Chief Executive Elon Musk envisions a time in the near
future when long-distance travelers on Earth can hop on
a rocket to go across the globe in less than an hour.
before Musk can set his plans in motion, there are a few
down-to-Earth logistics questions he’ll have to answer
the plan announced last week by Musk, passengers would
board a large rocket and spacecraft system known for now
as BFR. The rocket would hurtle passengers into space,
before the first-stage booster returns to Earth and the
spacecraft and second-stage continues on to touch down
at its destination.
video Musk showed during his keynote speech at the
International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide,
Australia, said the maximum speed of the vehicle would
be about 16,000 mph. That would make a trip from New
York to Shanghai as short as 39 minutes.
remain about some technical details of the transport
system, as well as what kind of market it would serve.
But several analysts said Musk’s vision at least
forces people to think out of the box about supersonic
or hypersonic passenger travel. (Supersonic flight is
anything faster than the speed of sound, or Mach 1;
hypersonic is generally regarded as Mach 5 or faster.)
ideas, and the actions behind his ideas, broaden minds
about the "future of movement," said Megan
Ryerson, an assistant professor of city and regional
planning and electrical and systems engineering at the
University of Pennsylvania.
I think that is exciting, even if there are a lot of
kinks to work out," she said.
are some of those considerations.
sonic boom that ripples outward after the first-stage
booster lands would probably force the takeoff and
landing areas to be several hours outside of major
metropolitan areas the system is intended to serve.
could make travelers think twice about whether a rocket
trip would be worth it. The video shown by Musk at last
week’s space conference depicts a group of passengers
boarding a speedy ship to reach a floating platform with
the rocket far off the coast of New York City.
computer-generated animation also shows the rocket
landing on a similar floating platform far off the coast
may end up saving some number of hours, but you would
have to get to the launch site, and then you’d have to
launch and then you’d have to arrive at the
destination," said Richard Wirz, a professor at
UCLA and director of the university’s Plasma and Space
Propulsion Laboratory. "There would have to be
hours on either end of you embarking and disembarking on
said passengers already have to decide that kind of
trade-off when determining whether to travel a
potentially further distance to a larger airport with
nonstop flights, versus a closer, but smaller airport
that offers trips with more layovers.
a trip to the rocket launcher might be longer for some
people, presumably you would make all that up with the
time savings in the air," she said.
the plus side, the flights themselves would be very
fast: Musk said in his presentation that most
long-distance trips would take less than 30 minutes and
that passengers could reach anywhere on Earth in less
than an hour.
analysts pointed to the supersonic Concorde jetliner as
an example of a speedy, but expensive, transportation
option whose tiny market was not profitable enough.
plane could cut travel times in half, but it was
ultimately challenged by high maintenance costs, limited
routes and ultra-high ticket costs. After 27 years of
service and a catastrophic fatal crash in 2000, the
Concorde touched down for the last time in 2003.
was very much a niche market," said Ray Jaworowski,
senior aerospace analyst at market research firm
Forecast International. "I don’t think a whole
lot has happened in the intervening years to change
speed is an important factor, airlines rank range,
operating costs and seating capacity as more important
considerations when determining which aircraft to
purchase, Jaworowski said.
has said the cost of a seat on the BFR will be
"about the same" as full fare economy class in
new crop of supersonic jet developers is banking on
technological improvements in materials and computing to
decrease construction costs. But analysts say the market
for extremely fast air travel will be limited, at least
initially, with the first aircraft to be supersonic
likely to be business jets.
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Technology Inc., a Centennial, Colo., startup, plans to
build a supersonic jetliner called the Boom. Aerion
Corp. of Reno, Nev., has been working with Airbus to
develop the A2, a supersonic business jet.
NASA is interested in the concept of supersonic planes.
Last year, the agency partnered with aerospace giant
Lockheed Martin Corp. to create a preliminary design for
a Quiet Supersonic Transport, or QueSST, experimental
has made landing rocket boosters back on Earth seem
routine, but the company will have to scale that
technological achievement up to achieve reliable service
for everyday travelers.
idea of a rocket that can serve many markets —
point-to-point travel on Earth, missions to the moon and
to Mars, as well as low-Earth orbit launches — is the
"holy grail of the space industry," said Jim
Bell, professor at Arizona State University’s School
of Earth and Space Exploration and president of the
Planetary Society space advocacy group.
said overcoming some of these technical hurdles could be
a tall order. But he noted that many people had doubted
SpaceX’s ability to land first-stage boosters on
floating droneships in the ocean. SpaceX has landed 16
boosters so far, nine of them at sea.
don’t think it pays to bet against Elon Musk at all on
this stuff," he said.