Falcon vs Space Launch

Big Falcon Rocket vs Space Launch System

Elon Musk has laid out his vision for SpaceX’s future. The innovative company is going all-in on a next-generation vehicle called the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR). This rocket, which will be capable of going to the Moon and Mars, will eventually become SpaceX’s primary vehicle for launching satellites and traveling to the International Space Station. But there is stiff competition from NASA’s  Space Launch System SLS).

BFR is a radical move for SpaceX, which has a fairly reliable rocket already. But can SpaceX afford this change? Musk discussed how SpaceX plans to fund the cost of developing the vehicle — though he didn’t mention any dollar figures — as well as what it will be used for when it’s complete. His ideas may be enough to fund the transition and keep the company profitable, but there are some fairly obvious gaps in the plan.
Musk made one thing very clear: SpaceX’s future is the BFR. The company is no longer going to put resources into improving its current line of Falcon 9 vehicles or its bigger, next-generation Falcon Heavy. Instead, all of the company’s research and development resources will go into creating the new monster rocket.

The revenue SpaceX currently receives from launching satellites and servicing the International Space Station will also go toward funding the development of the rocket, Musk said. Right now, business does seem to be good: SpaceX has a full manifest of customers, and the company significantly increased its launch frequency to 13 so far this year (up from eight last year). NASA is also paying SpaceX to send cargo, and soon astronauts, to the ISS.

It’s possible that SpaceX’s satellite business and NASA contracts are enough to fund the BFR’s development. But it’s likelier that the company will need additional funds — especially if Musk hopes to meet his “aspirational” deadline of sending the vehicle to the Red Planet by 2022. Private investment seems like an option.

Musk is now promoting how the BFR can send people to the Moon, a fairly naked play at piquing NASA’s interest. NASA is already studying how to put a station in the vicinity of the Moon. And a few key space advisors — including Vice President Mike Pence, who runs the National Space Council — have hinted at a return to the lunar surface. It’s possible that NASA may want to partially fund the BFR’s development in order to incorporate the vehicle in any future lunar plans.

However, there’s a major hurdle: NASA is currently developing a giant rocket of its own, called the Space Launch System (SLS). That vehicle has many ardent supporters in Congress, mostly from representatives of states where the rocket is being built. And Congress, of course, controls NASA’s funding — so it may be difficult to sway lawmakers who see the BFR as direct competition to the SLS. But the SLS is an incredibly costly vehicle that won’t fly people until as late as 2023. It may be hard for NASA to ignore the BFR if it starts flying people before then.

Assuming SpaceX does get the money it needs to develop the BFR, then what? Will there be enough customers to help offset the development costs and make SpaceX profitable? Musk has advertised a number of uses for the BFR, beyond just going to the Moon and Mars. He argued that the new system would essentially replace the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft, and that SpaceX could use the new vehicle to launch satellites, service the space station, and even clean up space debris in orbit. And the more uses a rocket has, the more potential customers the rocket has, too.

In order to fully reap the benefits of reusability, these rockets are going to have fly a lot — perhaps hundreds, or even thousands of times a year — to truly bring the cost of launch down. And there may not be enough satellites to justify so many launches. “How elastic is the launch market?” Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard and spaceflight expert, tells The Verge. The average fleet of satellites launched each year could likely fit on just a handful of BFR launches. What else is there left to launch?

There are other options, of course, such as those potential lunar missions for NASA. And the Moon opens a lot of possibilities: a number of national space agencies — including Russia, China, and the European Space Agency — are looking to go there. It’s possible these countries may want to buy flights on the BFR to pull off their lunar plans. And there’s even more that the BFR could do that Musk didn’t advertise. There’s the potential for space tourism or building habitats in lower Earth orbit. And then there’s point-to-point travel here on Earth, though that may have its own logistical problems.

If the cost of the vehicle is low enough, it may eventually create its own demand. But that demand may not materialize for a while. Plus, SpaceX needs to build the BFR first — and given Musk’s lack of specificity in terms of cold, hard cash, it’s possible only SpaceX’s accountants know if the money is really there to do it

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