SpaceX founder Elon Musk has not been shy about publicly sharing what his company is doing. He just announced a deal to send a Japanese billionaire into orbit around the moon using his company’s well-known BFR rocket system. As recently as a few weeks ago, Musk went so far as to publicly share photos giving the pubic a glimpse of SpaceX rocket fabrication.
What has so many analysts scratching their heads is Musk’s motivation for being so open. These sorts of projects are usually shrouded in secrecy until the very last minute. Details surrounding everything from new NASA vehicles to the latest plane being developed by Boeing are kept under wraps until things get too big to hide. Musk seems to be taking the opposite approach. But why?
According to Business Insider’s Dave Mosher, Musk could be using all the publicity he’s receiving as a means of raising funds. Mosher’s argument is quite sound when you think it through. Musk and SpaceX need a lot of money if they ever hope to achieve their overarching goal of building a space vehicle capable of multiple trips to and from Mars. They are going to have to attract wealthy investors willing to get on board with that vision.
Composite Manufacturing Is Costly
At the heart of the SpaceX Mars project is a proprietary carbon fiber material. The company chose carbon fiber because it is stronger and tougher than steel while also being significantly lighter. SpaceX designers realized that in order to make Mars colonization a reality, they would to need to build incredibly large ships capable of carrying both the people and supplies necessary to build colonies.
The problem is that we do not yet have space vehicles big enough to accommodate Musk’s dream. So they have to be built. But they can’t be built of steel or aluminum due to weight constraints. Carbon fiber is the obvious alternative. But it has its own inherent issues.
Cost is the biggest issue, according to Utah-based Rock West Composites. To begin with, the cost of manufacturing carbon fiber sheets is quite high when compared to producing comparable aluminum or steel. Manufacturing costs escalate when you take that carbon fiber material and use it to make a rocket body.
If you’ve seen those SpaceX pictures depicting the mandrel (mold) used to create BFR rocket bodies, you know just how big it is. Nothing else like it has ever been seen in composites fabricating. Not even companies like Boeing are working on the same scale. But guess what? Building such a large mandrel costs a ton of money. That just adds to the financial burden SpaceX faces.
Publicity Generates Excitement
As far as Mosher and other observers can tell, the publicity being drummed up by Musk’s openness is intended to generate excitement about what SpaceX is doing. If wealthy investors can see what is going on in pictures and videos, they may be more enthusiastic about putting up their own money. That appears to be Musk’s goal.
Musk has conceded that his company likely needs upwards of $5 billion to complete development of the BFR system. Some experts believe that the SpaceX moon tourism program will play an important role in generating the funding. Not only will it bring in revenue via moon tourism, but they also hope it encourages more investment.
The moon tourism program will also be a way for SpaceX to further its prototype program. What they learn from their moon vehicles will likely play a role in developing the vehicle they hope to eventually send to Mars.