Rocket-propelled travel between major cities could be the standard fast-mode travel before we know it.
It’s rather ironic that this column is called Moonshots, and Elon Musk should come into the topic! Although perhaps it actually isn’t ironic, and simply inevitable; after all, Elon Musk and his various companies such as SpaceX, are embracing the very idea of a moonshot. If you haven’t heard of SpaceX, they design, manufacture and launch advanced rockets and spacecraft that are capable of landing and being reused. Of course, it’s important to note that SpaceX is not the only player in this field, but they’re certainly one of the headliners.
To many, travelling to Mars sounds like an amazing prospect, and one awesome idea that could bring us closer to it becoming a reality is the notion of reusable rocket technology. It might sound like a wild idea - and it is - but this revolutionary travel option could actually be feasible. Of course, it’s not without its challenges.
SPEED COSTS MONEY
With extreme speed, comes extreme fuel consumption (and the cost associated with that fuel, of course). Just because we could travel at 27,000km/h, does it mean we should?
It’s important to recognise that every vehicle - whether it’s based on land, air, or sea - has an efficiency point where it will achieve maximum fuel efficiency. For a boat this may be 10-20kts (that’s about 20-40km/h), although some are efficient at faster speeds; for a car it might be cruising on the freeway at 80km/h instead of the higher signposted limit; while for a commercial jet aircraft it’s often in the 800-900km/h range.
Secondary to the “efficient cruising” range is the speed at which people want to get from A to B (relative to the cost and experience of doing so). It might not be economical to travel at the full speed limit, but most people drive that fast because they want to arrive at their destination as fast as possible. A fighter jet might not be fuel-efficient at Mach 2, but during a tactical mission it might be useful. The same is true for a rocket. Unlike a commercial jet aircraft, we’re looking at a cruising speed of 27,000km/h in order for the rocket to break from the clutches of gravity and do what it does. This changes the game considerably, because a rocket is, after all, designed to go fast.
THE NUMBERS GAME
What’s also important about the plan here however, is the idea of spreading the cost of the rocket development and infrastructure across many, many activities. Just as a modern commercial aircraft can spread the hardware and maintenance costs over many years of service, the cost of a ticket includes that expense, along with a portion of the fuel and servicing (i.e., airline staff), as well as airport fees and the like. And when it’s allocated across hundreds of passengers, that ticket price is averaged down to a reasonable and affordable level. When used consistently, the cost of the launch platforms, propellant generation, and all associated infrastructure can also be averaged across operations. So what then, if that same launch platform used for a flight to Shanghai, can also be the same one used for Mars...?
While SpaceX hasn’t fully detailed the breakdown of their costs, Elon Musk has noted that tickets should cost around as much as an economy airfare. While the price to fuel a rocket may be similar to the cost to fuel an A380, it’s only in the air for 30-60 minutes, compared to, say, a Texas to Sydney route, which is more like 17 hours (approximately); sure, it’s burning fuel at a much faster rate, but it all starts to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
In 2015, the busiest airport in the world was in Atlanta in Georgia, USA, and it hosted over 100-million visitors, with over 800,000 flights in that same year. SpaceX is planning 30 launches in 2018 (which accounts for around half of the worldwide launches). So if there are currently 60 total launches per year across the globe, that’s a very mere fraction of one percent of the air traffic from one airport in the world. Thinking globally, there are over 100,000 flights each day. Yes, 100,000 every single day! When you consider this fact, is it really so wild to consider having one rocket launch per day, or even ten per day in the near future?
Perhaps we’ll ultimately end up having the Domestic, International, and Interplanetary rocket terminals? With this sort of global infrastructure supporting rocket transport (whether bound for another country or another planet), the impossible starts to very quickly appear quite normal.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE UNIVERSE?
Here lies the genius... paying for the moonshot. Currently, there is nothing but cost associated with getting people to Mars. Setting up a colony, taking on the risks, building infrastructure on a planet we can’t even breath on, that all takes cash. And LOTS of it! So how do you generate that cash? Develop a real, tangible, feasible money-making machine. Not the sort you go to jail for, but a real company with revenues to pay for everything. A 30 to 60-minute flight from one part of Earth to another, eclipses what even the most expensive private jet can do. When rocket-based travel becomes commonplace, travelling to Mars or to the moon for a family holiday seems oddly feasible, doesn’t it? It’s difficult to obtain continued investment in such a far-fetched idea. However when it’s coupled with something that’s reasonably tangible, and potentially extremely lucrative, it all starts to make more sense.
All these points aside, I’m constantly amazed at the fantastic work that companies like SpaceX are doing to push the envelope, every single day of their existence. Sure, what they’re proposing is amazing, and almost unfathomable in many ways. But when they succeed (and they will succeed), humanity will have opened the door to inhabiting multiple planets, mining asteroids for resources, and so much more. The future is bright, and space is closer than ever!
A NOTE ABOUT NUMBERS: Speeds, costs, and any other estimations for this technology varies wildly. While some details have been presented here, it’s important to realise that the specifics of the numbers aren’t really important. Even if a particular estimation doubles, the overall strategy is still largely feasible. The point being made is that the unbelievable will soon be commonplace... and it’s going to be awesome!