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It wasn’t too long ago that SpaceX was strutting its stuff while explaining to the world that it just accepted delivery of custom-built tooling designed to facilitate manufacturing carbon fiber rocket bodies as part of their BFR project. Now all of that is a thing of the past. The entire project seems to have crashed and burned thanks to the sudden decision to abandon carbon fiber in favor of steel.

So what exactly is behind this decision? We may never know for sure. Initially, it would appear as though SpaceX founder Elon Musk cannot justify the cost of either carbon fiber fabricating or creating the tools necessary for that fabricating. But then why invest tens of millions of dollars in carbon fiber to begin with?

Shooting for Mars Colonization

SpaceX fans are fully aware that the goal of the BFR program is to eventually fly a manned spaceship to Mars. Musk is not shy about his dream of colonizing the red planet or the fact that his dream was the impetus for forming SpaceX to begin with. Most of the work SpaceX now does is intended explicitly to raise the revenue that supports the BFR project.

You might also be aware that SpaceX originally turned to carbon fiber as the primary material for rocket bodies for the simple fact that it offered incredible weight savings. Their goal was eventually to make a spaceship entirely out of carbon fiber.

As Musk explained on many occasions, the sheer volume of people, supplies, and materials necessary to colonize Mars will require enormous ships that have to somehow get off the ground. Engineers couldn’t imagine being able to reach their goals with steel as their primary building material. So they turned to carbon fiber.

Carbon fiber is a logical choice, explains Salt Lake City-based Rock West Composites. It offers the strength, rigidity, and ability to withstand the rigors of space travel without being nearly as heavy as steel. It could do for the BFR project what no other metal alloy could.

Going Back to Steel

Everything seemed to be going so well at SpaceX that it’s hard to imagine why the company has abandoned carbon fiber. But they have, as evidenced by the destruction of tens of millions of dollars’ worth of tooling and the tent that housed that tooling at the Port of Los Angeles.

What once stood as a testament to Musk’s commitment to colonizing Mars now appears as nothing more than a pile of rubble at the port. Indeed, that’s part of the mystery here. Even in the decision to abandon carbon fiber, why simply destroy tens of millions of dollars’ worth of tooling? Why not find a way to scrap it and make a little money from the raw materials?

At any rate, the tooling now turned to rubble is all the proof we need that Musk was absolutely sincere when he said that his company was scrapping the carbon fiber model and returning to steel instead. Unless what we see at the Port of Los Angeles is a grand illusion, carbon fiber no longer has a place in SpaceX plans.

Will the company ever make the space vehicles Musk has had his heart set on with steel as the main structural component? We will have to wait and see. We do know that modern technology probably cannot get a steel vehicle off the ground if it is as big as Musk intends it to be. So that means SpaceX will either have to build bigger rockets or be content with multiple smaller ships.