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As critics slam NASA's Space Launch System, SpaceX is building its own version

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The news that NASA is proceeding with the heavy lift Space Launch System has not exactly been met with universal praise. For example, space blogger Rand Simberg Saturday characterized any praise of the rocket on Saturday as, “nonsensical, engineering-illiterate.” Another space blogger, Stephen C. Smith, repeated his oft written criticism of the SLS as being underfunded and having no discernable purpose except to “exist.” However reports that SpaceX, a commercial space company that is often praised by the same opponents of heavy lift rockets, is developing a big launcher of its own.

The SpaceX project is not the Falcon Heavy, a 53 ton to low Earth orbit launcher that is currently scheduled for a first launch in 2015. It is a more mysterious project dubbed by aerospace insiders as the BFR which stands for “Big Fracking Rocket.” It is part of Elon Musk’s ambition to not only establish a private Mars colony, but to retire on Mars himself.

There are few details about what the BFR will look like, except its first iteration will be powered by nine Raptor methane-liquid oxygen rocket engines with one million pounds of thrust each. That alone would be more powerful than the final version of the SLS, not due to come online until the scheduled NASA Mars expeditions in the 2030s. There is potential of adding two more cores to the BFR, making 27 raptor engines with an unimaginable capacity to throw payloads into space.

The purpose of the BFR would be to launch another concept SpaceX is working on called the Mars Colonial Transport, the details of which are sketchy but is said to be able to take 100 settlers to the Red Planet. This is the key for Musk’s ultimate ambition, behind what everything else, including SpaceX’s more commercial endeavors, is serving. Musk wants to do something that visionaries of dreamed of for many decades, to establish what Mars visionary Robert Zubrin called the “second branch of civilization” on Mars.

If and when the BFR comes out of the concept stage and work begins on it in earnest, a number of practical questions will need to be answered. Not the least of which is the matter of where could such a monster be launched without creating destruction over a wide area? Perhaps on an isolated island or offshore platform in the middle of the ocean.

The politics of a privately built super heavy lifter would be interesting as well. Part of the reason that some criticize the Space Launch System is they harbor the belief that heavy lift is not needed for space exploration, that commercial launch vehicles using fuel depots can do better and cheaper. But SpaceX is considered one of the cool kids in the aerospace world. Will its heavy lift rocket, which will eventually make both the SLS and the Saturn V seem puny by comparison, come into the same kind of vitriol? That remains to be seen.

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