When Elon gave his update on BFR at the IAC conference in Australia, I was originally going to post some thoughts right away1. But with Falcon Heavy’s maiden launch attempt coming up tomorrow, I realized I still hadn’t collected my thoughts about BFR into one place, instead of leaving them scattered over two dozen twitter arguments with Chris and others. I’ve had a lot of thoughts since the original announcement, but I wanted to share five thoughts that I had at the time that I still feel pretty strongly about:
- More Reasonable Size (Though Still Probably Too Big): I liked that Elon shrunk the size of BFR to something slightly less insane than ITS (a 50% drop from 300mT to 150mT). I still think he’s going way too big for any realistic markets near or medium term markets, but it’s a step in the right direction. I’m not convinced you need anything bigger than ~30-40mT to LEO to do Mars exploration and settlement, and you definitely don’t need anything that big to service near-term and future markets.
- Replacing Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and Dragon with BFR/BFS: This was actually my favorite part of the plan in theory. In theory replacing the semi-expendable Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy with a fully-reusable, and in-space refuelable launch vehicle would be a great idea. Especially one that was a single-stick, not crazy high aspect-ratio vehicle. And once you have that, and have the upper stage reliability up high enough, having an integral crew/passenger capability without needing a separate capsule could be a really powerful combination. Getting to high flight rate reusability is far more important for affordable deep space transport than getting to gargantuan rocket size. Something more modestly sized (say in the 30-40mT fully reusable range) would’ve been a much smaller leap, and I think would’ve much better taken advantage of the best part of Elon’s updated plan.
- BFR Leaves Open Room for Competition:At 150mT, BFR would be flying mostly empty on most flights for the foreseeable future. It would only really replace Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and Dragon if nobody else succeeds at doing a fully-reusable vehicle in a more sane scale. While it may be possible that a BFR sized fully-reusable launch vehicle might have much lower $/kg when flying completely full than a smaller sized fully-reusable vehicle using similar design architecture and technology choices, if BFR is flying mostly empty for most realistic near-term missions (satellite launch, ISS crew/cargo, etc), the actual cost to fly a realistic payload will probably be cheaper on a more right-sized vehicle. Personally, I think there’s a huge potential here for someone who wants to make a 1-10mT to LEO full RLV. While the $/kg might not be as good as a fully-loaded BFR or fully-reusable New Glenn/New Armstrong, the $/mission for most realistic near-term missions would likely be lower. I really hope someone else is able to raise money and execute on a small to medium RLV, I really don’t want to have to go back to launch vehicles for my next startup.
- Skeptical about Suborbital Point to Point: If you project BFR economics out to the point where it really hits some low multiple of the propellant costs, it theoretically could be competitive for some long-range travel. I just have a hard time seeing a rocket-based system with that high of performance and that razor thin of margins ever getting within spitting distance of the reliability of jet aircraft, especially within the foreseeable future. There are just so many technical and non-technical challenges for this market to make sense, and I think a lot of them are exacerbated by how big BFR is.
- What About Space Tourism? While I’m really skeptical about how realistic the suborbital point-to-point market for BFR, I’m kind of surprised Elon didn’t propose space tourism as a market. After all, if BFR can really keep 100+ people comfortable for a 6+ month Mars mission, you’d think they could easily handle 100 people for a 1-2 week stay in LEO. Even without space hotels as a destination, if he can really get down to a $200k/person Mars ticket using 5 launches, he should be able to get down to a $40k/person ticket for a two week space trip. If he was going to a space hotel and could pack people in as tightly as they were suggesting for BFR point-to-point suborbital flights, he could probably get the price for a LEO vacation down below $10k. While there are legitimate questions about how much market there is for space tourism at $20M+ per seat, is there really any doubt that there’d be a market for space tourism if it really cost only $10-20k per person for a 1-2 week LEO cruise?
Those were the five things that hit me the most. While I think BFR is an improvement over the original ITS plan, I think it still leaves a big opening for a serious competitor that didn’t feel the need to get into rocket size competitions with Elon and Jeff2.
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- Had I done so at the time, this post might have qualified as a hot take, but now that it’s been over 4 months, I’m not sure I can even count this as a “lukewarm take” on BFR, hence the self-deprecating title.
- I had to rewrite that sentence at least a half dozen times to make it not sound completely dirty.