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Elon Musk says SpaceX could begin testing Mars rocket in 2019

Last Updated Mar 12, 2018 3:25 PM EDT

NEW YORK -- Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX, says the company could begin testing a spacecraft designed to travel to Mars and return to Earth as soon as 2019. "I can tell you what I know currently is the case is that we are building the first ship, the first Mars interplanetary ship right now," Musk told a crowd during a surprise appearance at the SXSW Conference in Austin, Texas, on Sunday.

"And I think we'll be able to do short flights, sort of up-and-down flights, probably some time in the first half of next year," he said.

Musk acknowledged that "people have told me that my timelines historically have been optimistic, so I'm trying to recalibrate to some degree here." Musk said last year that cargo missions to Mars could happen by 2022, and human flights by 2024.

SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon Heavy rocket in February in a dazzling technological feat, its 27 engines lifting a payload weighing tens of thousands of pounds into orbit before catapulting Musk's own Tesla Roadster toward the Red Planet to the tune of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."

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A shot of "Starman" at the wheel of Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster after the sports car was launched into space atop SpaceX's powerful new Falcon Heavy rocket.

SpaceX

At SXSW, Musk said SpaceX's Mars rocket -- known as BFR, or "big f---ing rocket" -- would have twice the liftoff thrust of the Saturn V, the rocket NASA used to send astronauts to the Moon. He said the company is focused on ensuring the rocket's boosters are reusable in subsequent launches, which dramatically reduces the cost of each flight.

"What's amazing about the ship, assuming we can make full and rapid reusability work is that we can reduce the cost, marginal cost per flight, dramatically, by orders of magnitude compared to where it is today," Musk said. "This question of reusability is so fundamental to rocketry. It is the fundamental breakthrough that's needed."

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The BFR rocket will dwarf SpaceX's Falcon 1, Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters. It will be fully reusable and capable of lifting 150 tons to low-Earth orbit, says company founder Elon Musk.

SpaceX

Musk said he aimed to get the cost of flights below $5 or  $6 million.

"A BFR flight will actually cost less than our Falcon I flight did, back in the day. So that was about a $5 or 6 million marginal cost per flight. We're confident BFR will be less than that," Musk said, referring to the first SpaceX rocket. "That's profound, and that is what will enable the creation of a permanent base on the Moon and a city on Mars."

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Musk said flights to Mars could begin in 2019, instead of tests of spacecraft designed to travel to the Red Planet.