It shouldn’t come as a surprise to our astute readers that here at Berkshire we love technology. All kinds of high tech – from the nanotech of graphene to the mega-tech of MarsOne. And, as a corollary, we also love the trivia that comes with…
The year is 1999. The location is the scientific research station Moon Base Alpha, nestled in the moon’s crater, Plato. The team of scientists is led by one Captain John Koenig who oversees operations in the orbiting satellite/nuclear waste dump. The personnel inhabiting the moon base include technicians, security, and a handful of non-humans including Maya, a metamorph who is able to assume temporarily the appearance of any living thing. Such an ability is, of course, extremely useful in the cold, dark recesses of space. The fictional Moon Base Alpha of the 1970s TV series Space 1999 incorporated anti-gravity towers, travel tubes, launch pads for Eagles and visiting spacecraft, and – for the personnel – all of the comforts of home, from a bowling alley to a solarium, restaurants to a library. With real paper books.
In an image recently revealed by SpaceX founder and entrepreneur Elon Musk, his own version of Moon Base Alpha is integral to the push to colonize the more distant Red Planet, Mars. Following a presentation to the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia last month, Musk shared his illustration of clustered gray habitation domes beneath an obsidian sky. The moon base would constitute a stopping off point for craft on their way to Mars City, a glass-domed outpost dominated by Interplanetary Transport Vehicles (ITVs) designed, built, and operated by SpaceX.
If this all sounds ‘out of this world’ that’s because it is. Musk’s presentation, ‘Making Life Multiplanetary’ detailed not only the challenges inherent in establishing an extra-terrestrial colony, but also of sustaining it. And between the danger to human life, the potential for equipment failure or loss, and the risk of massive cost over-runs, the challenges are significant. But to borrow former U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s famous remark that “We choose to go […] not because it is easy, but because it is hard,’ Musk is looking those challenges in the eye and forging ahead regardless. One of the aces up his sleeve, the most critical component that which could make or break the project, is a technology mischievously named the BFR, or ‘Big F—ing Rocket.’ With an eye to keeping this a family-friendly article, we’ll revert to the other version of the acronym – the Big Falcon Rocket – which takes its place among the stable of falcons developed by Musk’s engineers.
With the retirement of Falcon-1 and the maiden flights of the Falcon Heavy, the Big Falcon Rocket takes its place as a giant transportation system capable of more than just orbital flights. Powered by 31 engines, the craft will be capable of housing approximately 100 passengers for the three to six month trip to Mars, beginning – Musk projects – in 2022. And it will be financed in part via a radical shakeup of Musk’s broader SpaceX assets. With a view to pouring all possible resources into the development and launch of the BFR, SpaceX will make obsolete its fleet of Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and Dragon spacecraft, plowing all revenue from satellite launches and servicing missions to the International Space Station (ISS), and scaling down the ITS to streamline both the equipment and the costs. In an interview cited in The Verge, Musk noted “We can build a system that cannibalizes our own products, makes our own resources redundant, then all the resources we use for Falcon Heavy and Dragon can be applied to one system.”(1)
Unlike the Falcon 9 which is only around 75% reusable, the ITS will aim to be 100% reusable across a projected lifetime of 100 flights. Unlike terrestrial aircraft, rockets are due for retirement once they hit their centennial flight as the effects of extreme heat and cold, intense vibrations on launch and landing, and the effects of supersonic speed all take their toll.
But the radical overhaul of SpaceX’s inventory is not the only fiscal drive fuelling Musk’s vision. Beginning 2022, the United States Congress has, in effect, banned the use of the BFR’s main competitor, Atlas V, the United Launch Alliance’s joint venture with Boeing. The reason for this ban? The Atlas V uses a Russian-built RD-180 engine burning kerosene and liquid oxygen for its first stage – a problem under the terms of the Nelson agreement which is part of the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).(2) Under Section 1615 of the act, the U.S. Air Force is prohibited from incurring costs associated with ‘the development of new engines or the modification of existing systems’ and also may not award launch contracts to bidders whose engines are not American-made. As Samuel Postell writing for the Washington Examiner notes, this essentially makes SpaceX ‘the only producer that fits the description of “existing systems” eligible for government dollars,’ thereby limiting any and all free market competition.(3) Postell also highlights this as an issue of national security given that Title 10, Section 2273 of the U.S. Code requires ‘the availability of at least two space launch vehicles capable of delivering into space any payload designated by the Secretary of Defense or the Director of National Intelligence as a national security payload.’(4)
Where the free market is alive and well, however, is in the potential for SpaceX to entirely dominate the launch market. With international space agencies – such as those in China, the European union, and Russia – all vying for satellite deployment capability and logistical access to the Moon, the BFR could in theory become the Uber of extra-terrestrial travel, servicing the ISS, multiple other agencies, and even NASA.
NASA? According to an article in the Washington Post, NASA is currently working on its Deep Space Gateway project that will create a spaceport for astronauts on missions that take them deeper into the solar system. Working with Colorado-based contractor Lockheed Martin, the agency sees the habitat as a home-from-home where astronauts will access workstations, exercise facilities, living quarters, and ‘all the things you need to live and be happy in space.’(5) Given NASA’s timeline of having the gateway up and running by the mid-2020s, it is entirely conceivable that Musk’s BFR will become the de facto transport mean for both equipment and personnel.
But what if living in low-Earth orbit is just not your thing? For those of us who are not astronauts, the technology is still relevant as far as it pertains to regular air travel within the broader commercial realm. For avid readers of all things aeronautical, we recently examined the impact of cleanroom technology on the continued development of supersonic travel, ‘The Eclipse & Supersonic Travel: How Cleanroom Tech is Revolutionizing (Quieter) Travel’ outlining the achievements of the team who built the first commercial supersonic craft, the Concorde. At the time, and even to this day, Concorde’s flight times were the stuff of legend, but if Musk’s vision for commercial air travel comes to fruition, the flagship airplane’s crown will most certainly slip. Leveraging the same innovation that Musk believes will bring humans to Mars, a projected city-to-city rocket service will allow Earth-based travelers to fly from New York to Shanghai or from Los Angeles to Tokyo in a little over half an hour. In fact, travelling at ten times supersonic speed, any two destinations on the planet would be less than an hour’s flight time apart.
And the foreshortened travel time may well be a good thing in more ways that just the obvious. In order to step in at LAX and step out in Tokyo 30 minutes later, passengers will have to travel at around 16,700 miles per hour, experiencing g-forces of two or three times their own body weight. The take-off and landing will involve rapid acceleration and deceleration and may provoke intense motion sickness in the unsuspecting flyer. And then there’s also the issue of temporary weightlessness, not to mention the ‘inconvenience’ of playing dodge ball with your neighbor’s vomit in zero gravity…
And this (not the dodge ball) has been tried before. According to former NASA chief historian Roger Launius, in the 1980s the U.S. military spent an as yet undisclosed sum presumably counted in the billions of dollars on developing a hypersonic plane.(6) And a decade later, Apollo 12 astronaut Pete Conrad founded Universal Space Lines (USL), a passenger rocket shuttle company that aimed to offer high-speed passenger service. USL’s future was based upon its use of the Delta Clipper-X (DC-X), a re-usable rocket developed by McDonnell Douglas and first test launched in 1993. An experimental vehicle, the DC-X sought to determine specifically whether re-usable vertical take-off and vertical landing (VTOVL) craft could achieve suborbital and orbital flight. After a series of eight test flights for feasibility, the DC-X had achieved suborbital flights to 5500 meters and had demonstrated a turn-around of just 26 hours between its first and subsequent flights.(7) These achievements, however, were not sufficient to secure continued funding. In 1995 McDonnell Douglas quietly shelved the project, and Conrad’s dream of rocket-powered commercial flight withered on the vine.
But these two failures do little to deter Musk. While the technological, social, and fiscal challenges remain the same, Musk’s approach is different and incorporates some radically blue-sky thinking. Furthermore, if the cost of rocket-powered flight could be brought to parity with that of current commercial aviation, Derek Webber, director of Maine-based think-tank Spaceport Associates, believes that no single challenge is completely intractable – whether it concerns logistical tangles, air traffic control, or even the health impacts of travel at advanced speed. And, in an article recently published on Futurism, an online portal covering transformative technologies, he notes wryly: ‘“As a general rule, I would say don’t bet against Elon Musk.”’(8)
As we’ve learned from our previous articles, we wouldn’t bet against him either.
Do you have thoughts about rocket-driven aviation? Ever wanted to experience 2x or 3x G-force? We’d love to read your comments!