For whatever reason, some of the world’s smartest and most eccentric people tend to be drawn toward airlines. Elon Musk is the latest, but with a twist—rockets.
Tacked onto a detailed explanation Friday of how SpaceX intends to land cargo on Mars five years from now—a farcical schedule that Musk conceded was “aspirational”—the space, car, solar, and battery entrepreneur segued into an audacious proposal to harness the speed of space-travel for faster earthly flights.
In essence, Musk wants to fly you even when you’re going merely to London, not Mars.
Flying at a maximum speed of 27,000 km/hr (17,000 mph), a hypersonic trip from New York to Shanghai in Musk’s proposed craft would take 39 minutes, down from the current nonstop time of about 15 hours. Los Angles to Toronto would take just 24 minutes. London to Dubai in a mere 29 minutes. Traveling between any two points on the globe would take less than an hour.
“Cost per seat should be about the same as full fare economy in an aircraft. Forgot to mention that,” Musk posted on Instagram Friday. At the time of publication, such a ticket for one-way travel from New York to Shanghai next month was $2,908 from China Eastern Airlines.
For this vision to work, Musk needs to master an enormous number of technical hurdles, including plenty that aerospace companies have studied for decades. One of them will be cost—going fast is easy, but going fast with a profitable rocket/airline enterprise is not. Another challenge will be to perfect the kind of “supersonic retropulsion” required for landing the rocket, which he refers to as BFR. SpaceX has landed its Falcon rockets 16 times to date, both on barges and on land near Cape Canaveral. Launching and recovering a massive rocket near densely populated cities across the world will likely encounter more than a few regulatory roadblocks.
Setting the physics aside, Musk’s plan faces business challenges as well. The New York City-Shanghai example SpaceX illustrated uses a high-speed ferry to shuttle passengers to an off-shore barge where the rocket launches. Not every city has the kind of real estate to enable this vision. Landing and launch sites can’t be so far from the city that business travelers will shun it. Cities such as Paris, London, and Chicago may struggle to find the space to accomodate regular rocket launches and recoveries.
The airline industry is innately conservative and naturally obsessed with safety. Hypersonic rocket travel is likely not particularly appealing to today’s airline executives. But if Musk succeeds in producing a reliable hypersonic craft that is profitable to operate with low fares, there’s little reason to think such travel would remain a niche market. Rivals would surely match the service. And would there be a luggage allowance? Every ounce counts in the financial plans for escaping gravity’s pull.
At least hypothetical future SpaceX flights won’t have to worry about in-flight entertainment—there simply won’t be enough time to watch a mediocre Hollywood film.
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