Book the next rocket to New York? What it'll take to realize Elon Musk's bizarre travel plan

October 6, 2017 by Samantha Masunaga, Los Angeles Times
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

SpaceX 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.

But before Musk can set his plans in motion, there are a few down-to-Earth logistics questions he'll have to answer first.

Under 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.

A 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.

Questions 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.)

Musk's 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.

"And I think that is exciting, even if there are a lot of kinks to work out," she said.

Here are some of those considerations.

The 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.

That 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.

The computer-generated animation also shows the rocket landing on a similar floating platform far off the coast of Shanghai.

"You 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 your trip."

Ryerson 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.

"While 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.

On 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.

Several analysts pointed to the supersonic Concorde jetliner as an example of a speedy, but expensive, transportation option whose tiny market was not profitable enough.

The 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.

"It 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 that."

Although 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.

Musk has said the cost of a seat on the BFR will be "about the same" as full fare economy class in an aircraft.

A 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.

Boom 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.

Even 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 plane.

SpaceX 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.

The 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.

Bell 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.

"I don't think it pays to bet against Elon Musk at all on this stuff," he said.

Explore further: Travel anywhere in under an hour: Elon Musk's new plan

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betterexists
1 / 5 (2) Oct 06, 2017
Only 1 Air. May Clash!
So, Start with 1 HYPERLOOP BENEATH the Oceans.
Once Enough Money is made out of it, ADD SEVERAL Under-The-Sea HYPERLOOPS !
Whydening Gyre
1 / 5 (1) Oct 06, 2017
Essentially, The BFR is an ICBM. That spells trouble from the git-go....
carbon_unit
5 / 5 (4) Oct 06, 2017
I like it, but going fully to BFR seems odd, as if SpaceX is missing an intermediate step. It feels like they are repeating the Space Shuttle "one vehicle to do it all" mistake, but with pure rockets.
Would this also be used for launching satellites, maybe replacing F9/FH? An intermediate step would be a medium sized rocket (MFR) upper-stage which could ride on F9/FH and prototype BFR capabilities. Seems like overkill, but I suppose this is one way to avoid the non-reusable second stage and fairing problem. Maybe BFR works out. I guess it depends on how flexible the design of the thing is as far as passenger/cargo/launcher and long/short endurance configurations. If it is going to be refilled in orbit, I guess they'll need a tanker too...

Still, this is Elon Musk and SpaceX. I thought the reusable booster was never going to work due to the rocket equation, but they did it. I'm certainly prepared to sit back and be amazed.
Eikka
1 / 5 (2) Oct 06, 2017
I thought the reusable booster was never going to work due to the rocket equation, but they did it.


They didn't break the rocket equation, because the first stage doesn't go to orbit and back, and the rest of the rocket is still flying as usual. If the entire rocket were re-usable, it would be all fuel and no payload to reach orbit and then reverse back to where it started, and that's not something you can bypass by engineering as long as you're trying to rocket down instead of parachuting or gliding.

Nevertheless, they sacrifice up to 2/3 of the lifting capacity of the first stage to have enough fuel for the return trip - depending on what orbit they're trying to reach and where they're trying to land. Because of the slower separation speed to save fuel, the upper stages need to carry more fuel and less payload to reach orbit.

Going
3 / 5 (2) Oct 06, 2017
Why do rockets have to start off straight up. A rocket plane could take off at subsonic speed and then turn upward into a hypersonic suborbital path over ocean or desert.
someone11235813
not rated yet Oct 06, 2017
"While 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.


Which begs the question 'what then would be the point'. And that is being generous. The reason that hi speed rail travel is still being developed as a better alternative to ordinary jet travel is a good analogy.
rderkis
not rated yet Oct 06, 2017
which begs the question 'what then would be the point


I guess you and most the others here will have to read the article to answer that.
Quote Article
But several analysts said Musk's vision at least forces people to think out
side
of the box
BubbaNicholson
not rated yet Oct 07, 2017
Musk's Big Friendly Rocket will benefit from computer generated design, new materials, and new thinking. I was shocked and appalled by the low risk NASA design using now ancient technology. I also suggested this idea to Virgin as did many others doubtless. This is a great idea!
As for me, I'm going to start saving up for my New Deli holiday aboard BFR.
Shootist
3 / 5 (2) Oct 07, 2017
Why do rockets have to start off straight up.


Because that is what God and Robert Heinlein intended. ':-)
TheGhostofOtto1923
5 / 5 (1) Oct 07, 2017
They didn't break the rocket equation, because the first stage doesn't go to orbit and back, and the rest of the rocket is still flying as usual. If the entire rocket were re-usable
But it will be.

"SpaceX is intending to develop technology to extend reusable flight hardware to second stages, a more challenging engineering problem because the vehicle is travelling at orbital velocity"

-and of course the capsules are reusable.

"Elon Musk's bizarre travel plan"

-Bizarre? People are lining up to take 6-figure suborbital flights on many carriers. Rich people will be tickled pink to travel in spaceships for business or pleasure.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Oct 07, 2017
Would this also be used for launching satellites, maybe replacing F9/FH?
Why don't you do a little research and find out for yourself instead of asking amateurs here to do it for you?
eljo
5 / 5 (1) Oct 07, 2017
"If the entire rocket were re-usable, it would be all fuel and no payload to reach orbit and then reverse back to where it started, "

I understand, but that is not true and it was never true. Rockets in the past were just optimized for payload because reuse was not considered. Single stage to Orbit Systems or One Stage and a Halfs, do not and suffer from this problem, thanks to progress in material sciences and heat shield systems and coatings developed in the eighties and naughties.

When dealing with reusable systems, weight and a small cut in payload are not your enemy. Only reliability is and ever was. Reliable reuse was deemed to be too big of a challenge in the past, otherwise we would have had reusable ssto's in the eighties. ONESTAGETOSPACE has a nice idea. Stage and a half, engines on the upper stage, drop tank below.
ForFreeMinds
not rated yet Oct 07, 2017
Seems to me, rocket travel isn't reliable enough yet, and still very dangerous compared to air travel. But I believe it's improving. The 3 g force astronauts endure during travel will also restrict travel to healthy passengers.
rderkis
1 / 5 (1) Oct 07, 2017
I think once the Universal Quantum computer is here in all its glory, everything will change including space travel. And that will happen very soon.
knowphiself
not rated yet Oct 08, 2017
is his economy based on marketing old ideas
Eikka
1 / 5 (3) Oct 08, 2017
I understand, but that is not true and it was never true.


It will never be possible to design a rocket that reaches orbit, brakes, and returns back to its launchpad in its entirety using just rocket power, because it needs exaclty as much delta-V to go up as it needs to go down. All the energy it carries is needed to reverse, accelerate in the opposite direction, and then stop at the end of the free fall. There's nothing left for the payload.

It is possible to bypass this problem by using aerobraking, parachutes, wings, circling around until the orbit decays back into the atmosphere above the lauch site etc. but it is not possible to break the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation because that would be inventing a perpetual motion machine.

All the SSTO (and back) designs must resemble more the space shuttle than Space X's rockets.

a small cut in payload are not your enemy


SpaceX's designs cut 70% off the payload capacity. That's not "small".
Eikka
1 / 5 (3) Oct 08, 2017
But it will be.

"SpaceX is intending to develop technology to extend reusable flight hardware to second stages, a more challenging engineering problem because the vehicle is travelling at orbital velocity"


That's just Musk running his mouth to generate more hype. You can intend to go to the moon, but if all you have is a pogo stick and a piece of string, good luck.
TheGhostofOtto1923
5 / 5 (1) Oct 08, 2017
But it will be.

"SpaceX is intending to develop technology to extend reusable flight hardware to second stages, a more challenging engineering problem because the vehicle is travelling at orbital velocity"


That's just Musk running his mouth to generate more hype. You can intend to go to the moon, but if all you have is a pogo stick and a piece of string, good luck.
Ahaahaa You never do learn do you? Seems to me you were just as skeptical about his booster. And also AI cars.

I walked through a Neimann Marcus today. They were selling a pair of chukka boots for $1000. Excuse me, $995 and change. I looked closely and the stitching around the rim was uneven.

They were lined mind you, and the soles were real rubber not that crepe stuff the brits used during the war.

Yeah I thought here's just the thing to be wearing while riding on a rocket to Tokyo. $1000 chukka boots.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Oct 08, 2017
As it so happens I'm watching the movie about Bernie Madoff, noted psychopath, played by De Niro, who has gotten very wealthy himself pretending to be a psychopath. Ironic yes?

He's very good at it.

Oh yeah I also walked past a store with a large poster of him in the window wearing some very nice clothes. Bernie Madoff liked nice things too you know?

"Tonight in New York, the Italian menswear company Ermenegildo Zegna will host a dinner to celebrate a new campaign that packs a seriously powerful casting coup: It features Robert De Niro."
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Oct 08, 2017
$1000 suede freaking chukka boots.
https://www.shops...QAvD_BwE

-I can't get over this.

"Fucking rich people. Parasites." -De Niro as Bernie Madoff in 'The Wizard of Lies'.

Honestly, that's the line I'm hearing as I'm watching the movie while writing this.
rrrander
1 / 5 (2) Oct 09, 2017
When will dull-witted millenials stop worshiping this false god?
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Oct 09, 2017
Why do rockets have to start off straight up. A rocket plane could take off at subsonic speed and then turn upward into a hypersonic suborbital path over ocean or desert.

There's a British company trying this concept
https://en.wikipe...cecraft)
Which is based on an earlier idea (Saenger Spaceplane)
https://en.wikipe...cecraft)

Rockets do not have to start standing straight up. In fact, what keeps something in orbit is not 'going up' but lateral velocity (that's why you see rockets curve to a horizontal orientation when you watch a launch). If a rocket just went straight up to a height equivalent to low (or high) Earth orbit and there released its payload all of that'd just fall straight back down.

As for the BFR...I'd like to see an eco-balance compared to a plane, first.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Oct 09, 2017
Ahaahaaa now I'm seeing ads here on physorg for $1000 chukka boots just because I posted a link. Somethings wrong with somebody's marketing software I think.

Not to worry - soon AI will be able to recognize sarcasm.

PS - the ad says orders are 20% off over $200 so now they're $800 chukka boots. Yay
Eikka
1 / 5 (2) Oct 09, 2017
Seems to me you were just as skeptical about his booster. And also AI cars.


Don't count your winnings before you've actually won.

Neither have proven their worth. All the criticism still applies, because the issue was never about whether it's possible to make them.

Remember that I didn't say SpaceX couldn't build a booster that lands on its tail - that was already proven (Grasshopper, New Shepard, etc.) - but whether it's worth the money because the VTOL capability wastes so much cargo capacity and it's such a precarious unstable business with so many risks to handle in both the rocket and its environment. The question was whether they can make it pay

The criticism is also that Elon Musk's business strategy is to promise you the moon, deliver a wheel of cheese, and then announce that he's going to Mars to distract from the fact. He's like a casino host who lures you to play at ever-higher stakes by promising that this time you'll win, but the casino always wins.
Eikka
1 / 5 (3) Oct 09, 2017
The projections were that each booster needs to be re-used 10-12 times before it pays back. So far SpaceX has re-used a rocket how many times??

Twice, and not the same booster

So I repeat the earlier criticism: if each launch carries even a 5% chance of failure, the probability that 12 successive launches end up right is just 54%. Basically, for each booster, you'd just as well flip a coin whether it makes it or breaks it. This goes against the promised 30% savings in launch costs, because if 50% of the boosters never break even then how is it possible?

This is the same hyperoptimism and willfull ignorance of risks on the management as displayed by NASA with the Space Shuttle, and they will fall in the same ditch. Of course, Mr. Musk in the mean while has made bank with all the money thrown at him, because his point was never about whether it's actually possible, but about how long can he run the show before anyone notices that it didn't work, so he can jump ship in time.
Eikka
1 / 5 (3) Oct 09, 2017
So as the returns of SpaceX's re-usable rocket fail to materialize, it's written off as, "Oh well, we had a good old try - but here's something else!"

The question is how many times you can repeat that before the people, the investors and backers, admit to themselves that there's a pattern to it.

"Oh well, the fancy electric car became twice as expensive as we promised... but here's something else!"
"Oh well, the lane-assist that we advertised as autopilot decapitated a driver... but here's something else!"
"Oh well, the electric truck is a manufacturing nightmare... but here's something else!"
"Oh well, the solar panel factory is obsolete on opening day... but here's something else!"
"Oh well, we can't keep to our promised production schedules... but here's something else!"

"Oh well, the something else that we promised turned out to be nothing like it... but here's something else!"
Eikka
1 / 5 (3) Oct 09, 2017
Mind you, the workhorse of the space industry so far, the Russian Soyuz family of rockets with closer to 2,000 launches so far has about 2.5% launch failure rate as far as I can remember.

That's a good baseline -launch- failure rate, and SpaceX can call themselves good if they meet that in the long run. The question of landing failure rates is a matter onto itself entirely, but another 2.5% chance is a reasonable guess, or at least a reasonable target for expectations.

So, in order to launch AND land successfully, each random flight would have approximately 95% success rate. Hence why the earlier 5% risk estimate above. Even if the rocket is not a total loss on a launch failure, the turnaround will cost money so it counts as a loss.

Also imagine if every 1 in 40 airplanes fell out of the sky on every flight. That's a reality in rocketry.
Eikka
1 / 5 (3) Oct 09, 2017
But really, here's the crux of the matter:

https://stopelonf...ain.com/

Stop Elon Musk from Failing Again is an initiative launched by the Sunlight Project, under Citizens For The Republic, to root out corruption, fraud and abuse of taxpayer of money in major corporations. Elon Musk has defrauded the American Taxpayer out of over $4.9 Billion in the form of subsidies, grants, and other favors. We are challenging not just Elon, but the entire culture of corporations making billions of dollars off of the American people for almost zero return to the consumer. CEO's like Musk are taking advantage of Americans, and it is our intention to end their free ride.


The total so far as listed comes to $15.6 Billion.

But of course, Elon Musk needs that money because his companies are returning zero profit (so he doesn't have to pay tax).
ShotmanMaslo
5 / 5 (2) Oct 09, 2017
It will never be possible to design a rocket that reaches orbit, brakes, and returns back to its launchpad in its entirety using just rocket power, because it needs exaclty as much delta-V to go up as it needs to go down.

It is possible to bypass this problem by using aerobraking


That is exactly what Falcon is doing. If you knew what you are talking about (you dont), you would know that an empty rocket stage is big and light, an ideal object to aerobrake. It takes MUCH less delta-v to land than to launch (a small fraction).

SpaceX's designs cut 70% off the payload capacity. That's not "small".


Note that this is for reusing both stages.
TheGhostofOtto1923
5 / 5 (2) Oct 09, 2017
Neither have proven their worth. All the criticism still applies, because the issue was never about whether it's possible to make them
Really. Musk is launching spysats and spaceplanes. And soon he will be launching astronauts.

Apparently the US military sees some value in the system yes?
an empty rocket stage is big and light, an ideal object to aerobrake. It takes MUCH less delta-v to land than to launch (a small fraction)
-which is the gist of the Skylon spaceplane because it's so light it doesnt need special heat shielding.
TheGhostofOtto1923
5 / 5 (2) Oct 09, 2017
Here is a nice animation to help eikka visualize the inevitable.
https://youtu.be/sWFFiubtC3c
ShotmanMaslo
5 / 5 (2) Oct 09, 2017
The projections were that each booster needs to be re-used 10-12 times before it pays back. So far SpaceX has re-used a rocket how many times??


Post source.

Reuse itself cost $1 billion to develop, which is a lot by SpaceX standards but a small sum by standards of other aerospace companies. It may take a lot of launches to pay this sum back not because reuse is not worth it but because SpaceX charges so low for a their launches (around $50 million for a reused one, several times less than ULA)
ShotmanMaslo
5 / 5 (2) Oct 09, 2017
but whether it's worth the money because the VTOL capability wastes so much cargo capacity


It is usually OK to waste cargo capacity. Either the rocket can lift the payload or it cannot. Vast majority of space launches only utilize a certain fraction of rocket cargo capacity and the rest is wasted anyway. So reuse is often basically free. And when the cargo is really heavy or target orbit is too high, then SpaceX can always launch the rocket in expendable mode.

Eikka is a classic example of someone who does not understand launch vehicle economics and is fixated on easy to think of but relatively unimportant metrics such as payload capacity or amount of propellant. But those are secondary. Actually the important things are figures such as cost per launch and launch rate. And that is where SpaceX is at their best, and reuse helps.
ShotmanMaslo
5 / 5 (2) Oct 09, 2017
[SpaceX's designs cut 70% off the payload capacity. That's not "small".


BFR will be able to launch 250 tons into LEO expendable and 150 tons fully reusable. That is 40% cut of payload capacity.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Oct 09, 2017
The total so far as listed comes to $15.6 Billion
But you know I've got to think this is far cheaper per capita than $1000 suede freeking chukka boots. Much better mileage too.
betterexists
not rated yet Oct 10, 2017
Send rockets in hyperloops....They have to be launched ashore to avoid problem for Oceanic Fauna ! Reach the other side of the globe in a jiffy beneath the ocean.

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