Is Elon Musk’s Rocket-Travel Plan Legit? We Asked a Rocket Scientist

Musk wants to speed up your commute

Elon Musk had wannabe astronauts buzzing on Friday with an announcement that SpaceX hopes to use rockets to shoot passengers “anywhere on Earth in under an hour.”

Musk didn’t announce when the rocket trips would be available to the public, but according to Madhu Thangavelu, professor of astronautical engineering at the University of Southern California, the idea is more than a novelty — it’s a reality on the near horizon.

“I’m looking at between five to 10 years,” said Thankgavelu. “It’s mind-boggling for a lot of people who are not in the technical arena, but those that are studying new materials and new ways of operations on space crafts and rocket ships know it’s doable — and as Elon has shown here at SpaceX, it’s not only doable, it’s been done. So we really need to take our hats off to that can-do company, SpaceX.”

The game changer, according to Professor Thankgavelu, has been SpaceX’s development of reusable rockets, making rocket travel a more affordable option.

“Elon Musk turned the tables on the entire system, by this term ‘reusability,’” said Thankgavelu. “It’s nothing new, we’ve been doing this with planes for a hundred years. We don’t throw away things from planes every time we get from place to place, do we? We just put gas in it and fly.”

What about the speed, though? To get from New York City to Shanghai — as Musk’s video demonstration showed the International Astronautical Congress in Australia — travelers would be darting at a rate of about 17,000 miles per hour. For someone that has a hard time getting on rides at Six Flags, that seems like a bit much.

Thankgavelu said that while there will “be forces on the body during acceleration and deceleration,” the velocity won’t be as apparent to those inside the rocket — just like being in a plane doesn’t feel like traveling at several hundred miles per hour.

Beyond travel, this transportation revolution will have business and health ramifications as well, according to Thankgavelu. Getting goods across the world will be much easier and quicker. The same goes for time-sensitive deliveries like human organs. “Once you increase the speed of a factor of 10, the whole world becomes possible for donor organs,” he said.

Moving forward, Thankgavelu sees the push towards commuter rocket travel resembling a 21st Century version of “The Aviator” — with Howard Hughes and Juan Trippe battling to be the first international airline. Musk’s likely adversary in this scenario? Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

But Thankgavelu salutes Muskeven just for getting the plan off the ground and orbiting around our minds.

“Before you know it, all of us will be doing economy travel at 10 times speed as we do now,” said Thankgavelu.