Would you want to live on Mars for the rest of your life? Photo Credit: NASA

Can SpaceX’s BFR send the first humans to Mars?

Key Vocabulary: Newton, rocket, orbit, payload, satellite, booster, thrust

Next Generation Science Standards:

  • HS-PS2-1 1. Analyze data to support the claim that Newton’s second law of motion describes the mathematical relationship among the net force on a macroscopic object, its mass, and its acceleration.
  • HS-ESS1-4. Use mathematical or computational representations to predict the motion of orbiting objects in the solar system.


Lab_Rubber Band Rocketry

In a press conference last month, Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, announced that the company will be focusing all its efforts on a developing a new, 100% reusable rocket called the BFR. Once complete, BFR will be the most powerful rocket ever made and will replace the Falcon 9, the rocket which SpaceX has been using since 2012 to launch satellites and resupply the International Space Station. Musk plans on applying the BFR in a variety of ways, including sending cargo to space stations and passengers to any destination on Earth in less than an hour. However, the BFR’s most consequential mission will be to send enough people and cargo to the Moon or Mars to start a manned colony.

While Musk has never been one to shy away from a challenge, to meet the extraordinarily ambitious goal of launching a manned crew to Mars by 2025, SpaceX will need to develop a lot of new technology and raise a lot of money in a short amount of time. Cost estimates for the BFR are more than $10 billion dollars and a lot of the technology needed has yet to be tested or even invented. However, if SpaceX is successful, it would mark the beginning of humans as an interplanetary species.

The BFR is one powerful rocket

The BFR (yes, it stands for Big F***ing Rocket) is composed of two stages, a booster, and a manned spaceship. Together, the rocket would stand an enormous 122 meters (400 feet), about the height of a 40 story building and about 10 meters (30 feet) taller than the Saturn V, the rocket which took Apollo Astronauts to the Moon.

Photo Credit: Science Over Everything

To say the booster would pack a huge punch is a bit of an understatement. The rocket would be the most powerful booster ever built, capable of putting up several hundred tons of passengers and cargo into orbit. What makes the booster so powerful is that it’s powered by 42 Raptor class engines, each of which is capable of producing over 26,600,000 Newtons (300 tons or 600,000 lbs) of thrust. This would be a substantial upgrade from the Merlin class engines used on the Falcon 9.

Basic rocket engine. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

To get an idea of how strong these rockets are, a single Merlin engine generates enough thrust to lift about 40 cars into orbit. The Falcon 9 rocket has 9 of these engines, capable of putting about 360 cars into orbit.

A single Raptor engine generates enough force to put 172 cars or an entire Boeing 747 aircraft into orbit – and the BFR booster has 42 of them. Altogether, the booster creates nearly 116,000,000 Newtons (13,000 tons or 26,000,000 lbs) of thrust, enough to push more than 7,000 cars into space. That amount of thrust could potentially lift up to hundreds of people and an enormous amount of equipment into orbit.

On September 25, 2016, the Raptor Rocket engine was first tested at the McGregor test site in Texas. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

How do you get to Mars?

The flight plan for the BFR reaching Mars is relatively simple. The booster would lift the manned spaceship into orbit, separate, and return to the Earth for immediate reuse. Once in orbit, the manned spaceship would be refueled with methane and oxygen gas by a tanker before departing the long voyage. Powered by 9 Raptor class rockets, the spaceship would the depart for Mars at speeds of over 100,000 kph (62,000 mph), being able to reach the Red Planet in around 80 days.

After reaching Mars, the ship would land on the surface to conduct experiments and begin setting up a permanent manned colony. When the mission was over, astronauts would harvest water and carbon dioxide to create more methane and oxygen fuel and return home.

The flight plan for the BFR. Photo Credit: Science Over Everything

Musk is planning on all of the BFR’s components being reusable in order to increase the frequency of flight. The vision is for dozens of ships to depart every 26 months when the orbits of and Mars align for the shortest trip between the two planets. Reusability would also decrease the costs for passengers, with tickets around $200,000. That price would make space exploration not only cheaper but more widely available to universities and institutions interested in doing research on Mars.

Big Effing Challenges

As you may expect, a project with these kinds of lofty aspirations comes with many challenges. SpaceX has had success with the Falcon 9 rockets, carrying out 14 launches to date. However moving from the 9 smaller Merlin class engines on the Falcon 9 to 42 of the much more powerful Raptor class engines on the BFR would require a level of coordination and engineering not yet seen. With more engines, there is more room for error.

The extent of reusability for the BFR is also a big question mark. Airlines are able to make a profit because their planes can make up to 10,000 flights before needing to be replaced. In order for the BFR to be financially feasible, the rocket must be 100% reusable, capable of making hundreds or perhaps thousands of flights. The Falcon 9 rocket is only half reusable, and the sample size of a successful return landing is small. The wear and tear from launch and reentry on the BFR could cause a lot of stress on the rocket parts, making reusability difficult for engineers.

Passenger safety will also be a challenge. While the idea of an airplane crash is scary, the chances of you being in one are not. The odds of dying in a plane crash are around 1 in 29 million. But an 8 month, one way trip through space to another planet would carry a lot more risk. Exposure to radiation, micrometeoroids that could shred through the hull of a spaceship, or leak in the cabin could all be fatal to the passengers aboard. If anything did go wrong, there would be no emergency landing and little chance of a rescue mission.

However, perhaps the biggest hurdle for Musk is the dollars and cents. Developing the BFR is projected to cost at least $10 billion dollars. To offset the development costs, SpaceX would need to continue making money by putting satellites into orbit. But satellites get smaller as technology improves. Scraping the Falcon 9 for a more powerful rocket could prove unnecessary.

SpaceX is just getting good at launching and landing the Falcon 9. Is it a bad idea to scrap it for a bigger rocket? Photo Credit: Wikipedia

SpaceX would also need extra cash from the government to fund the project in addition to what has already been provided. NASA is building the SLS, or the Space Launch System, capable of taking humans back to the Moon or Mars. Would the U.S. government give even more money to a project that would potentially compete with its own? Many lawmakers, especially from districts or states where NASA builds and researches its rockets would have a hard time endorsing the idea

Why is this so important

If SpaceX can develop the BFR before NASA implements their new manned rocket design, it would be the first time humans have left low earth orbit (orbits of 2000 km or 1200 miles or less) since December 1972, when Apollo 17 returned from the moon. Building a manned colony on either Mars or the Moon would give scientists the opportunity to collect data directly, a huge advantage over remote probes. It would also be a jumping off point to other destinations in the Solar System. Two of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus and Titan, could potentially harbor life and are high up on the list of places which researchers would like to study more in depth.

How soon could we send humans to Saturn? Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Aside from advancing the human species and having a new level of understanding of our solar system, there are also economic incentives. An isotope of helium, helium-3, is a potentially useful fuel for fusion power. It’s rare on Earth, currently costing around $40,000/lb. However, there are theoretically stores of the stuff on the Moon. One shuttle payload back to Earth could be valued over $159 million. Depending on how much helium is there, the Moon could potentially be worth trillions of dollars.

But perhaps the biggest impact on the lives of everyday people is the technology that comes with innovation. The Apollo program of the 1960’s required a lot of new technology to be developed. Things like microchips, cordless tools, and ear thermometers are all widely available because the technology that made them possible was invented to send people to the Moon. Sending a group of humans to Mars and back is no small feat. The kinds of technology needed to get there and back could be applied in a lot of ways, improving the lives of astronauts and citizens alike.

Learn More:

  • Check out SpaceX’s animation of the BFR’s flight path to Mars.
  • Watch the video of press conference with Elon Musk explaining his vision for the BFR system
  • Wait, but why had an interesting article about the BFR and got the chance to talk to Elon Musk himself. They do a good job of putting the scale of this rocket into perspective, but they do use some colorful language.

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