I believe that SpaceX is planning on building the BFS (Big Falcon Spacecraft) before the BFR (Big Falcon Rocket), which serves as the first stage for the second-stage BFS. Does anyone know why they are doing things this way round? I would have thought that BFR then BFS would have been more financially viable as BFS is not going to be of much use without BFR, but presumably BFR could be used without the BFS.

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    $\begingroup$ BFS? BFR? Maybe define your acronyms? People come here from the StackExchange "Hot Questions" page, and don't have the relevant context. $\endgroup$
    – Fake Name
    Mar 11, 2018 at 3:33
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    $\begingroup$ @FakeName See here for discussion on the names. tl;dr: BFR = Big F. Rocket, BFS = Big F. Ship. Yes, the F originally stood for exactly what you would think, but got changed to "Falcon" for PR reasons. $\endgroup$
    – apnorton
    Mar 11, 2018 at 3:39
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    $\begingroup$ Isn't BFR=BFB+BFS? B=Booster aka first stage. $\endgroup$ Mar 12, 2018 at 5:41
  • $\begingroup$ Where will you put your Ship if you don't have a Rocket to put it on?! Sorry, rocket science is hard and I don't fully understand it. $\endgroup$
    – corsiKa
    Mar 12, 2018 at 15:54
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, so it wasn't the Big F**king Rocket? $\endgroup$
    – user253751
    Mar 13, 2018 at 2:26

4 Answers 4


Neither has much financial purpose without the other. A BFR cannot perform any useful function without an upper stage, and that is the BFS.

Since the whole platform is a major investment in a new architecture, they are starting with the smaller piece - the BFS. Since it uses some of the same engines as the BFR, it can act as a testbed for both BFR and BFS hardware. Since it is smaller, it should be cheaper to construct (moldline, propulsion, fuel, attitude control, avionics -- things like ECLSS will most likely be expensive and time consuming, beginning development now and continuing past the first flights of both vehicles). Since it is more complex, it will likely take longer to get right. Both are good reasons to build first.

The BFR is a much simpler vehicle, mostly using concepts they've established in the Falcon - just updated with technologies that they will field test in the BFS. So it should need less fine tuning after construction, but takes more space and more money to build.

There's also the fact that the BFS is where they are most likely to run into issues getting their mass fractions (and payload capacity) where they want. Changes may be required of the BFS design, which will have impacts with the BFR design. BFR is dependent on the final BFS mass and size.

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    $\begingroup$ @Slarty we crawl before we walk, and walk before we run. Similarly, did the US build the Saturn V in 1960? No. They started small, with the Saturn I, IB and lastly V. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Mar 10, 2018 at 23:59
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    $\begingroup$ It should be noted that the BFS does have potential financial functions. In a crewed or minimal cargo configuration it's supposed to act as a SSTO for LEO missions according to Elon's post FH interview. $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Mar 11, 2018 at 3:04
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    $\begingroup$ Musk did say it could SSTO, but I don't recall hearing any mention of payload amounts. An F9 first stage can barely just barely SSTO, but with no usable payload or recovery. In the absence of solid payload claims, it's not safe to assume it's capable. $\endgroup$
    – Saiboogu
    Mar 11, 2018 at 6:12
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for the last paragraph. Heck, anyone who's played enough KSP knows that you start designing a new launch vehicle from the top down, because you need to know how heavy your upper stages are and how much delta-v they have in order to know how powerful your lower stage needs to be. :) (Well, if you're playing with KER, anyway; otherwise it's all just gut instinct and guesswork.) $\endgroup$ Mar 11, 2018 at 13:41
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    $\begingroup$ BFS can SSTO with approximately zero payload, as noted in this answer: space.stackexchange.com/a/25711/195 $\endgroup$ Mar 12, 2018 at 19:02

Elon Musk stated in a news conference after the Falcon Heavy launch that the BFS will be the focus because they think they understand designing booster rockets pretty well, and thus they decided to focus on the more difficult piece first.

He answers this in response to a question that starts at 20 minutes 52 seconds here, and speaks specifically to starting with the BFS at 22 minutes 18 seconds. The full response has been transcribed here to provide the full comprehensive context of his statement.

Q: So... the potential to go to the moon or mars, what's your timeline there?

Elon: There are a lot of uncertainties on this program, but it is going to be our focus now that we're almost done with Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. We're gonna level off as I said at block 5 or version 5 as there won't be any more major versions of Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy. Dragon is also going to level off at dragon version 2. There might be point releases, like 5.1 or dragon 2.1 or something like that but most of our engineering resources will be devoted to BFR and so I think that will make things go quite quickly.

The ship part is by far the hardest, because that's going to come in from super-orbital velocities, like interplanetary, Mars transfer velocities, Earth-Moon transport velocities. These are way harder than coming in from low-earth orbit. There's some of the heating things that scale to the 8th power. I didn't realise there was anything that scaled to the 8th power, but it turns out certain elements of re-entry heating scale to the 8th. So testing that ship out is the real tricky part. The booster, I don't want to get, you know, complacent, but I think we understand reusable boosters. Reusable spaceships that can land propulsively, that's harder, so we're starting with the hard part first.

I think it's conceivable that we do our first test flight in 3 or 4 years of a full-up orbital test flight including the booster. We'd go to low-earth orbit first, but it would be capable of going to the moon shortly thereafter. It's designed to do that.

  • $\begingroup$ WOG, best possible answer. $\endgroup$
    – corsiKa
    Mar 12, 2018 at 15:56
  • $\begingroup$ @doppelgreener nice work! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Mar 12, 2018 at 19:10

Straightforward. SpaceX is Goal-oriented.

Better to know your needs up-front and plan around them than the other way around.

You start with the intended payload requirements because if you build a Big Rocket and try and cram your payload into it, you soon find you've built a rocket that isn't big enough for what you need, or is inefficient at carrying it, then you have to break up your payload into multiple launches (so much more expensive!) or redesign your Big Rocket again and then you might as well have started with the payload in the first place.


As with all orbital rockets, you have essentially two parts - upper stage & payload (BFS) and the means to boost it to orbit (BFR).

If you finalize the design of your booster first, that will set limits on what sort of upper stage/payload you can launch with it. Finalize the design of your payload first, and you then get to design a booster that gets it to orbit with enough performance margin to be reliable and not too much margin to be wasteful.

Going about it the other way round would be putting the cart before the horse.

Just my two layman's cents.

  • $\begingroup$ isn't that exactly what they're doing though? Building the cart before they go and buy the right horses to pull it? $\endgroup$
    – Racheet
    Apr 30, 2018 at 15:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Racheet, in those terms, yes. If they got the horse first then they'd be limited by it's ability, and if then they wanted a bigger cart they'd have to find another, stronger horse. You do know that cart before a horse is an idiom, right? :) $\endgroup$
    – kurja
    May 1, 2018 at 16:42
  • $\begingroup$ absolutely, I just thought it was funny that the idiom could be reversed in this case. $\endgroup$
    – Racheet
    May 2, 2018 at 16:35

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