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Elon Musk’s idea for commercial rocket travel on Earth would be a logistical nightmare

Elon Musk’s idea for commercial rocket travel on Earth would be a logistical nightmare


‘The reentry would kill people’

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Eleventh Commercial Resupply Services Mission
Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images

Elon Musk is obsessed with traveling between any two points on Earth in less than 30 minutes. Whether by hyperloop (above and below ground) or interplanetary rocket, the billionaire technologist is convinced that no trip between any two cities on the planet should last longer than an episode of The Big Bang Theory.

His frustration with our current outdated methods of transportation is understandable. After all, we’ve been stuck with four modes of travel (road, air, water, and rail) for almost a century. Why not think bigger? No one can ever accuse Musk of thinking small about, well, anything. And while throwing cold water on his ideas has become a media cottage industry unto itself, his latest pitch to connect cities by suborbital rocket needs much closer scrutiny.

Travel anywhere in the span of an average sitcom

Musk himself was pretty light on details when he proposed the idea at the tail end of his speech at a space industry conference yesterday. Basically, it boils down to using SpaceX’s forthcoming mega-rocket (codenamed Big Fucking Rocket, or BFR for short) to lift a massive spaceship into orbit around the Earth. The ship would then settle down on floating landing pads near major cities. Both the new rocket and spaceship are currently theoretical, though Musk did say that he hopes to begin construction on the rocket in the next six to nine months.

He didn’t say much about the enormous risks passengers would face by boarding one of these rockets for a breezy trip from Shanghai to Paris or Dubai. SpaceX has been successfully landing its Falcon 9 rockets for more than a year, but getting there involved many explosions. (Just check out this recent blooper reel.) There have been more successes than failures, but still, the current rate in which Musk’s rockets explode is unacceptable for any commercial standpoint. A dramatic increase in passenger safety would be needed before anyone would feel safe enough stepping on board a SpaceX rocket.

The stresses of spaceflight, even during short trips, are also daunting to consider. Will people be willing to put their bodies through this kind of experience, just to shave a few hours off their trips? From a physics standpoint, what Musk is proposing is certainly achievable. We have intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of being fired into orbit and then detonating warheads at a target on Earth in about 30 minutes. Why not humans?

“You can’t fly humans on that same kind of orbit,” Brian Weeden, director of program planning for Secure World Foundation, told The Verge. “For one, the acceleration and the G-forces for both the launch and the reentry would kill people. I don’t have it right in front of me, but it’s a lot more than the G-forces on an astronaut we see today going up into space and coming back down, and that’s not inconsiderable.”

Another problem with ballistic trajectory is radiation exposure in the vacuum of space, Weeden added. To be sure, astronauts on the International Space Station are largely shielded from this radiation, thanks to Earth’s magnetic field, which deflects most of the deep-space particles. But his indifference toward the impact that these interstellar concepts would have on human bodies is classic Musk.

“probably going to be 10 times the cost per-seat” than commercial air travel

Cost is another huge hurdle. Musk claimed these rocket trips would be as inexpensive as commercial air travel. But that assumes a level of scale that is particularly hard to fathom. A recent study by the US Air Force found that reusable rockets were good for about 100 flights, while commercial airplanes could stay in operation for up to 10,000 flights. As such, Musk’s point-to-point rockets are “probably going to be 10 times the cost per-seat,” said Charles Miller, president of NexGen Space LLC. “He may be 1-in-10,000 [for] loss of vehicle, but it’s nowhere near the 3-and-10 million reliability of airlines.”

While the idea of a $10,000 ticket for a 30-minute flight from New York to Shanghai sounds strangely reasonable, it won’t help Musk sell the concept as travel that’s accessible to everybody. Instead, we find ourselves in familiar territory: Silicon Valley proposing a revolutionary idea that will most likely benefit wealthy VCs, billionaire industrialists, and no one else.

This is not a new idea that Musk created out of thin air. Space experts, engineers, and government risk assessors have been pondering the idea of commercial space transportation for decades, but the idea has gained steam since the supersonic Concorde was decommissioned in 2003. In 2008, the International Space University of Strasbourg, France, published a report documenting its appraisal of point-to-point transportation technology. Two years later, the US Department of Transportation submitted its own assessment. Both documents outlined the enormous technological, financial, and regulatory challenges to setting up a commercial space travel network between cities.

One of the most striking conclusions to come out of the DOT paper is the effects this type of futuristic travel could have on pilots. “The pilot will have to deal with activities ranging from direct control of the vehicle to oversight and situational awareness to planning,” the paper’s author, Ruth A. MacFarlane Hunter, a national expert on logistics and emergency management and a registered professional aeronautical engineer, wrote. “The much larger array of instruments and situations may require the pilot to quickly shift to a different activity using different instruments.”

“the pilot may be subject to confusion and cognitive overload.”

This type of display, and the responsibilities of taking off and landing an interplanetary rocket full of men, women, and children, might be too much for normal pilots to handle. In fact, it could cause the pilot to have a total nervous breakdown.

“In this environment, the pilot may be subject to confusion and cognitive overload,” Hunter concluded. “With a suborbital vehicle, which also must operate in normal airspace, this array of shifting requirements could be more difficult than that previously encountered.”

We need visionaries to motivate us as a society. But Musk’s approach has always been more fatalistic than inspiring. “There are a lot of problems in the world,” he said at the end of SpaceX’s hyperloop competition last month, “and if we don’t have things that inspire us, what’s the point of living?”