Fly China to New York in 39 Minutes?


On September 29, at his speech  to the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide Australia, Elon Musk made the shocking claim that he intends to bring commercial terrestrial rocket flights to market in the near future. In an even more shocking claim, Musk asserted that by doing so it will be possible to travel to anywhere on Earth in less than 1 hour.

The Idea

At the conclusion of his presentation on an ambitious new endeavor to send a manned spacecraft to Mars by 2024, for an encore Musk made the announcement that stole the show. As if interplanetary travel within a decade was not enough, Musk continued, ‘But there’s something else… if you build a ship that’s capable of going to Mars… what if you take that same ship, and go from one place to another on Earth?’ From there, Musk showed an accompanying video that demonstrated such a flight. At the end of the video, a list of potential destinations and their flight times were shown (New York to Shanghai in 39 minutes. London to New York in 29 minutes, etc.) and concluded with the stunning assertion that if successful it would be possible to travel to any point on the globe in under one hour.

How It Works

When SpaceX successfully returned an orbital rocket back to the launch pad two years ago everyone in the space community new a big moment had just occurred. As Musk made his audacious announcement last Friday night, some of the implications of just how big of an event that was came clearer into view.

According to the video, passengers would first be ferried to a launching pad at a remote site. From there, the BFR rocket would launch them into space where the primary stage booster would separate from the fuselage and fall back to earth. Meanwhile, the secondary transportation rocket would continue on at a speed of over 16,000 MPH before touching down on the designated landing pad, as is now commonplace for SpaceX rockets.

How Possible Is It?

Of course, as is the case with any major ambition, there are plenty of naysayers. The Verge website calls the idea ‘A logistical nightmare’. Wired Magazine wrote the idea, ‘Might work, but probably won’t.’ And luminaries from across the spectrum have pointed out the countless issues needed to be addressed before the system becomes viable. These concerns range from retrieving the spent rocket boosters to finding a niche market of passengers willing to pay what will likely be a very expensive ticket prices (though Musk insists the price of a seat would cost about the same as a full fair ticket in economy on a standard commercial airline). Others, are more optimistic. Jim Bell, a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and president of the Planetary Society space advocacy groups stated, “I don’t think it pays to bet against Elon Musk at all on this stuff.” At this point, the program’s chances of success are anyone’s guess.

Further Implications

With the stated objective of seeing as many as one million people colonizing Mars within the next 50 years, it would seem at some point necessary for Musk to make people feel comfortable with the idea of long distance rocket travel. Perhaps, if terrestrial rocket transportation becomes the norm, more people will be comfortable with boarding a rocket for further trips beyond our earth’s atmosphere.