In the first installment of a two-part blog series, we take a look at one of the most innovative minds in the world today: Elon Musk. The PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX polymath has been moving forward with visionary plans, including utilizing a revolutionary new rocket design both for interplanetary exploration and high-speed suborbital travel.
At the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Adelaide, Australia last week, Musk announced that SpaceX planned to send unmanned cargo ships to Mars by 2022 and human explorers by 2024 (Pulse, 10/3/17). This is going to be possible, according to Musk, by utilizing a new rocket, called the “BFR,” that is even larger than NASA’s Saturn V that carried astronauts to the Moon during the Apollo program. Furthermore, SpaceX is no longer going to put resources into its current line of Falcon 9 rockets (which are being used to carry satellites into orbit and to ferry cargo to the International Space Station) or its larger, next-generation Falcon Heavy (the Verge, 9/30/17). Instead, all resources will go into developing the new spacecraft, which will carry a payload of 150 tons and of which Musk reportedly hopes to begin construction “within the next six to nine months.”
Beyond going to Mars (and, reportedly, the Moon as well), the BFR would essentially become SpaceX’s all-purpose rocket, with uses such as launching satellites and servicing the International Space Station (both currently performed by the Falcon 9), and even removing decommissioned satellites and space junk from orbit.
Musk also proposed using the BFR for something closer to home: long-distance travel on Earth. The idea of suborbital high-speed travel is not new; Virgin Galactic is planning on offering suborbital intercontinental travel, albeit, at $250,000 for a one-way trip (in 2014 dollars, according to the New York Daily News), priced for gazillionaires. Musk’s plan, on the contrary, would allow passengers to take “most long-distance trips” in just 30 minutes and go anywhere on Earth in “under an hour” for around the same price as an economy airline ticket (the Verge, 9/29/17).
A demonstration of such a SpaceX flight posted on Inc. shows passengers boarding a boat in Lower Manhattan, speeding across New York Harbor to a launch platform at sea, and then boarding the rocket via an airport-style jetway, blasting off into space, speeding across the globe, and landing tail-first on another seaborne platform near Shanghai (before launch, the passengers pass an airport-style display that reads, in part, “Now Boarding: New York to Shanghai/Distance: 7,392 miles/Travel Time: 39 minutes.” Further graphics read: “Hong Kong to Singapore: 22 minutes; Los Angeles to Toronto: 24 minutes; London to New York: 29 minutes;” and so on). A notable item in the video is the BFR’s first stage reversing course upon separation to return to its launch site—by perfecting tail-first landings of both its primary vehicles and booster stages, SpaceX is able to re-use the boosters (as they demonstrated during a satellite launch on March 30, 2017) (National Geographic, 3/30/17). This is obviously a much more viable business model than the current strategy of NASA and other space agencies of discarding their incredibly expensive rocket motors into the ocean after one use.
Sean O’Kane of the Verge writes: “This proposed method of Earth-city-to-Earth-city travel would be, by far, the fastest ever created by humanity. The ship would reach a speed of about 18,000 miles per hour at its peak, Musk said, which is more than an order of magnitude faster than the Concorde.”
Traveling in style, indeed, whether to Mars, the Moon, Shanghai, or London.