In a live-streamed presentation, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced that Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa will be the first paying passenger aboard the company’s developmental Big Falcon Rocket (BFR). Maezawa plans to fly aboard the BFR on a week-long mission that will orbit the moon in 2023. Maezawa reserved an entire rocket so that he could take along artists who will use the experience to inspire their work.
Musk also used the presentation to provide updates on the progress of the BFR and on the passenger/cargo stage called the Big Falcon Ship, or BFS. There have been a few changes since the last major announcement was made last year at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Adelaide, Australia.
The BFR is now planned to be about 118 meters (387 ft) tall, up from the 106 meters (347 ft) planned as of last year. It will also include three tail fins along with additional fins in the front. Most of the fins will act as actuated flaps that will help brake the BFS as it enters atmospheres. However, a third fin was added to the rear of the spacecraft. Musk indicated that this was largely done for aesthetic reasons.
More importantly, Musk announced that the BFR will be able to transport up to 100 metric tons (220,000 lb) into low-Earth orbit (LEO). While a 100-metric-ton capacity would make the BFR the most capable launch vehicle in the market today, it represents a significant decline from previous plans for a 150-metric-ton capacity. It also falls short of the 140 metric tons (310,000 lb) that the Saturn V was able to carry to LEO.
Musk continues to project ambitious development schedules for the BFR. Maezawa’s moon mission is planned for 2023 and Musk expects to launch a high number of crewless flights before that mission takes place. According to Musk’s schedule, the BFS will begin hover flights from SpaceX’s Brownsville, Texas, site in 2019. High-altitude, high-velocity flights will begin in 2020. The BFR booster will begin testing in 2020 and orbital flights will begin in “two to three years.”
It’s unlikely that SpaceX will stick to that schedule. The Falcon Heavy was delayed multiple times after its introduction in 2011, ultimately taking seven years to make its first launch. Even if BFR development takes the same amount of time as the Falcon Heavy, a first orbital launch would not take place until 2023. And with more test launches required, a moon mission wouldn’t happen until a few years after that. In addition, the BFR is a more complex development project than the Falcon Heavy. For example, BFR will use new Raptor engines, while Falcon Heavy borrowed Merlin engines from the Falcon 9.
The presentation raised more questions about financing than it answered. During the question and answer session, Musk said that he expected BFR development costs to total $5 billion, with costs not exceeding $10 billion. However, he provided no specific information regarding financing sources. Musk said that current operations, such as satellite launches and space station resupply missions, will provide the bulk of funds. He also said that BFR customers who prepay will help cover development costs. To that end, Musk indicated that Maezawa will cover a “material percent” of the development costs of the BFR.
There are reasons to be leery of SpaceX’s funding plans. Musk indicated that SpaceX is spending only 5 percent of its resources on BFR development right now. While SpaceX is most likely profitable, it is not generating enough cash to fund a $5 billion to $10 billion project on its own. Based on 2016 internal targets, SpaceX expects to return a 3 percent profit on about $1.8 billion of revenue. Reusing Falcon 9s will yield greater profits that those estimated targets, but that still will not be enough to fund multibillion-dollar R&D projects.
Another worrying comment concerned Musk’s plan for the Starlink satellite network. Starlink is SpaceX’s planned entry into the small satellite communications market. Musk indicated that he plans to use profits from the network to help fund BFR development. However, that network is not operational. Starlink will likely be yet another cost for SpaceX as it works to develop and launch satellites.
Don’t Bet Against Elon Musk
This is not to say that BFR will not eventually fly. It’s never a good idea to bet against Elon Musk, and SpaceX has a long track record of proving naysayers wrong. However, as is common for Elon Musk projects, the timeframe is ambitious. Tight funding and the need to focus on multiple projects at the same time will delay the launch of the BFR, making a 2023 moon mission unlikely. A first orbital launch will probably not occur until the mid-to-late 2020s, with a moon mission occurring sometime after that.
Bill Ostrove is the author of Forecast International’s two Space Systems Market Intelligence Services, one covering launch vehicles and the other, satellites and spacecraft. The Launch Vehicles product features programs on reusable and expendable launch vehicles, and human spaceflight vehicles. The Satellites & Spacecraft service covers systems ranging from microsatellites to large COMSATs. Both volumes provide global coverage on the major players and market trends.