Ever since Elon Musk announced the latest addition to the SpaceX rocket family back in September of 2016, the general public and space community has been eagerly awaiting updates on its progress. Known as the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), this massive launch vehicle is central to Musk’s plan of conducting space tourism with flights into orbit and to the Moon. It is also intrinsic to his vision of sending astronauts and colonists to Mars.
Already this year, Musk announced that the BFR could be ready to make orbital launches by 2020 and showed the Main Body Tool that would build the BFR. And on Monday, September 17th – during a press conference at SpaceX headquarters in California – Musk announced who the first passenger aboard the BFR will be as it conducts its first lunar mission – the Japanese fashion innovator and globally recognized art curator, Yusaku Maezawa.
This mission, which is scheduled to take place in 2023, will be the first private lunar passenger flight and is intended to help fund the development of the BFR vehicle. The mission will last a full week and will involve the rocket conducting a flyby of the Moon – getting as close as 200 km (125 mi) from the surface – before completing a lunar transit and returning back to Earth.
This is the second time that Musk has proposed a plan to send people to the Moon. Back on February 27th, Musk held a media telecon at NASA’s Kennedy Space Flight Center where he announced that SpaceX would be sending two private astronauts on a lunar mission aboard the crewed Dragon spacecraft by 2018. This mission was to be launched by a Falcon Heavy rocket, which had been successfully launch tested a few weeks before.
However, Musk has since scrubbed this mission in favor of sending the BFR on a return mission around the Moon. According to Musk, Maezawa approached SpaceX with the idea of taking artists with him on a lunar voyage to turn the entire ride into an art project called #dearMoon. The passengers will include a film director, a painter, a dancer, a novelist, a musician, a fashion designer, a sculptor, a photographer, and a musician.
The #dearMoon website, which went live after the announcement, features a video that addresses the future of commercial space exploration and offers insight into Maezawa’s hopes for the upcoming mission. As the video states:
“Maezawa will invite artist’s that represent Earth on his journey to the Moon… What will they feel when they see the Moon, when they see Earth in full view? And what will they create? Their works will certainly become a legacy for humankind. An all-inspiring, global, universal art project is about to begin.”
Another serious shot w @elonmusk pic.twitter.com/e11lyfjfFN
— Yusaku Maezawa ???? (@yousuck2020) September 18, 2018
During the course of the conference, Musk also offered some updated production details on the BFR rocket, which will replace the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy someday. As the name clearly suggests, the BFR will be the most-powerful and heaviest rocket ever created. Much like the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and the Dragon capsule, the BFR is intended to be a fully reusable vehicle.
But unlike the Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy, the BFR is a single system, composed of a huge booster rocket and the Big Falcon Spaceship (BFS). The booster and spacecraft are expected to stand 118 meters (387 feet) in height and will be capable of sending 100 metric tons ( US tons) of payload to Low-Earth Orbit. But as Musk claims, orbital refueling will allow the rocket to have the same capacity to Mars and beyond:
“The payload is… technically a hundred metric tons all the way to Mars, thanks to orbital refueling/orbital retanking,” he said. “So BFR is designed to take 100 tons all the way to the surface of Mars… if you have a propellant depot on Mars, you’re able to get from Mars to the Asteroid belt, to the moons of Jupiter, and kind of like planet and moon-hop all the way to the outer Solar System. So BFR is really intended as an Interplanetary Transport System that is capable of getting from Earth to anywhere in the Solar System, as you establish propellant depots along the way.”
The spacecraft will measure 55 meters (180 feet) in height and will now have a forward payload section with 1000 m³ of pressurized volume (though Musk thinks they can go as high as 1100 m³). The design also calls for forward actuator fins and fins on two of the three rear fins to help control the rocket through a variety of atmospheric densities and velocities.
It also will have landing pads on the rear fins and seven Raptor engines to provide thrust. The ship also has an aft cargo section with 88 m³ of space. A simulation of the BFR landing illustrated how these components will work together to ensure that the rocket is fully reusable and can make multiple trips between Earth and other Solar bodies.
But perhaps the most important part of the conference was where Musk addressed the purpose of the BFR. As he stated, the BFR is essential to SpaceX’s vision that humanity become an interplanetary species – not just for the sake of survival, but also to ensure a better future:
“I think that’s the future that’s incredibly exciting, and I think that’s the future that we want. There’s so many things that make people sad or depressed about the future, but I think becoming a space-faring civilization is one of those things that makes you excited about the future, makes you excited to get up in the morning. This is something that you can look forward to, that makes you glad to be a human being. I hope that people will see it that way. That is the intent of BFR, is to make people excited about the future.”
Since the announcement, famed astronaut Scott Kelly – who spent a year aboard the ISS as part of NASA’s Twins Study – tweeted his interest to join Yusaka Maesawa’s art project. According to Kelly, his schedule will be wide open in 2023 if Maesawa should “need someone with a little experience to go with you.” To be fair, Kelly has more than just a “little experience”, so I hope Maesawa accepts his offer!
Yusaku Maezawa (@yousuck2020), this will be a great adventure! Good luck on your trip and if you need someone with a little experience to go with you, my schedule is wide open in 2023. https://t.co/esOU51ojch
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) September 18, 2018
This first lunar mission will be an important milestone in Musk’s plan to foster space tourism and provide everyday people with access to space. It will also ensure that the development process continues for the BFR, which could someday be offering intercontinental flights, regular round-trips to the Moon, and semi-annual trips to Mars. If Musk succeeds, it will also be the means through which Mars and other Solar bodies are colonized.
While there are always those who expressed doubt about his ambitious plans and his timelines, Musk has proven time and again that he is capable of making things happen (even if the timelines sometimes need to be revised). I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that I hope that Musk and the company he founded to accelerate rocket technology and the advent of humanity becoming a space-faring civilization can make this mission happen!
I’m also sure I’m not alone in wishing the best of luck to Maezawa and his colleagues. I hope the mission proves as inspirational as it does historic! I also can’t wait to see what kind of art their trip inspires.
For more information, check out SpaceX’s web page on the BFR. In the meantime, you can check out the full conference here:
Further Reading: SpaceX, SpaceX (2)