Oct 02 2017

Rocket Travel

BFRElon Musk is an interesting guy. Also, because of the success of SpaceX, when he makes promises about future technology, it is at least worth a listen. At a recent meeting of the¬†International Astronautical Congress Musk stated that he plans on developing SpaceX’s rocket technology for commercial transportation between cities on Earth. He also made a promotional video.

The idea of using rocket travel for long distances (instead of jets) is not new. It has been featured in various science-fiction views of the future or even alternate realities of the present. The obvious advantage to rocket travel is that it is fast. A suborbital trajectory can get you between almost any two cities on Earth in 30 minutes or less.

This is all part of SpaceX’s new project, the BFR (I could not find anywhere exactly what that stands for – just the implication that it’s “Big Fu**ing Rocket”, which is awesome). Musk wants to stop developing his Falcon series of rockets and focus entirely on one rocket system to do everything they need to do – the BFR. The idea is that this will help reduce overall costs.

The BFR is completely reusable, which is key to cost control. Musk plans to use the rocket to put satellites into orbit, resupply the space station, send people to the moon, and even send people to Mars and rocket them between cities on Earth.

I like the idea of perfecting one rocket design and using it for everything. Part of the key to its flexibility is that it can be refueled in space. So you can use up your fuel to get into orbit, then refuel for a boost to the moon or Mars.

Musk is also very intent on making the BFR pay for itself. Using it for passengers is part of that overall plan.

OK – so what are the hurdles to making rocket travel on Earth a reality?

Cost is the obvious big hurdle. Few people can afford to pay tens of thousands of dollars for one trip. You could also charter your own luxury jet for that much. Musk will have to get the costs way down to make the enterprise feasible. He plans to do that, but we’ll see.

Safety is also a huge factor. SpaceX has successfully landed 16 rockets in a row, which is great. But for routine commercial travel they will need a much greater safety record. Musk plans to use the BFR city-to-city transport for cargo for a while (no passengers) which is a great idea. SpaceX could build up years of experience with hundreds or thousands of successful trips before taking passengers. This raises the question of whether or not cargo transport by rocket can pay for itself, which is a factor Musk prioritizes.

Logistics and overall travel time is also a factor. How many point-to-points facilities will they have? What will the security be like? The video shows passengers taking a boat out to the launch pad. Will there also be a boat ride at the other end?

If you happen to live near one of the serviced cities and you need to travel half way around the world, this may be a great option. Otherwise, the advantage in total travel time may not be worth it. If you have to make a connecting flight to get to a rocket-serviced city, that takes time. The actual rocket flight time may be the smallest factor.

These same issues come up with supersonic flight. Will rocket travel be more convenient and cost effective than just really fast jets? Perhaps. One advantage is that the travel time is much shorter.

So, overall I like the idea of the flexible and cost-effective BFR. I like that Musk is willing to think about and attempt to develop future game-changing technology. Almost by definition, many such ventures will fail, but you have to try to succeed. I give commercial rocket travel a low probability overall, mainly for logistical and cost reasons, but it is not implausible. Perhaps the most plausible aspect of the plan is that it uses the same rocket SpaceX will be using for everything else.

I also like Musk’s plan to find commercial uses for the BFR that make money, and then using that to finance more speculative ventures like developing a moon base or going to Mars. I still don’t think we will be sending anyone to Mars anytime soon. Musk plans on 2024, which he admits is aspirational, but there are some logistical deal-breakers at the moment – like radiation and supplies.

I do like that Musk is not just a dreamer, but a planner. He is actually developing technology and searching for ways to innovate and change the world. It is easy to cynically criticize his optimism and lofty plans, but to some extent he is getting it done. Just watch one of SpaceX’s rockets do a vertical landing and I dare you not to be impressed. So I say – you go, Elon.


9 responses so far

9 thoughts on “Rocket Travel”

  1. David Pritchard says:

    Typo: “but it is *not* implausible”

  2. Safety will be the big hurdle to overcome, and not just for manned launches. There’s a reason why we tend to not use launch trajectories that carry rockets over populated cities and instead do things like launch from Florida over the ocean, Huston over the Gulf, etc.

  3. Is the average well-heeled traveler interested in experiencing the g forces involved with this type of transportation?

  4. Scott G says:

    I would add another strong consideration: environmental impact. It will depend on what type of fuel they use, ultimately, but there is bound to be a negative impact (over jets flying the same number of individuals or the same amount of cargo). The fuel exhaust also, of course, goes higher up into the atmosphere, which could have additional negative impact over jets, especially if there is a substantial increase over the number of rockets launched annually over today’s amount. Whether this will truly factor into its success is another thing – it may be an overall negative, but be ignored, as so many other things are related to environment (and climate).

  5. carbonUnit says:

    I like it, but is seems odd, as if he’s missing an intermediate step. It feels like he’s repeating the Space Shuttle mistake, but with pure rockets. The same vehicle that can take a bunch of people to Mars, keeping them alive in space for the better part of a year, will be used for 30-minute hops between locations on Earth? I’m not sure what sort of cargo needs to be transported around the globe that fast. (People, I can see…) Would this be used for launching satellites? Seems like overkill, but I suppose this is one way to avoid the non-reusable second stage and fairing problem. Maybe it 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.

    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.

  6. I think the idea is that the ability to be refueled adds flexibility, rather than additional stages or disposable boosters. They want 100% reusability.

    But yeah – using the same rocket for suborbital flights and going to Mars seems extreme. I’d be interested in the details.

  7. pandadeath says:

    So I want to like Elon Musk, but he’s starting to get a little annoying with Big Anoucement About a Big Plan and then it doesn’t happen. He’s announcing everything from revolutionary cars, to something barely coherent about AI, to Mars travel.
    All are good ideas. But everyone has good ideas. What matters is what he Does (which for him has been more than most certainly).
    His company is making great progress with cars, but it’s far from reaching the production of gas powered cars or even other electric cars. He’s been declaring production goals for years and just not meeting them. At least tesla is producing something, but I personally worry about investing in as a company with a CEO that publically seems to think stock prices matter more than actual profit. It’s also hard to take someone’s production goals seriously when he says that factories for the Model 3, which already has enough orders to fill production capacity for a year, will double as a source of engine parts for the semi truck model. I think both are fantastic ideas (especially electric semi trucks) but factories aren’t magic. Tesla is far from established, it seems to still be relying a lot on potential.
    Whatever he is saying about AI today just doesn’t make sense. It really just sounds like someone who doesn’t know much about AI and seems to be completely unaware that there are people who do understand it.
    I want to believe that a private company could start sending cargo to Mars by 2024. But I don’t see the plan. The mercury, Gemini and apollo missions all had incremental steps laid out. Every single launch had a specific purpose. Each mission was a giant achievement in of itself. Each incremental step is a big deal. Even to the point of planning missions to circle around the moon but not land, which was frustrating for those involved but they understand it was a big achievement on its own.
    I just haven’t seen that level of planning or frankly any evidence that he’s even thought about it. Honestly as someone would like to buy a tesla car, i just haven’t seen the evidence that he understands how things are built. That factories can’t do more than one thing at once. So not being able to fulfil production timeframes for cars makes me think a timeframe like this for space travel is just not going to happen.
    If he announced returning to the moon in five years and/or establishing a base there, and then using that as a step to the Mars, then I’d be excited.

    If Musk showed that he appreciated what a huge step forward each increment towards the goal of reaching the Mars is, then I would be convinced he could get there. But I have a natural mistrust of people that put more emphasis on the goal rather than the process.

  8. carbonUnit says:

    If the ability to refuel is to be taken advantage of, then I guess SpaceX will need a tanker. Another variant?

  9. GlobalCop says:

    This video is highly critical of the BFR plan. https://youtu.be/j4KR4-TN-Yo

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