he reminded the audience. That’s true, Elon. And nobody can hear you scream, which is what everyone will be thinking when they’re strapping themselves to a billion tons of explosive material, minutes before launching themselves to the other side of the world. But that’s okay. As we’ve seen with the electric car, it is very possible that people will be willing to let go of their fears in exchange of an ultra-fast (and fun!) trip that saves them 24 hours in a flying can, even if running out of power on a trip or having your batteries explode under your bottom seemed a little bit scary at first.

Will it work? Maybe. If it does, the airline could help normalize space travel in a way we never imagined–and help to pay for his Martian dreams, too. The barfing, however, may become a problem during liftoff or re-entry. This could end up being the stinkiest airline known to humankind. But I would be willing to pay for a trip. For fun, and for Mars and beyond.

About the author

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.

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