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Space travel for the 21st century

Today is MLK in the US and we went out to meet friends for brunch. One of the topics we talked about was space travel and how this is could shorten our time spent on planes.

While tech is not quite there, there have been promising advancements by SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. These private sector initiatives give me hope that we might achieve low-orbit fast travel by 2100.

I spent 5 days on planes, traveled 53,000 mi on 28 flights in 2019, per my AppInTheAir profile.

I can’t but wonder how much time and jet fuel I could have saved if we had something like this available:

Now to explain this diagram:

  • Science: The concept of the Regional Space Hub relies on the ESA definition of low-Earth orbiting space craft. It assumes that once orbiting altitude is achieved, and the space hub is running at full speed, the point-to-point travel is a matter of finding the docking timings to make the journey most efficient
  • Technical Prerequisites: The three companies I mentioned and a few government programs are hard at work to make scalable, reusable rockets that can get people off the ground and land back safely to refuel and go back up again. DARPA is already working on a Transportation Hub concept, fully run by robots, so that might be a good blueprint for the Regional Space Hubs
  • The journey: I want to visit my parents in Romania. For simplicity, I asked them to meet me in Bucharest, the capital city of Romania. I’m leaving from San Francisco. Currently, I have to use min 2 planes and travel for over 15 hours to get to Bucharest using traditional jets. In the future, I want to get on a rocket at SFO (15-20 minutes with take-off procedures), get to the nearest Regional Space Hub, rely on the orbit speed to get me over Eastern Europe (minutes to switch ships, or stay on the same ship and get new passengers for those with different destinations), where the Romania-bound return rocket would shuttle me down to the Otopeni Airport (10-15 minutes). The whole journey could take me anywhere between 40 minutes and 2 hours, depending if I have to circle the Earth in the Hub waiting for the downstream shuttle.
  • Bonus, this would be more environmentally friendly than traditional airplanes, if NASA’s new fuel research program succeeds in producing better rocket fuel.
  • Per NASA, “It takes the shuttle approximately 8-1/2 minutes to get to orbit. And if you think about it, we’re accelerating a 4-1/2 million pound system from zero miles per hour to its orbital velocity of 17,500 miles per hour in those 8-1/2 minutes. So it’s a heck of a ride for the astronauts. They typically experience about three times the force of gravity during most of the ascent, and once we reach orbit, when the main engines cut off, they go from that three-G acceleration to zero acceleration virtually instantaneously, and that’s when they become weightless on orbit.”

If you would have talked to someone in 1920 about an average person traveling over 53,000 mi in one year for business and pleasure, they would have called you crazy. Let’s see what happens by 2100. I plan to be alive to try it out, once it becomes commercially viable.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Later Edit:

Added the conversation this post sparked on Facebook.

All of them were public, so I took a few screenshots for posterity – the science is not quite there, some cool people are working on this problem already and I have very cool friends on Facebook!

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