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SpaceX photos reveal how Musk’s company is building Big Falcon Rocket



big falcon rocket bfr spaceship bfs booster bfb earth moon orbit spacex 30934146588_47ce17419b_o
An illustration of
SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket launching into space. Here, the
spaceship is shown detaching from the booster.


  • Elon Musk recently announced
    plans to launch a Japanese billionaire around the moon in a new
    launch system.
  • Musk shared new illustrations of the system, called
    Big Falcon Rocket or BFR,
    along with photographs of its hardware.
  • The pictures reveal some of the techniques SpaceX is using to
    construct the BFR out of carbon-fiber composites.
  • Aerospace experts also say the images could attract wealthy
    individuals to invest in SpaceX.

Elon Musk has provided several new, rare, and telling glimpses
into how his rocket company, SpaceX, is
building a spacecraft to reach Mars

On September 17, Musk announced that SpaceX would
fly Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa around the moon
the company’s Falcon Rocket or BFR. During that event, Musk
showed off new
renderings of the launch system
, along with a few photos of
the work going on inside SpaceX’s spaceship-building tent at the
Port of Los Angeles.

These were the first new details about SpaceX’s rocket
construction we’d gotten since March, when Musk posted a photo
that revealed SpaceX was building the spacecraft using a
40-foot-long, 30-foot-wide cylindrical tool.

“SpaceX main body tool for the BFR interplanetary spaceship,”
said on Instagram

spacex bfr spaceship carbon fiber mandrel elon musk instagram
A tool SpaceX is using to
build its Big Falcon Rocket spaceships.

Musk/SpaceX; Instagram

Aerospace industry experts say the newly released pictures reveal
new information about how SpaceX is constructing the BFR and how
quickly the project is moving.

“It’s unusual for companies and even government agencies that
develop rockets to reveal much about the hardware they’re
developing. But what Musk wants to do is to bring along the
public with him,”
Marco Cáceres
, a senior space analyst at the Teal Group, told
Business Insider. “He lives and breathes this company. So when he
has hardware that he’s excited about, he just wants to show it
and be as transparent as possible.”

What the new BFR fabrication images reveal

The BFR is designed to be a 39-story launch system made of two
parts: a 180-foot-tall spaceship and 230-foot-tall rocket booster
(which the ship rides into orbit). Musk has said the spaceship is
the “hardest part” of the system to build, so SpaceX is
prototyping it first.

Musk’s vision is to launch the spaceship into orbit and refuel it
while it circles Earth. Then the ship can fire up its engines,
fly through space, land on Mars, and later rocket off of that
planet and return safely to Earth. Because it’s designed to be

100% reusable
, the system will supposedly be able to do all
of this multiple times.

said in 2016
that SpaceX is building the system “primarily of
an advanced carbon fiber,” which is about as strong as steel at
one-fifth of the weight.

One of the new images Musk shared on September 17 shows a ribbed,
spoked tube with a worker inside. This is the inside of the
cylindrical tool that Musk first revealed in March; it’s called a
mandrel. Robots wrap layer upon layer of carbon-fiber tape around
the mandrel to form a 30-foot-wide “barrel section” of the

spacex big falcon rocket bfr spaceship bfs hardware carbon fiber cfrp tool tent port los angeles
Inside a mandrel that
SpaceX uses to build carbon-fiber-composite sections of the Big
Falcon Rocket.


The carbon fibers are soaked in a glue-like epoxy, then heated so
that the composite cures and hardens.

The photo below, which Musk also revealed on September 17, shows
a barrel section that’s been freed of the mandrel. The rounded
dome on the left appears to be part of a propellant tank also
made of carbon-fiber composites.

spacex big falcon rocket bfr spaceship bfs hardware carbon fiber cfrp barrel section tent port los angeles
A completed
carbon-fiber-composite barrel section of SpaceX’s Big Falcon


Many carbon-fiber tapes are woven fabric. But Steve
, a professor of chemical, aerospace, and mechanical
engineering at the University of Southern California, told
Business Insider that he thinks SpaceX engineers are wrapping the
mandrel in an unwoven version of the tape.

Nutt said such unwoven tapes provide the “highest stiffness and
strength” because they don’t easily kink or wrinkle (which can
weaken a structure). They also maximize the amount of
super-strong carbon fiber relative to epoxy, he said.

Nutt said it’s “quite clever what they are doing.”

Carbon fiber must be squeezed while it’s heated and cured, so
Nutt thinks SpaceX is using very large plastic bags and sucking
out the air to compress the layers of tape. But he’s unsure how
SpaceX is actually heating the parts.

“Structures are getting too big to oven-cure, so they might be
using so-called ‘heat blankets,'” he said.

‘He’s shoving this in NASA’s face’

Cáceres, who’s studied the aerospace industry for decades, said
the new photos highlight a project of epic proportions.

“This is probably the biggest challenge that I’ve seen since the
Saturn V days, in terms of engineering,” Cáceres said, referring
to NASA’s
Apollo-era moon rocket
. “Nothing I’ve seen is remotely this

New Glenn
, a reusable heavy-lift rocket being built by

Jeff Bezos’ rocket company
Blue Origin
, doesn’t compare, he said.

Yusaku Maezawa SpaceX BFR
Maezawa stands inside a completed carbon-fiber-composite barrel
section of SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket.


Revealing these images forces the public — and potential
investors — to take Musk seriously, Cáceres said.

Cáceres previously estimated that the BFR development program
could cost about $5 billion, and Musk gave the same estimate when
he announced Maezawa’s role in SpaceX’s moon tourism mission.

“He’s looking for investors because he’s not Jeff Bezos, who
could probably do this
on his own
,” Cáceres said. “Musk is not as wealthy. He can
look for investors by building stuff and showing it off. If you
see how much hardware he has and how big it is, people will say,
‘Yeah, this is a serious program.'”

If the 2023 moon mission aboard BFR — a project Maezawa calls

—is successful, that would send a big message to
NASA about SpaceX’s capabilities.

“This doesn’t look like a stunt,” Cáceres said. “It looks like a
trial run.”

SpaceX has gotten billions of dollars in NASA funding through the
Commercial Crew Program
, which aims to partner with private
companies to build a system for launching astronauts to the
International Space Station. So it would make sense for Musk to
try to get NASA’s attention (and money) again for the development
of BFR.

Right now, NASA is building a giant, one-use launcher called

Space Launch System
, which may cost more than $20 billion to

“In a way, he’s shoving it in NASA’s face and saying, ‘You guys
are crazy to build this rocket,'” Cáceres said of Musk. “Elon
Musk is a very charismatic figure and a showman. He understands
that, for many years, NASA has been trying to create public
excitement about space exploration, and they always try to
recreate the excitement around Apollo. But they’re not

Musk, on the other hand, may be beating NASA at that goal.

“The thing Musk is building looks like it’s out of a science
fiction movie. He wants to get the public excited, and that
excitement can attract investors, ” Cáceres said.

If SpaceX does not attract NASA funding for BFR development, then
the company might rely on space tourism, contracts with
government and commercial interests to launch cargo and
satellites, and profits from SpaceX’s planned constellation of

12,000 internet-providing satellites, called Starlink
, to pay
the ambitious program’s bills.

“People can’t say, ‘Musk is all talk.’ He has accomplished so
much in a short amount of time,” Cáceres said. “When I was at
trade shows 10 years ago, when I asked Boeing and others about
SpaceX, they rolled their eyes and said, ‘They aren’t going to be
around very long.’ Now SpaceX is the major player in the

Are you a SpaceX employee or aerospace-industry insider
with information to share? Email Dave Mosher or use more
secure options listed here.

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