Speaking on a launch industry round-table at the Satellite 2018 conference, SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell revealed that the company intends to conduct the first orbital launches of BFR as early as 2020, with suborbital spaceship tests beginning in the first half of 2019.
Only six months after CEO Elon Musk first debuted the Interplanetary Transport System in Adelaide, Australia, a flood of recent comments from both executives have made it overwhelmingly clear that SpaceX intends to have its first spaceship ready for short suborbital test flights at the beginning of 2019. Considering Musk’s unprovoked acknowledgment at SXSW 2018 of his tendency towards overly optimistic timelines, the repeated affirmations of BFS test flights beginning in 2019 and now an orbital launch of the full BFR booster and ship in 2020 hold a fair deal more water than they did in 2017.
These past few weeks have been filled with a number of similar statements from SpaceX executives like Shotwell, Musk, and others; all focused in part on the company’s next-generation launch vehicle, BFR (Big __ Rocket). Composed of a single massive booster and an equally massive second stage/spaceship (BFS), the rocket is meant to enable the affordable expansion of permanent human outposts on Mars and throughout the inner solar system by making good on the decades-old promise of fully reusable launch vehicles.
To an extent, SpaceX has already matured the principles and technologies needed to reliably recover and reuse the booster stage of two-stage rockets, demonstrated by their incredible success with Falcon 9.
BFR is a whole different animal, partly owing to its massive size, huge thrust, and new propellant and tankage systems, but those problems are more technical than conceptual. SpaceX already knows how to reuse boosters, and that will apply to BFR once its several technological hurdles have been overcome. Designing and building the orbital spaceship (BFS), however, will undoubtedly be the most difficult task SpaceX has yet to take on. The safety and cost records of the only other orbital-class reusable second stage in existence, the Space Shuttle, are at least partially indicative of the difficulty of the challenges ahead of SpaceX.
In order to succeed, the company will need to solve the problems that NASA and its Shuttle contractors never could – they will need to build an orbital, crewed spaceship that can be reused with minimal refurbishment, can launch for little more than the cost of its propellant, and does so with safety and reliability comparable to the records of modern commercial airliners – perhaps the safest form of transport humans have ever created.
Rockets do not easily lend themselves to such incredible standards of safety or reliability – airliners average a single death per 16 million flights – but SpaceX will need to reach similar levels of reusability and reliability if they hope to enable even moderately affordable spaceflight or Earth-to-Earth transport by rocket. Still, there can be little doubt that SpaceX employs some of the absolute best engineering expertise to have ever existed in the US, and their extraordinary personal investment in the company’s goal of making humanity multi-planetary bode about as well as could be asked for such an ambitious endeavor. According to Musk and Shotwell, the first spaceship is already being built and suborbital tests will begin as soon as 2019, while full-up orbital launches – presumably involving both the booster and spaceship – might occur just a single year later in 2020.
It appears that we will find out sooner, rather than later, if SpaceX has truly found a way to lower the cost to orbit by several orders of magnitudes. Follow us for live updates, behind-the-scenes sneak peeks, and a sea of beautiful photos from our East and West coast photographers.