Enough about Catalonia! What about point-to-point travel to anywhere on Earth in less than 45 minutes? That is the future Arthur C. Clarke promised me when I read Rendezvous with Rama as a boy ... and now that is the future Elon Musk is promising my son!
The idea is that SpaceX’s Big F--king Rocket (BFR) could be configured to propel a capsule containing 100 people to anywhere on Earth, where it would come in for a vertical landing.
So I asked some friends, what could go wrong? And ... well.
We’ll start with the obvious one: these flights had better be damn well planned and pass only over friendly territory. We don’t want to be setting off nuclear strikes or losing the vessels to ABM fire. This is a serious problem, but a solvable one. After all, back in the 1940s people worried that nuclear weapons meant the end of international commercial aviation because of the threat of an atomic Pearl Harbor, but we managed to get over that one with only a few horrifying accidents. (KAL 007, Iran Air 655, and Malaysia Airlines 17, to name three.)
I suspect that security will be just as strong as for current airplane flights, but I am not sure that it will need to be much stronger. These vehicles will not be hijackable, even if they have pilots, which I sort of doubt.
But the next problem is insurance. In part that’s insurance against crashes and accidents. But that’s not the problem. The problem is insurance against catastrophic failures on the pad. Current launch insurance costs 10% of the vehicle cost. (Actually it’s 10% of the launch cost, but today rocket launchers are thrown away after a single use, save for a few SpaceX vehicles. Once the rockets are all reusable, the relevant metric will be 10% of the vehicle cost.) Moreover, insurance only kicks in once the rocket leaves the pad. Anything goes wrong before that and the rocket manufacturer is on the hook. And this is with spaceports located far away from population centers. Considering that the BFR lower stage could create a four-kiloton explosion should things really go wrong, we are not talking about a small issue.
Finally, there is another issue also identified by Sir Arthur Clarke: “It might not be unfair to say that in round-the-world satellite transportation, half the time the toilet is out of reach, and the other half of the time it is out of order.” In other words, these flights are not going to be comfortable. My first experience with zero-gee was on the old Freefall in New Jersey, in either 1987 or 1988. It was ... well. The second time was all right and the third time was fun, but the first time was unpleasant. I can say the same for getting thrown out of jumping out of an airplane over Georgia in 2004. Five times, hated each one. I am trying to imagine Very Important People capable of shelling out $10,000 for a ticket putting up with such adventure on a regular basis in lieu of a long trip in first class or holographic telecommuting. I am not succeeding.
Anyway, it turns out the USDOT visited the issue back in 2010. They were not pessimistic, exactly, but optimistic neither.
In short, this is super cool, the kind of thing I thought the future would hold, instead of the democracy-destroying social media and society-destroying artificial intelligence that we are getting. (Sure, portable videophones are neat.) Bad sadly I suspect that the cars will drive themselves well before we can fly rockets to Australia.