On a Monday night filled with emotion and engineering, one of the most poignant moments came towards the end of the program at SpaceX’s rocket factory in California. The company’s founder, Elon Musk, choked when he described the financial contribution of a Japanese businessman, Yusaku Maezawa, to his Big Falcon Rocket project.
“I’ll tell you, it’s done a lot to restore my faith in humanity,” Musk said, sitting in front of the tip of a Falcon 9 rocket and its nine engines. “That someone is willing to do this, take their money and help fund this new project that’s risky, maybe it won’t succeed, it’s dangerous. He’s like donating chairs. These are great things.”
The main news from Monday’s event was that Maezawa has bought all the seats on the first human flight of SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) and the top spacecraft (BFS) – a mission around the moon as early as 2023. Although neither Musk nor Maezawa would specify how much it cost, Musk said, “This is a non-trivial amount that will have a material impact on the BFR program.”
Additionally, Maezawa announced that he would be inviting artists — painters, musicians, film directors, novelists and more — to this first flight he calls #dearMoon. The project has a website. “I didn’t want to have such a fantastic experience on my own,” Maezawa said Monday night. “I would be a little lonely.” Perhaps 8 to 12 people will accompany Maezawa, who said he invited Musk to join him.
How to pay
So what about all this? There were some telling signs on Monday about the status of the BFR project and the effort Musk is committed to seeing the great rocket and spaceship build, sending waves of humans to Mars, and ultimately turning humanity into a “multiplanetary species.” . And despite the novelty of seeing Maezawa speak on Monday about his love for the moon, these clues are perhaps the most intriguing elements of the discussion.
Musk introduced the BFR concept in 2016 and refined it in 2017. He refined it further on Monday, noting that he made the decision to pair the spaceship’s landing legs with the wing flaps, in part because he liked the aesthetics better. It looked more like the ship from the Adventures of Tintin comics. “I think it looks nice, and I like the Tintin rocket design, so I wanted to send it there,” he said.
What Musk has never discussed in depth before is how he will pay specifically for the BFR. “We have to seek all possible means of financing,” he said. But now he’s started doing this and the answers aren’t entirely convincing. Here are the ways he listed Monday how SpaceX will pay for the development of the BFR and BFS, which he said will cost between $2 and $10 billion, and probably about $5 billion. (What Ars predicted last week):
- Launch of satellites
- Maintenance of the International Space Station with cargo and, next year, astronauts
- Starlink Global Broadband System
- Private customers, or “all” customers
However, there are problems with each of these bins. Launching satellites is a profitable venture, but by various estimates we’ve seen, flying 20 commercial missions a year essentially covers the payroll costs of SpaceX’s 7,000 employees. Maintenance on the space station has resulted in multi-billion dollar contracts, but much of that money has been spent on actual development costs. In addition, SpaceX is now in the awkward position of saying it will use NASA’s funds for a program (BFR lunar flight) to potentially launch NASA’s own deep space program, which aims to also complete a lunar flight mission in the early 2020s. to take it to a higher level. Finally, the Starlink service is at least a few years away from being profitable.
That left “customers” as a source of funding, and Maezawa’s announcement is important because he’s the first. We suspect that if SpaceX could sell 10 lunar flight missions like this one, they could go a long way in developing the BFR. That is the challenge they now face.
Novelty of approach
The most striking thing about Musk’s approach is that he has come to terms with the fact that neither NASA nor the US military are likely to provide substantial funding — that is, in the billions of dollars — for the BFR at this stage. Undeterred, he took a different path.
SpaceX has always been a different company, innovating in the development and marketing of its rockets. This seems like new progress in that direction. If the government won’t pay for a rocket, maybe wealthy international billionaires will?
This “billionaire crowdfunding” is a new approach, and it speaks to Musk’s determination as well as his willingness to take risks. This is not so much a desperate move, but a brave and daring one. We give him credit for exploring all his options. This is his dream and he’s going for it for all he’s worth. He can succeed. He may very well fail. It’s refreshing to see someone risk everything like that.
However, we closed Monday night’s event with some concerns about the overall viability of the BFR project. While the BFR and BFS are the largest, most complex, and certainly most ambitious rocket and spacecraft humans have ever built, the company currently spends only about 5 percent of its resources on their development, Musk said. The company’s primary work remains commercial contracts for NASA, satellite launches and national security missions.
In addition, while SpaceX continues to produce top-notch renderings, relatively little hardware was left on Monday. Musk showed a photo of the “master cylinder section” of the BFS prototype, with a diameter of 9 meters. He said work on the pressure turrets and engine section would begin “soon”. The spaceship seems even less distant. Asked about the interior of the BFS, which could house up to 100 people for a trip to Mars and has a more pressurized volume than the International Space Station — 1,000 cubic meters, he estimated — Musk replied, “We only have a few concepts. ” The company hopes to leverage its work developing life support systems for the Dragon spacecraft for life support in the BFS.
Musk shared a timeline Monday night: “Hop” testing of the BFS at the company’s South Texas spaceport should begin as late as late 2019; then the company can proceed to “h“High-speed high-altitude flights” from the BFS in 2020, as well as the first missile tests that year. “If all goes well, we can do the first orbital flights in two to three years,” he said. However, he acknowledged that this timeline, as well as the target 2023 date for the BFR’s first flight, was ambitious.
“You have to set some kind of date that is the ‘things are going well’ date,” Musk said. “In reality, it often doesn’t go well. This is a ridiculously large rocket. It has so much advanced technology. It’s not 100 percent sure we’ll be able to get this to flight. I think it’s quite likely, but it is not certain. “
This all remains a daring process. On Monday night, SpaceX took a critical step toward developing the BFR by signing its first commercial customer. Much more will be needed before the BFR becomes a reality, but often the first step is the hardest.