On Sep. 29, real-life Lex Luthor Elon Musk revealed his newest goal: “anywhere on Earth in under an hour.” Using his latest rocket technology, which has gotten better and better in its ability to not explode in a horrible rain of fire and debris, Musk hopes to open up his rockets for commercial use – not just off-world to set up colonies in Mars, but also to get from New York to Shanghai in nearly 29 minutes. The rocket, known as the BFR (“Big F-g Rocket”), would carry passengers into spatial orbit at a speed of 16,000 mph before dropping them back down at their destination across the Earth, leaving first-stage boosters behind at the launch area. To put it another way, Northwestern students could theoretically travel from NU’s campus in Evanston to our international campus in Qatar in well under a half hour.
Some serious questions remain about this technology, and whether it would be at all useful to society. In fact, NASA cancelled a project similar to Musk's vision 24 years ago, probably because they realized how stupid of an idea it is. Granted, it sounds cool and would be awesome in theory. But in reality, in what world would this be a financially viable option for the average person? The ticket costs would have to be incredibly high just to break even on the investment of the rocket plus the jet fuel. Maybe large corporations would be able to afford using rocket-travel for shipping purposes, especially on large shipments across the world, but it seems rather unlikely. For commercial travel, though? Think about how loud the ride would be! Sure, it’d only last 45 minutes, but I’d personally rather take a 12 hour flight with all the amenities I could ever dream of – food, wine, an admittedly limited movie selection, the possibility of getting into the mile high club, etc. – over 45 minutes of breakneck-speed intense acceleration and noise levels as the rocket takes off.
It’s also worth considering that air travel isn’t the only travel that’s being done. Musk’s rocket would likely have to be based a considerable distance away from any densely populated area, since its first-stage boosters (the first part of a multi-level launch system) return back to Earth for reuse. The boosters falling back to Earth would likely have to land in a rural area where there’s no risk of harm. Is it worth paying enormous amounts of money for a 5 minute flight to L.A. if it takes me 2 hours to get to the “rocket port”?
The upside of the BFR is huge, and I wish the technology could be cheaper. Imagine getting actual Chinese food delivered in a half hour. Imagine trying to get ready in an hour before trying to get to a place 10 mins away — oh, and that place is London. As students, lightning-fast travel would come with immense benefits. Journalism students could travel to the international countries they’re reporting on in the blink of an eye. Engineering students could attend guests lectures from Japanese engineers at the top of their craft. Astronomy and physics majors could literally experience the thrills of space travel. The prediction on pricing for a seat in these rockets is, despite Musk’s (bullshit) statement that tickets wouldn’t cost more than standard economy class, between $2,574 to $7,762. But damn, imagine if it wasn’t considerably more than transcontinental business class.
Airports suck. Air travel sucks. Musk is one of the best innovators currently developing interesting and potentially humanity-saving technology, and I’m all for backing his efforts. Maybe someday the costs of getting people around the world that fast will drop, but today doesn’t appear to be that day, as expected costs are likely too high for the average consumer or business. If Musk wants to go through with the technology, then by all means he’s entitled to developing it, and I’d be excited to see if he could get costs down to a reasonable level. Personally, however, I’d rather Musk came up with some new tech that would allow me to get through security in under an hour, not around the world.