I would like to die on Mars… Just not on impact.
~ Elon Musk
So far, Musk has taken on the banks and their international payments cartel with PayPal, he’s challenged the legacy automobile industry with Tesla and now SpaceX has broken into the heretofore “governments-only” space flight club. Just think about all the people Musk has pissed off.
So how does he follow up those acts? Well what follows is mostly conjecture and should be taken with a large grain of salt… yet, as they say in the movies, “It’s a crazy idea, but it just might work.” So does Musk have a secret weapon?
Musk’s latest game-changer is the HyperLoop, capsules shooting through a steel tube at 760 mph. It could whisk you from LA to San Francisco in 35 minutes. Very impressive, yet compared to the celestial majesty of sending private spaceships to the ISS (International Space Station), it seems a bit… well, mundane. (Or is it?)
Musk’s announcement of the HyperLoop started with some hints and teasers. He got everyone’s attention then dropped the other shoe. He was genuinely enthusiastic and said he wanted to speak to the President and the Governor of California. Musk said it was a new—“fifth mode”—of transportation. Faster, cheaper, safer and less environmentally disruptive than California’s proposed, “high speed” bullet train, which would be one of the slowest yet one of the most expensive bullet trains in the world.
Wow, when would Musk start building the HyperLoop? Well, Musk made a strange clarification of his HyperLoop plans. In affect, he said it was just something he had thought up and maybe somebody else would like to build it. To facilitate that, Musk released his proposal as open-source. He had spent countless hours and dollars drawing up HyperLoop plans using Tesla and SpaceX engineers and planners and than just threw it on the table for free. Now true, someone would have to come up with $7.5 billion to actually build the HyperLoop, but hey, that’s only 11% of the expected cost of the California High-Speed Train. (Clearly, Musk is stepping on toes again.)
However, right on cue, Marco Villa, the former director of mission operations for SpaceX, and Patricia Galloway, a former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, stepped up to the plate. They signed up with JumpStartFund, a crowd-sourcing site, in order to raise funds for five groups that will develop different aspects of the HyperLoop project. The interesting twist with JumpStartFund is that groups can form corporations to allow backers to participate in ownership of the groups. In other words, to invest in HyperLoop. Which means, Musk will get large parts of the HyperLoop developed with OPM, Other People’s Money. Yet why would he want to see the technical challenges of the HyperLoop solved?
The Secret Agenda?
Okay, let’s recap. So what do we have here? We have a man who is fixated on making humanity a multi-planet race. To that end, he has created a line of very cost effective spacecraft. Unfortunately, they are still based on legacy rocket technology where most of the mass of the rocket is burned up just getting into space. That’s just a brute force solution and it isn’t very efficient nor elegant. We also have a nascent technology that when perfected will use a linear accelerator to shoot human and cargo-laden capsules really fast down a long tube. So why not space capsules? Lay that tube on its side up a tall mountain and launch—or assist—humans and cargo into orbit and beyond. Sure, there are technical challenges, but that’s what the JumpStarFund groups can tackle. Crazy, but it just might work, right?
The idea isn’t entirely unprecedented. StarTram was a proposal for a maglev space launch system similar in concept. StarTram was developed by James R. Powell who co-invented the superconducting maglev concept in the 1960s along with his colleague Gordon Danby at Brookhaven National Laboratory.
Okay, here we go off the rails and imagine what might happen if this actually came to pass. Let’s fly into orbit via HyperLoop based technology. Ready?
Sometime in the future you and your SO (Significant Other) decide to take a vacation to EarthView a resort “wheel” in high earth orbit. Neither of you has ever been off world, so you are thrilled, but also a little apprehensive. Your travel agent tells you that the flight to EarthView is actually safer than your drive to the aero-spaceport. So you relax… a little.
For the first leg of your orbital odyssey, you fly in a conventional commercial airliner to Quito, Ecuador. Since this is your first spaceflight, you and your SO are required to attend a day-long orientation on how to maneuver, eat, sleep and use the low-g toilet. EarthView spins and creates artificial gravity that is kept at .38 standard-g, same as Mars. (Of course they don’t talk about what is on everyone’s mind, low-g sex.)
During your orientation, you also learn some technical facts about your upcoming flight. Why Ecuador? Well, Quito is almost on the equator and the nearby launch mountain, Cayambe, is bisected by it. The summit is 20,564 feet high and above a lot of earth’s atmosphere. (Even though it’s on the equator, Cayambe is always snow-capped.) On the equator the earth spins eastward at 1040 miles per hour. This means that departing spacecraft get a free boost into orbit which saves on fuel mass.
You ask about the alternative launch mountain, Chimborazo, and you are told it is the sentimental favorite of the engineers, because it is the tallest mountain on earth. When you interrupt to correct her, the staff person corrects you, “No, Chimborazo is the tallest mountain in the world as measured from the center of the earth, thanks to the equatorial bulge.” (She also unnecessarily adds that the tallest mountain as measured from base to summit is the “sea mountain we call Hawaii.” A-ha! You get to tell her that a seamount’s summit is always below the surface of the water. So there, smarty-pants!)
You are also told that your capsule is a modified version of the SpaceX Dragon. It will be propelled through the very low pressure tube by linear accelerators and will leave the mouth of the tube at 2000 miles per hour. (The Hyperloop tube group found a way to overcome the supersonic buffeting problem.) So together with the earth’s rotation, that’s about 3000 mph without expending any rocket fuel. After the capsule exits the tube, the rocket stage ignites and supplies an additional oomph of 14,500 mph to get you up to an orbital velocity of 17,500 mph.
Your Dragon capsule rendezvous with the EarthView wheel where you have a wonderful vacation (including lots of low-g sex with your SO), but that is a story for another day.
So is a HyperLoop space launch what Elon Musk is actually planning? I don’t know, but it should be.
P.S. So what about Tesla? Have you noticed that Teslas are pure electric, not gasoline hybrids. Why? Well, you can’t run gasoline engines on Mars…
Sandy Sandfort is a freelance writer and entrepreneur, who lives in a volcano in Panama. Currently, he has three science fiction books on the market in his Adventures in Human Space series.