Musk Announces SpaceX’s Plans for Making Life Multiplanetary

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, gave a presentation last Friday at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia titled “Making Life Multiplanetary.”

Musk began by giving the reasons for SpaceX’s mission and his own interest in space, saying:

You want to be inspired by things.  You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great, and that’s what being a space-faring civlization is all about.  It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past.  And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.

In the nearly 45 minute talk, Musk reviewed the history of SpaceX and its progeny of existing launch vehicles, from the Falcon 1, Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and the Dragon cargo/crew capsule.  He then proceeded to introduce the new vehicle which SpaceX is working on, called the “BFR,” which has been interpreted as “Big ‘Freaking’ Rocket” or “Big Falcon Rocket.”

SpaceX’s plan is to phase out its existing rockets and eventually go-forward with just the BFR as an all-purpose platform for cargo and crewed missions.  This will streamline development and maintenance for the company and reduce overall costs.  Musk said, “We want to make our current vehicles redundant.”  To that end, Musk stated that SpaceX plans to build up a stock of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets to use for upcoming missions and then shift all resources to development of the BFR (he said that work has already begun).

The BFR consists of two stages: a first booster stage and an upper crew/cargo ship.  The booster stage has 31 of SpaceX’s Raptor engines, generating a combined liftoff thrust of 5400 tons to lift a vehicle weighing 4400 tons.

The upper ship consists of three sections: engine, propellant, and payload.  It is 48 meters long and 9 meters in diameter.

The engine area has a total of 6 engines, all of which can gimble to control thrust direction.  Four are vacuum engines and are situated around the circumference.  The inner two are sea-level engines used for landing; only one engine is actually required to allow for redundancy (Musk says that he wants to eliminate the “pucker factor” of landing).  On the outside of the engine area is a small delta wing with a split flap to control pitch and roll; this allows for stable landing with various atmospheric conditions and payloads.

The propellant area has tanks for liquid methane (CH4) and Oxygen (O2).

The payload area is meant for crew and/or cargo.  It has a pressurized volume of 825 square meters, which Musk notes is greater than an Airbus A380.  Musk gave details on what a Mars Transit Configuration might look like.  It would have 40 cabins (2 to 3 people per cabin for about 100 people on a flight to Mars), large common areas, entertainment areas, central storage, a galley/kitchen, and a solar storm shelter.

The BFR can lift 150 tons to low earth orbit (LEO).  The ship can also be refueled in orbit by another ship by mating the two at the rear, connecting the fill lines of both ships, accelerating in the direction of the ship which will be emptied, and then undocking and returning the emptied ship.  This would allow the refueled ship to cary 150 tons to Mars.

To reduce launch costs, Musk’s plan is for the entire BFR to be reusable.  He showed a slide comparing the carbo lift capacity of various rockets, with smallest on the left and greatest on the right.  The BFR has the greatest capacity, beating even the Saturn V’s 135 tons.  Then, he showed a followup slide which ordered the rockets based on launch cost, with lowest cost on the left and largest on the right.  The BFR was the lowest cost.

Again, Musk attributed this low launch cost to reusability, drawing an analogy with aircraft.  He said that you could buy a small turboprop for about $1 to $2 million and fly it to Australia, crashing it.  Or, you could charter an airliner for about $500 thousand.  The airliner is cheaper because it is designed to make the trip many times; the only marginal cost is fuel.  Similarly, the BFR is designed to be reused many times, with fuel being the major cost factor in launches.

Regarding lift capacity and cost, Musk also noted:

Often I’ll be told, “But, you would get more payload if you made it expendable.”  I say, “Yes, you could also get more payload from an aircraft if you got rid of the landing gear and the flaps, and just parachuted out when you got to your destination.  But, that would be crazy and you would sell zero aircraft.”

The target market of the BFR is satellite launches (due to its size, it can launch very large satellites or even multiple satellites at once), ISS servicing, Moon missions, and Mars missions.  Musk mentioned building a base on both the Moon and Mars.

Regarding Mars, his “aspirational” plan is to launch 2 cargo ships in 2022 to find water and place resources for the next mission.  Then, in 2024 he wants to launch 2 cargo ships and 2 crewed ships to begin building a base and to construct a propellant plant (to extract methane and oxygen from Mars).  Then, he wants to start building a city there, showing an artist’s rendition during his presentation.

Finally, Musk proposed the idea of using the BFR to travel to points on earth, taking off and landing vertically.  Any spot on Earth could be reached in under an hour, with most places only requiring 30 minutes of travel time.

Musk’s presentation elicited applause from the audience, with one member yelling “Good job, Elon!”  While Musk is involved in many other enterprises, it is obvious that SpaceX is where his passion lies.


Confusing: Does Elon Musk Need a Bailout, or is He Worth $21 Billion?

It’s rare that two conflicting stories hit the media at the same time about one person. But Elon Musk is a rare bird. If I had to classify him, I’d call him a Government Dodo. Don’t get me wrong: Musk is smart. It’s the government that’s the dodo.

California is considering a bailout for Tesla once federal $7,500 tax credits for each vehicle run out in 2018.

Federal tax credits for Tesla vehicles are slated to phase out once the Silicon Valley company produces and sells 200,000 electric cars. California’s proposal is a $3 billion incentive program and would reduce the price of an electric vehicle by as much as $10,000.

Tesla is nearly 80,000 cars away from hitting the cutoff point, so customers that are counting on a $7,500 rebate to lower the sticker price might be forced to fork over more money for the Model 3 than they initially thought.

Let’s unpack that. For the $35,000 Model 3 (fully loaded, around $53,000), somewhere between 14 and 21 percent is being financed by yours truly, Mr. Taxpayer. Nearly 50 percent of Tesla’s sales of the Model S have been in California (because rich Silicon Valley entrepreneurs can afford the price tag and enjoy the “cool factor”).

Here’s the stinger:

Data shows that the elimination of the tax credit could be a death knell for Tesla, especially considering the company’s inability to mass produce vehicles at the scale of its larger competitors.

Without government assistance, it seems Tesla can’t make money, because they can’t sell cars at the price they actually have to collect to stay in business. So California is going to tax the working class to pay for Elon Musk to add to his fortune.

And add to his fortune he has.

Space News reported Friday that Musk is now worth $5 billion more after SpaceX (his other company) raised $351 million in a funding round, bringing that company’s value to over $21 billion (coincidentally, about the same as Musk’s personal net worth).

SpaceX gets its money from–you guessed it–taxpayers. A $4.2 billion contract with NASA in 2014 drives revenue. SpaceX essentially gets nothing from private companies, other than investment dollars. They are all betting on more money from Uncle Sugar.

Musk himself has gotten rich off the Government Dodo.

Listen, I have an idea–one worthy of Barack Obama. Let’s let Tesla fail. Let the tax credits expire. Then when it’s just about cold in the morgue, we bail it out, in exchange for equity. If taxpayers are going to pay for Musk to get rich making electric cars (a worthy endeavor, by the way), then we might as well own the company.

If GM was any indication of how this works out (of course, the union pensions won, and existing shareholders lost in that mob-inspired deal), taxpayers ought to get a nice return. But we know that won’t happen, because dodoes aren’t prized for being smart. In fact, they’re extinct precisely because they’re not.

Silicon-Liberal Valley Got Their Scalp

This was inevitable. Once Travis Kalanick made his first, and unrecoverable, mistake of showing insufficient enthusiasm for opposing Donald Trump, Silicon-Liberal Valley was out to get him. And get him they did.

Kalanick stepped down as Uber CEO Tuesday amid demands from the company’s major shareholders that he resign immediately.

In the letter, titled “Moving Uber Forward” and obtained by The New York Times, the investors wrote to Mr. Kalanick that he must immediately leave and that the company needed a change in leadership. Mr. Kalanick, 40, consulted with at least one Uber board member, and after long discussions with some of the investors, he agreed to step down. He will remain on Uber’s board of directors.

This particular railroading of a tech executive isn’t as egregious as, say, Brendan Eich, but it is fraught with hypocrisy.

The NYT called Uber “a prime example of Silicon Valley start-up culture gone wrong.” Sexual harassment, avoiding government regulators, mistreating employees (and drivers) were all part of this toxic mix. Except we don’t see Tim Cook being made to resign.

Just nine months ago, a stinging report that “Apple is a sexist, toxic work environment” hit the press. Apple genuflected, said a few Hail Gloria Steinems, issued a new “tough” policy, and was absolved. (I won’t even comment on one report that Apple was accused of being a “white, male, Christian, misogynist, sexist environment.” They might as well just said “Christian.”)

And Uber’s SVP of engineering, Amit Singhal, was dismissed because he didn’t tell anyone he left Google over a sexual harassment claim. Google has its own troubles with “start-up” culture. (That term is hilarious. Apple is the most valuable company in the world, and Google parent Alpabet is worth $660 billion.) Nobody is demanding Larry Page’s resignation, even though he played “Red Rover” tossing Singhal to Kalanick.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX was cleared of wrongdoing by a jury in a sexual harassment trial, and faced another one at Tesla, recently sued by AJ Vandermeyden, a female engineer who alleged the company has a climate of “pervasive harassment.” And…nobody’s asking for Musk’s head on a platter.

I think you see the picture here. The difference between hero and zero in Silicon Valley isn’t necessarily what goes on in the rank-and-file. Uber’s board acknowledged that Kalanick “always put Uber first.” In other words, he was a good CEO. So the reason he’s gone must be that he’s a lousy person.

Silicon Valley is full of lousy people and SOB’s. They are the subject of movies. I mean, Steve Jobs, right? But you can be a lousy person and a liberal, and be absolved. What you can’t be is a little bit too close to radioactive President Trump.

You can’t defend a “working relationship” with Trump to your employees. “We’ll partner with anyone in the world as long they’re about making transportation in cities better,” he told them, “creating job opportunities, making it easier to get around, getting pollution out of the air and traffic off the streets.” Once Kalanick said that, just days after the inauguration, he was doomed.

One driver managed to get him into an embarrassing tirade. The driver recorded it, and three weeks later, slipped it to Bloomberg, which published it. At the time, in March, I wrote this:

I have to believe that there’s more than this. I’m sure there’s a whole treasure trove of damaging stuff that Kalanick’s detractors have sitting around, waiting to release to the press. Staff problems, sexual innuendoes (mentioned in the Bloomberg piece), and other issues will plague Kalanick until he quits.

And Tuesday, the Silicon-Liberal Valley viewpoint posse got their scalp. The message is clear: just about any sin will be forgiven by “start-up culture,” except appearing to be a social conservative.

Russian Influence Dominates U.S. Space Effort

You can’t blame this one on Donald Trump, his campaign, or his White House.

While hours of airtime, inches of column space and untold numbers of online posts have focused on the role of Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election, what has gone largely overlooked is the ongoing influence of the Russian government and industry on American access to space.

Since 2011, when NASA closed the chapter on the Space Shuttle, the United States has been without a domestic means of launching astronauts into space. The capability gap has been filled by the Russians, who have sold seats aboard their launch vehicles to NASA so American access to the International Space Station could continue without severe interruption.

Competing efforts to bring human space travel capabilities back to the U.S. have hit delays, but offer hope that the nation’s reliance on Russian launches won’t be open-ended.

Aerospace giant Boeing Corporation is testing its Starliner capsule, a crew vehicle that from the outside looks like an updated sibling of the command/service module used in the Apollo program that put Americans on the moon. Upstart SpaceX, led by innovator and big dreamer Elon Musk, is testing Dragon 2, a manned capsule that will be lifted into space by a Falcon Heavy rocket, also a SpaceX product. Musk and his team hope to fly two passengers around the moon sometime in late 2018. Additionally, NASA’s own Space Launch System with the Lockheed Martin-built Orion spacecraft, is facing delays. Even with the delays, however, the space agency is studying the feasibility of putting humans on the very first test flight of the system.

Despite its promise, the Boeing entry into the effort to regain domestic manned-mission capabilities has a series flaw: the engines of the Atlas V launch rocket are made in Russia.

This isn’t a new problem.

Last year, the U.S. Air Force was directed to spend $540 million on Russian rocket engines for satellite launches. The RD-180 engines were bought for United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket. ULA is the primary Air Force contractor for satellite launches and since Boeing owns a stake in the company, so that’s why the Atlas V is the heavy lifter for the Starliner capsule that NASA is interested in.

NASA already relies on the Atlas V for some launches, but if the agency awards a manned space flight contract to Boeing instead of proceeding ahead with its own SLS, or betting on rising innovation over at SpaceX, it will mean that a firm with close ties to the Russian government will have an integral role in U.S. manned spaceflight. While some could argue that such an outcome at least reduces U.S. dependence on Russian space efforts, it doesn’t mean the nation is actually free to pursue its own space program without the consent of another power.

With the Air Force relying on Russian rocket engines to launch satellites that are vital to national security, NASA currently outsourcing manned spaceflight for American astronauts to Russia and relying on Russian rocket engines for domestic cargo launches, and Boeing relying on the same Russian engines to power its effort to get Americans back into space on American rockets, significant portions of the U.S. space effort are vulnerable to Russian politics.

A recent independent safety panel found flaws with Boeing’s reliance on the controversial Russian engines. According to an industry news source:

Starliner will initially launch with Atlas V, powered by her RD-180 main engine. As such, the certification issue is being worked on by Boeing, which is part of ULA.

“One of the top Boeing risks is the RD-180 engine certification. The engine has a long history, but it has been difficult to get detailed design information for certification,” added the ASAP [Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel] minutes.

The safety panel went on to blame the engine’s foreign provenance for the lack of design documentation.

Meanwhile at NASA, the agency is pondering whether or not it should spent $373 million to buy more seats aboard Russian launches. The deal would keep Russia in charge of delivering U.S. astronauts to space potentially until 2019. The Wall Street Journal reported in early March:

In an unusual twist, the latest seats eyed by NASA would be purchased from Boeing, which acquired them as part of a settlement with Russian space authorities in an unrelated legal dispute. But that fact isn’t likely to do much to insulate NASA from Capitol Hill criticism about problems ending reliance on Moscow.

Boeing stands to receive an average of nearly $75 million per trip, or about $8 million more per seat than those purchased directly from Russian entities.

So while Boeing is building a launch system that relies on Russian engines, it stands to turn a decent profit by selling to NASA seats it acquired on Russian launches.

If Russia’s attempt to influence the 2016 election is an outrage, the country’s current vice grip over manned U.S. spaceflight should certainly merit scrutiny from lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Alas, when powerful interests write campaign checks such investigations become less attractive.

Rep. Mike Coffman Wants Putin In Charge of US Space Launches

Rep. Mike Coffman, a Colorado Republican, really, really doesn’t like competition in the space industry and, it appears, he’s quite comfortable giving Russian strongman Vladimir Putin control over U.S. access to space. Coffman and his office recently prepared and sent a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA, and the U.S. Air Force criticizing the later two entities’ decision to hire SpaceX to deliver payloads into orbit. SpaceX has experienced two launch failures – most recently on September 1 – that destroyed multi-million dollar payloads.

Writing under the guise of a fiscal steward of taxpayer money, Coffman and nine of his colleagues suggested that SpaceX is a waste of taxpayer money and its most recent launch failure (which was truly spectacular) destroyed a $195 million Isreali-built AMOS-6 satellite. The satellite was for civilian communications.

But while Coffman is leading the charge for an outside investigation of SpaceX’s launch problem, he’s not doing so as a disinterested fiduciary. SpaceX is a competitor of United Launch Alliance, ULA, a joint 50-50 venture between industry giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Until 2014, ULA had a monopoly on launch contracts with the Air Force.

According to campaign finance records, Coffman has received $21,000 in campaign contributions from Boeing PAC, and a hefty $38,000 from Lockheed PAC. ULA has facilities in Colorado where Coffman is from.

While ULA touts its deep experience over SpaceX, what the firm does not talk much about is how its primary launch vehicle for government contracts uses rocket motors made in Russia by Energomash, a firm that is 86% owned by the Russian government. Coffman led the fight earlier this year to appropriate $540 million for ULA to buy 18 RD-180 motors from Energomash.

“Congress, NASA and the Department of Defense must be responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars to achieve our military and civil space objectives. The investigative responses to both SpaceX failures raise serious concerns about the authority provided to commercial providers and the protection of national space assets,” the Congressional letter explains.

Coffman and his colleagues went on to question why the Air Force is still potentially using SpaceX for some contracts and ask the FAA if it would reconsider SpaceX’s license to operate launches. “Will the FAA reconsider issuing licenses to SpaceX in light of the pad explosion? If not, why?” they ask. Were the FAA to revoke SpaceX’s license without waiting for the full result of the investigation into the early September launch pad explosion, it would leave the field of competition clear for ULA and its Russian-built rockets as the only path to space for many national security payloads.

The Putin government in Russia made it clear in 2014 that it was willing to block RD-180 sales to U.S. firms if the engines were used to launch Department of Defense – aka military – payloads into space.

The challenge of using Russian rocket engines as the only entry to space for US spaceflight is deeply concerning to Sen. John McCain who has opposed U.S. use of the RD-180, and has tried to get a sunset date placed on their use.

“Little progress has been made in limiting the influence of Russia in space launch,” McCain warned in a January hearing. “Today, Russia holds many of our most precious national security satellites at risk before they ever get off the ground.”

But ULA’s powerful Congressional allies, while skeptical of SpaceX, haven’t appeared to be very worried about Russia’s effective veto over the firm’s operations. Of the 10 lawmakers who signed the letter, 8 represent states where ULA has significant operations.

According to the Washington Free Beacon, earlier in 2016 conservative organizations like Americans for Tax Reform and the Center for Individual Freedom, opposed the further purchase of Russian rocket engines for ULA launches.

Whether or not SpaceX continues to launch rockets remains to be seen, but company head Elon Musk seems confident in the firm’s future. The budding enterprise of free markets in space launch depends in part on the inability of ULA to leverage its bought political clout to forcibly shut down the competition.