Elon Musk has been talking about SpaceX’s large BFR rocket for a few years, but so far we’ve seen precious little hardware. In 2016, Musk showed off a large, composite fuel tank that will contain pressurized liquid oxygen. The company has also shared limited video of the rocket’s Raptor engines.
Now, as SpaceX moves forward with a facility to manufacture the rocket in Long Beach, Calif., we probably will see more hardware associated with the BFR—known as the Big Falcon Rocket in polite circles. To that end, on Sunday night, Musk shared a photo of a tooling that will be used to make carbon-fiber composites for the rocket’s upper stage, the spaceship. This appears to be a mandrel, or mold, around which carbon fiber is wound for the main body of the spaceship, or BFS.
Carbon fibers, which are generally woven into a fabric, possess desirable qualities such as high tensile strength, low mass, high temperature tolerance, and low thermal expansion. Using carbon-fiber composites instead of aluminum to manufacture tanks for a rocket booster allows a manufacturer to save tons of mass, and in a rocket as large as the BFR, that will translate into many fewer tons.
Building the BFR
Based upon the tent-like background of the photo, this carbon fiber tooling appears to have been delivered to a large tent in the Port of Los Angeles where SpaceX is building its BFR factory. (See, for example, this photo on NASASpaceFlight.com). SpaceX intends to manufacture the BFR components beside the water, near its Hawthorne-based headquarters, for easy shipping to test sites and launch pads.
As ever, there is some uncertainty about timelines with SpaceX rockets. But now that it has the beginnings of a factory, and the Raptor rocket engines, it seems clear the company is moving forward with development of the world’s largest rocket with private funding. When complete, the BFR will stand 106 meters tall and have the capability to lift 150 tons to low-Earth orbit under its fully reusable mode.
Based upon what Musk said in 2017, the spacecraft for which this tooling was made has a diameter of 9 meters and encompasses six engines, propellant tanks, and a large payload area that could carry many satellites into space or carry people to Mars. The proposed BFS has a pressurized volume of 825 cubic meters, which is only about 100 meters less than the entire interior volume of the International Space Station.
The company’s president, Gwynne Shotwell, has suggested that preliminary “hop” tests of the rocket’s spaceship could begin later this year, or in 2019, at SpaceX’s land in south Texas, near Brownsville. This new tooling indicates that remains a possibility. SpaceX has a notional goal of launching the first BFR to Mars in 2022. We doubt that will happen, but now we are more certain that someday the massive booster will take flight.