SpaceX’s launch of the Falcon Heavy on Tuesday has been hailed by many as a significant step forward for the private space flight industry. With it’s massive 64 ton payload capacity for low earth orbit flights, and the ability to allocate some of that storage to fuel for deep space flights the human race hasn’t been doing since the end of NASA’s Apollo missions, the successful test of the Falcon Heavy has been optimistically predicted to be the “turning point” in human space flight for the common man.

Gone are the days when national governments were the only entities with the power to explore the great beyond. Gone are the days resting on our Apollo-based laurels. Or at least, so people are hoping. Musk himself, however, took only a few hours to bask in the glow of the Falcon Heavy’s success before setting his sights on something bigger and better: the SpaceX BFR.

“I finished looking at the side boosters, and they’re pretty big—you know, 16 stories tall, 60-foot leg span,” Musk said at a press conference following the launch. “But really we need to be way bigger than that.”

In classic Musk style, the BFR began its life as a concept with a vulgar name and lofty goals. Since those early days on the drawing board, the “F” portion of the acronym was changed, appropriately, to “Falcon,” mirroring the Falcon 9 rockets that have brought the company so much success in recent years – to include effectively serving as the three components of the Falcon Heavy’s stage.

While the Falcon Heavy drew headlines as the most powerful operational rocket on the planet, the re-dubbed “Big Falcon Rocket” aims to do much more than that: namely, it will be able to ferry as many as 100 people to far off destinations like Mars. At least, according to SpaceX.

If the Falcon Heavy is big, the Big Falcon Rocket promises to be huge. Starting with its power plant, the BFR will do away with the Merlin rocket engines utilized in both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy platforms in favor of the newly developed Raptor engine. These engines are said to be more powerful, reliable, and efficient than their predecessors, but even with these advancements, Musk’s new platform will require 31 of them to get the behemoth into the sky.

SpaceX Raptor engine in testing last September.

Once that first stage has expended its fuel, the second stage of the BFR will take over – and it’s that second stage that promises to be ground breaking. Measuring in at nearly 160 feet long and 30 feet in diameter, the BFR’s second stage, also known as the Interplanetary Transport System, has one goal: to carry as many people and as much equipment into deep space as possible.

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“Now that we’re almost done with Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy… most of our engineering resources will be dedicated to BFR,” he says. “I think it’s conceivable that we do our first test flight in three or four years—full on orbital test flight of the new booster… going to the moon shortly thereafter.”
According to SpaceX, the BFR will be capable of transporting as many as 100 people, along with all the necessary supplies and gear, to locations as far away as Mars.

Artist’s rendering of the SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System nearing Mars.

That’s no laughing matter: although NASA’s successes at landing rovers on the Red Planet in recent years may have made it seem like getting a rocket to Mars is something we’ve mastered, the human race actually maintains only slightly better than a 50/50 ratio of Mars mission successes to failures. Historically, nearly half of everything we’ve ever launched at Mars has died, gone missing, or been lost.

That isn’t stopping Musk from moving full speed ahead, however. According to his statements following the Falcon Heavy’s success, the second stage of the BFR could take to the skies as early as next year.

“I think we might be able to do short hopper flights with the spaceship part of BFR, maybe next year,” says Musk. “By hopper tests, I mean kind of like the beginning of the Grasshopper program for Falcon 9… it will go up several miles and come down.”

 

Images courtesy of SpaceX