SpaceX rocket entrepreneur Elon Musk announced Tuesday he is developing a giant new launch vehicle intended to provide routine trips to Mars. The vehicle, which would have four times the thrust of the Saturn V rocket that took astronauts to the moon, would be 122 meters tall and have a diameter of 12 meters. It would be propelled by 42 Raptor engines, which SpaceX is developing, and the launch stage would be re-usable, landing back at the launch site to be quickly re-fueled and re-launched. SpaceX is developing the Raptor in a 2-1 funding program with the Air Force, which has put up $33.6 million for an upper-stage variant of the Raptor, while SpaceX has funded the other $67.3 million. Besides supporting Mars flights, the rocket would be able to loft heavy cargo to the International Space Station, and Musk suggested there could be a quick-delivery version to transport cargo anywhere on Earth within 45 minutes, provided there was a water-landing area in the vicinity where the noise could be tolerated. The vehicle could also support heavy-lift commercial and Air Force missions to geosynchronous orbit.
Musk has demonstrated recovery of boost vehicles with his Falcon 9 rocket, and he said the new vehicle is “really a scaled-up Falcon 9.” SpaceX started in 2002, and in less than 10 years had won contracts to transport cargo to the ISS. Musk showed charts saying the Raptor engine will be in test through 2019, full booster testing through 2021, and orbital testing by 2023, at which point he plans to start routine Mars flights at every launch window, which are about 26 months apart. The first manned missions he expects near the end of the 2020s.