By now, you may have heard that Elon Musk has come up with yet another wondrous glimpse into the very near (?) future that he will build for us. The SpaceX CEO told attendees of the International Astronautical Congress in Australia earlier this week that he was simplifying his rocket production by focusing on one promising design. Oh yeah, and he’d like to develop a system that would allow rocket-propelled travel between cities on Earth.
The vehicle is called the Big Fucking Rocket, or BFR if you’re in polite company. This rocket could be used for launching satellites, taking humans to the moon or Mars, and even “point to point” travel here on Earth.
Incredible, if true!
“Most of what people consider to be long-distance trips could be completed in less than half-an-hour,” Musk said, according to the BBC. It looks like our very own Star Boy is growing up to be a quiet the Rocket Man. (Not that kind of Rocket Man, though.)
While such travel seems like high-tech straight from the space age, we already had a super fast form of air travel—and we threw it away.
The Concorde, which last flew in 2003, is barely remembered today. The supersonic jet flew at 60,000 feet at 1,500 mph, Mach 2, more than a thousand miles an hour faster than a 747. There was a digital counter on the bulkhead to let passenger know their exact speed they were going and when they were traveling faster than the speed of sound. (I like to know when that happens, don’t you?)
It seemed like the future was here, but the Concorde only flew from 1976 to 2003. That’s right, people from the pre-iPhone era could travel faster than you can now. Yet while it cut the seven-hour flight from New York to London down to just 3.5, seats on the Concorde were cramped, uncomfortable and, not to mention, expensive. In the early 2000s, a ticket from New York to Heathrow cost around $7,000, with a round trip ticket costing $10,000, according to the Atlantic. A quick glance at various airfare websites shows that such a trip typically now costs less than $1,800 for a round trip, and that’s if the ticket buyer left tomorrow. Sure it would take 12 hours, but you’ll still get where you’re going, with several more thousand dollars in your pocket to boot.
There are no longer supersonic commercial flights offered to the public because they were simply impractical. In its 30 years of operating the Concordes, airlines found them to be only sometimes profitable. Even worse, the Concorde was tricky to fly and dogged by high-profile crashes and safety incidents.
Back to 2017, and Musk. He says his BFR rocket will be considerably faster than the Concorde. Yet if you thought airline seats were uncomfortable, imagine withstanding the G forces of escaping the earth’s atmosphere at 18,000 mph only to plummet back down to earth a short time later—all to save some time. And even though SpaceX has had 16 successful take-offs and landings, it’s still a hell of a lot less proven than traditional aircraft.
Escaping Earth’s gravity is no easy feat either. The amount of fuel needed to launch the 80 to 100 people Musk estimated his rocket system could delivered into even low Earth orbit is mind-boggling. While the super rich might hitch a ride as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I can’t see rockets being a cost effective way to move around the world for a long time to come. The Concorde was also terrible for the atmosphere and the environment; it’s hard to fathom rockets being better.
In other words, it gets to a point where a few fewer hours of travel time simply isn’t worth the extra cost, fuel and safety risks. The Concorde proved that, and I don’t see terrestrial rocket travel being the solution.
Musk was extremely light on the details of what rocket-propelled earth bound travel would look like. Maybe that doesn’t matter. He is, I think, before computer or technology or cars or rockets, a genius of marketing first. I admire someone with big ideas, but this one ranks among the tunneling stuff as the one I’m inclined to believe less.
I say focus on building some 500,000 Model 3's, and then shoot for the stars. Or in this case, New York to Shanghai in 40 minutes.
Correction: This article incorrectly stated flight times between New York and London and has since been updated.