Op-Ed: Elon Musk's Point-To-Point Rocket Travel Will Never Fly
There are two obvious reasons it seems point-to-point rocket travel may not be successful.
Elon Musk and SpaceX COO Gwynne Shotwell have promised us that one day people will be able to travel from New York City to Tokyo in less than an hour.
You’ll catch the afternoon Starship launch (New York time), spend the morning in meetings in Tokyo, have an early “power-lunch”, catch the afternoon launch (Tokyo time) and back be back home in time to catch late-night TV. The travel time, including security and being shuttled to the launch site, could be as little as two to three hours each way.
I can see two reasons why this will never fly.
Sticking The Landing
First on the list is the absolute requirement for the rocket to perform flawlessly, every time, no mistakes, ever.
SpaceX has done amazing things for the aerospace industry. It’s been able to successfully make return rocket landings and rocket reusability a regular occurrence. It is fast approaching going beyond 100 successful rocket launches and landings. But the recent failed landing of a Falcon 9 rocket booster reminds us that the technology is not perfect.
Can you imagine the PR nightmare that would occur when millions of viewers watched a hundred passengers blow up in a blazing explosion like the ones we’ve seen with SpaceX SN8 and SN9? I wouldn’t want to be SpaceX in that scenario. Even a 99.9% success rate is not enough. Even one failed landing out of 1,000 is not acceptable.
Regulators would be remiss if they did not require many thousands of successful landings before approving mass transit by rocket. Even at the unprecedented rate of three launches a day that would mean many years before point-to-point rocket travel could possibly be allowed.
Travel by airplane has become very common today. So much so that during peak times over one million people are in the skies at a given moment. I don’t see that happening with rocket launches. There’s a reason that the phrase “rocket science” is batted about. Making rockets launch and land is complicated. There are so many pieces and so many factors that can go wrong. It’s hardly the thing to risk the lives of hundreds of people on.
Ok, let’s just suppose that SpaceX does figure things out. The landings are perfect 99.999% of the time and regular launches to and from Tokyo happen on a regular basis. There is still another big reason why point-to-point rocket travel won’t fly (literally). It’s a factor that SpaceX has no control over.
Imagine this scenario. You’ve been planning your trip to Tokyo for a couple of weeks. You’ve got your ticket to rocket to Tokyo. You’re very enthused. The day of the launch comes and you get a call.
“Hello, Mr Gorski”
“I’m sorry but the upper atmosphere conditions are not conducive to launch today.”
“Oh, oh my. So when will the launch occur?”
“Oh, could be two, three, maybe four days”
Rocket launches are held up and delayed because of weather on a regular basis. I can foresee no reason why this might change. Unlike airplane travel, weather conditions for rocket launches have to be almost pristine. I’ve experienced having an airplane de-iced during a mild snowfall. While it was a little unnerving, the plane did fly and I did get to where I was supposed to go, on time (well, mostly). I don’t think the same could be accomplished with a rocket launch.
Unless SpaceX is going to somehow control the weather I can’t see travelers being willing to put up with unreliable service. Supersonic air travel has a much better shot of becoming a viable way of rapidly getting from here to there (such as BoomSupersonic.com). You can catch the red-eye flight, catch some zzzz, and be back the following workday if you choose.
Add to all of this the whole not-so-smooth rocket ride experience. From what I understand riding a rocket makes riding a bucking Brahma bull seem mild. While rather unique, I question how many people would be up for the experience.
That’s my two cents for now.
What do you think? Will point-to-point rocket travel become a reality? Can you think of reasons point-to-point rocket travel will or will not work? Start a conversation in the comment section below.
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