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SpaceX BFR Issues Explained!

Elon Musk recently unveiled SpaceX new BFR design to bring humans to Mars and how to fund it. In this logbook entry I want to share my thoughts on 3 commonly pointed out issues which raise a lot of questions. You are of course free to share your view and I’m looking forward to some debates!

Issue Number 1:

The SpaceShip is too small to fit 100 people comfortably for weeks and months flying to Mars. SpaceX slides show that the spaceship will feature 825 m³ of pressurized space. Compare that to the 910 m³ of the ISS and you might wonder: How on earth should 100 people feel comfortable in the same space 6 astronauts do on the ISS? That’s a valid point but the first thing to point out here is the ISS internal volume is stuffed with all sorts of cargo, experiments and hardware. The volume in which the astronauts can roam around is smaller than 910 m³. By how much I’m not entirely sure about but it is a lot.

To give you a better feel for the stations total volume it would be comparable to a big 2 by 3 meter service elevator in a 50 story building standing 150 meters tall. Spreading 100 people evenly across all floors you’d end up with 2 astronauts sharing the space of such a service elevator. Now that feels like not that much space but you also have to keep in mind people going to mars would do shifts. For example: One third would be sleeping packed together tightly, another third could be working on computers to maybe even make some money on the way to Mars and the last third would enjoy their free time with a lot more space per person than the 2/3rds below.

Now of course you could say w-w-w-wait, the spaceship is packed with cargo for Mars as well. However, as you can see here, the cone has a volume of 825 m³ and it looks like this is the pressurized free space available for crew, not including the areas you can see the cargo bags on SpaceX image. (www.kNews.space) That’s why in my opinion there is plenty space on board and technology like Virtual Reality will only further help to feel comfortable and also private. Putting on your glasses and headphones you can visit places you always wanted to like a holodeck and we’re only at the beginning of that! The further technology advances the more immersive it will feel.

Issue Number 2:

The BFR is too expensive to replace F9 and Falcon Heavy for smaller payloads. Putting F9, Falcon Heavy and BFR side by side makes it look ridiculous to launch similar satellites to GTO using SpaceX giant rocket. It can lift 150 tons to low earth orbit which means you would waste a lot of capability burning way too much fuel, rendering it just too expensive to launch small payloads. However, here is where the so called paradigm shift happens. Although F9 and Falcon Heavy are partly reusable, you still lose the entire upper stage for every payload you launch to orbit. The upper stages cost is something you always have to add on top. The price to build an upper stage s higher than the cost to refuel the BFR. Now I don’t have the exact numbers but I can give you a ballpark number. Falcons upper stage costs in the order of 20 million dollars while the amount of fuel necessary to fill a cylinder the size of BFR, would cost less than a tenth of that.

As shown in the presentation launching a satellite using BFR would not only be cheaper than using Falcon 9, it would also underbid Falcon 1 and probably any other expendable rocket on the market today or in the near future. No matter how small they are they always cost a couple millions. But of course, BFR will not want to launch with a single 50 kg satellite on board so the way in which payloads are assigned to launch vehicles has to also change drastically in order to fill up such a big rocket. But still, it is important to keep in mind even launching a single small satellite would be worth it. Now this is all theory. (ww w.kNe ws.spa ce) In reality SpaceX also wants to earn money in order to fund their Mars project and that means as long as the competition is unable to follow their price drop they could have huge margins. These margins would allow them to build all sorts of crazy things which leads me to

Issue Number 3:

Launching rockets for point to point transport on earth is expensive and pollutes the environment. The short video SpaceX has shown makes it seem quite ridiculous to travel using rockets. I have to admit, when I saw it, I first thought it would be more of a funny joke. But then I thought of companies which launch tourists on suborbital flights to space. It’s essentially the same just instead of 5 minutes of weightlessness you’d hover for up to 30 minutes while at the same time traveling to other continents. The payload capacity of 150 tons to low earth orbit means you could easily transport 1000 people at once if you’d manage to fit them inside the vehicle. Not too unrealistic considering you’d need no crew supplies as you’d if you went to orbit.

Assuming fuel costs of one million dollars it would be 1000$ per average ticket whereas other suborbital flights are expected to cost a 100 times more. 1000$ is a lot of money but to experience space for half an hour? I think many would save their money just for that experience. But of course, economics also apply here so they would charge as much as the customers are willing to pay for. Some seats with big windows would cost more, others without windows less. (www.kNews.space) But what about the environment and all the pollution from dozens of rockets launching per day? Going to Mars SpaceX will have to develop a system to produce fuel to return the ship back to earth. This system has to be tested here on earth and I personally speculate that they will at least fill up one rocket to show that it works. Propellant made out of water and air is environmentally neutral. This means all the CO2 released from a rocket was taken out of the atmosphere to create the propellant in first place. So there would be no pollution as long as SpaceX would use propellant they made on their own. It would be more expensive than to instead sell the electric energy and buy cheap fossil fuel but considering the big advantage from full reusability and the relatively small fuel cost I’d say it’s not entirely out of question.

Now that they have spent money to produce free fuel why turn the machine off? At some point these factories had generated so much free propellant that they would have amortized their initial cost. Once you are at this point were propellant is really free, BFR could also easily compete with jet airplanes when it comes transportation as shown in the video. (www.kNews.space) Now this would of course take many years but I personally see no reason why it couldn’t happen from an economics standpoint but I’m not really a pro at economics so feel free to correct me on that! Important to note is, SpaceX will make a lot of money if they succeed to build a fully reusable rocket before anyone else does. They would be able outbid anyone and pretty much decide which other launch provider would get to launch some payload and which not. To quote Spiderman’s uncle: “With great power comes great responsibility”

There are some disruptive times ahead and I’m curious to know your stance on that! How do you think will the aerospace industry have to chance in order to stay competitive? Is it enough to build cheaper yet still expendable rockets or do you think everyone has to switch to full reusability asap?