SpaceX will launch its Mars spaceship into orbit as early as 2020

by Eric Ralph via


Speaking on a launch industry round-table at the Satellite 2018 conference, SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell revealed that the company intends to conduct the first orbital launches of BFR as early as 2020, with suborbital spaceship tests beginning in the first half of 2019.

Only six months after CEO Elon Musk first debuted the Interplanetary Transport System in Adelaide, Australia, a flood of recent comments from both executives have made it overwhelmingly clear that SpaceX intends to have its first spaceship ready for short suborbital test flights at the beginning of 2019. Considering Musk’s unprovoked acknowledgment at SXSW 2018 of his tendency towards overly optimistic timelines, the repeated affirmations of BFS test flights beginning in 2019 and now an orbital launch of the full BFR booster and ship in 2020 hold a fair deal more water than they did in 2017.

SpaceX’s subscale Raptor engine conducting a 40-second test in Texas. This engine will power both BFR and BFS. (SpaceX)


These past few weeks have been filled with a number of similar statements from SpaceX executives like Shotwell, Musk, and others; all focused in part on the company’s next-generation launch vehicle, BFR (Big __ Rocket). Composed of a single massive booster and an equally massive second stage/spaceship (BFS), the rocket is meant to enable the affordable expansion of permanent human outposts on Mars and throughout the inner solar system by making good on the decades-old promise of fully reusable launch vehicles.

In order to succeed, the company will need to solve the problems that NASA and its Shuttle contractors never could.


In order to succeed, the company will need to solve the problems that NASA and its Shuttle contractors never could – they will need to build an orbital, crewed spaceship that can be reused with minimal refurbishment, can launch for little more than the cost of its propellant, and does so with safety and reliability comparable to the records of modern commercial airliners – perhaps the safest form of transport humans have ever created.

Space Shuttle Atlantis docked with the beginnings of the International Space Station. The Shuttle suffered several deadly failures and cost more than the expendable Saturn V moon rocket it replaced. (NASA)

Rockets do not easily lend themselves to such incredible standards of safety or reliability – airliners average a single death per 16 million flights – but SpaceX will need to reach similar levels of reusability and reliability if they hope to enable even moderately affordable spaceflight or Earth-to-Earth transport by rocket. Still, there can be little doubt that SpaceX employs some of the absolute best engineering expertise to have ever existed in the US, and their extraordinary personal investment in the company’s goal of making humanity multi-planetary bode about as well as could be asked for such an ambitious endeavor. According to Musk and Shotwell, the first spaceship is already being built and suborbital tests will begin as soon as 2019, while full-up orbital launches – presumably involving both the booster and spaceship – might occur just a single year later in 2020.

Caleb Henry@CHenry_SN

SpaceX’s Shotwell: BFR will probably be orbital in 2020, but you should start seeing hops in 2019. (Grasshopper reference?)

Michael Baylor@nextspaceflight

Musk: People have told me that my timelines historically have been optimistic. I am trying to recalibrate. What I do know is we are building the first ship. We will be able to do do short flights in the first half of next year. It’s a big booster and ship. Saturn V thrust x2.

It appears that we will find out sooner, rather than later, if SpaceX has truly found a way to lower the cost to orbit by several orders of magnitudes.

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