SpaceX and Elon Musk have been in the news a lot in recent days, both because of financial disclosures and the rocket company founder’s musings on Twitter about his current space obsession—the Big Falcon Rocket or BFR. There has been a lot to process, so here’s our best attempt to make sense of what Musk has said and what it may really mean.
Musk started breaking news about SpaceX rocket designs about two weeks ago, so we’ll start there.
Mini BFR Ship
On Wednesday, November 7, Musk tweeted that the “Falcon 9 second stage will be upgraded to be like a mini-BFR Ship.” He added that this upgraded second stage could be ready to fly by June 2019. This prompted a flurry of speculation that SpaceX may be taking steps toward making the second stage of its Falcon 9 rocket—the part of the booster that presently inserts a payload into orbit and then burns up upon reentry to Earth’s atmosphere—fully reusable.
However, this was not to be the case. Later, Musk clarified that this upgraded “mini-BFR Ship” will essentially be a small test version of the Big Falcon Spaceship, the spacecraft intended to fly on top of the Big Falcon Rocket booster. Currently, he said, the company cannot test features such as an “ultra light heat shield” and “high Mach control surfaces” without doing an orbital reentry. The company still intends to build a Big Falcon Spaceship for supersonic reentry and landing tests at SpaceX’s facility in Boca Chica, Texas. It is not clear how many missions the mini-BFR Ship will fly.
Falcon 9 second stage won’t be upgraded
On Saturday, November 17, Musk had more words to say about the Falcon 9 rocket’s second stage. Separate from developing the mini-BFR Ship as a test vehicle, SpaceX would not upgrade the second stage for operational missions. “SpaceX is no longer planning to upgrade Falcon 9 second stage for reusability,” he said.
This is kind of significant, because in years past Musk had talked about making the whole of the Falcon 9 rocket reusable: the first stage (which already is), the second stage, and the payload fairing (tests are ongoing to recover these with the ocean vessel). This was the key to dropping the price of an orbital launch to a few million dollars, Musk said. Now, however, SpaceX has dropped this effort to make the whole of the Falcon 9 rocket reusable, and Musk soon explained why.
Another BFR design change
In the same tweet announcing an end to efforts to make the Falcon 9 second stage reusable, Musk added: “Accelerating BFR instead. New design is very exciting! Delightfully counter-intuitive.” Later, Musk clarified that this new design represented a “radical change.”
This was significant, if only because the design for BFR has changed so much. There was the audacious initial version he laid out in 2016 and then a slightly more modest version in 2017. Then there was the “Tintin ship” he unveiled just in September. Now, a few months later, the big rocket and/or spaceship has undergone a radical change again.
What we know about Musk and his team of engineers is that they’re brilliant at designing and building rockets. However, it is not clear what is driving the changes to the design—better performance or the need to economize on development costs.
Speaking of funding
There have been various reports about SpaceX seeking a loan for $500 million or $750 million. (It has not been entirely clear why the funds were needed, but presumably they are for development of the BFR and/or the Starlink satellite Internet system). On Monday, Bloomberg reported that the loan request has been cut down to $250 million. Apparently, were SpaceX to seek a greater loan amount, investors would have wanted stronger loan covenants.
Notably, the story also says the company reported positive earnings to investors in disclosures but that these earnings were before interest, taxes, depreciation, and other factors. Had SpaceX not included prepayments from customers and excluded some research costs, its earnings would have been negative, Bloomberg reported.
SpaceX is privately held, so it’s not possible to get a firm handle on the company’s finances. However, given its payroll of more than 7,000 people, it is reasonable to assume that with 20 launches a year the company is more or less breaking even.
This raises familiar (and essential) questions about how the company will pay for development of the BFR, which Musk estimated at $2 billion to $10 billion. As yet, no government agency has indicated an interest in supporting the BFR. (In fact, the Department of Defense rejected it in October).
BFR name change
The Big Falcon Rocket, which at times has been known as the Mars Colonial Transporter and Interplanetary Transport System, will get yet another name. On Monday night, Musk tweeted that the components of the BFR will now be known as the “Super Heavy” (this is the booster) and “Starship” (this is the second stage and spacecraft).
A Twitter user noted in response to Musk that, “Unless this ‘starship’ is sent on a mission to another star system it can’t be called a starship.”
To this, Musk replied: “Later versions will.”
What we absolutely love about SpaceX and its founder is that they dream big. For too long, our spaceflight enterprise has moved like molasses when it comes to humans. Then a company like SpaceX comes along and radically shakes things up.
In truth, we still have our doubts about the BFR, as it is such a truly ambitious vehicle. With no government sponsor for the BFR (, we mean Super Heavy and Starship), SpaceX may well struggle to get the funding needed to build the rocket and spacecraft. The ongoing design and name changes don’t exactly engender our confidence in the project’s stability, either. It suggests that Musk is still trying to find the sweet spot between performance, cost effectiveness, and a product he can sell to customers, investors, and the government.
For the sake of humanity, we sure hope he succeeds.