While Musk Dreams of Space, Supersonic Airlines Are Coming Back

In order to explain his view that rockets must be reusable if humans are ever to afford space exploration, Elon Musk has used the analogy of destroying a commercial jet after just one flight for years.

Now, a way he might profit off that dream, has been discovered by the founder of SpaceX. By launching them on a rocket at speeds up to 17,000 mph, he’s forming an airline of sorts, one that pledges to transport people anywhere on Earth in minutes. Although nothing in SpaceX’s rudimentary plans appears to be technically impossible, this audacious hypersonic goal currently lies somewhere between science fiction and sound physics.

According to several experts in the aerospace industry, determining how to make the technology profitable and not just the tiniest of niche transport options for the 1 percent is the biggest hurdle for both hypersonic and supersonic which is also its financial underpinnings of these ventures.

The challenges “won’t be around whether it’s technologically feasible, it will be around what the economics will need to be to make it a reasonable endeavor,” said Luigi Peluso, a managing director in the aerospace, defense, and airlines practice at consulting firm AlixPartners LLP.

For about the price of a full-fare economy ticket today, billionaires would be able to afford to fly above the atmosphere, zipping anywhere on the planet like an intercontinental ballistic missile with free peanuts, says Musk.

“Hypersonic is going to be pretty incredible, and I think that’s something that everybody is working for,” said Vik Kachoria, chief executive of Spike Aerospace Inc., a Boston startup that’s developing a supersonic business jet.

“A pretty major difference between supersonic flight and suborbital transportation is that the former can be done without major engineering leaps”

Conclusions about operating costs or ticket prices for hypersonic flight is impossible to draw with currently available data. Musk’s bright, affordable skies may be more crowded and competitive with the arrival of supersonic options.

Launch costs could be cut because SpaceX’s planned “BFR” rocket would be fully reusable. A launch with its Falcon Heavy, its largest rocket, which is expected to fly for the first time by year’s end, SpaceX has a list price of $90 million. Currently for its workhorse rocket Falcon 9, SpaceX charges $62 million to launch.

“If that cost continues to come down as they scale, can they get it to $30 million to launch?” Peluso asked. And the math problem is compounded when humans are inserted into the cost equation as one has to consider extra cost for safety equipment, redundancies, regulatory oversight, and other protocols.

But “seven years ago it was still considered technically impossible to recover a first-stage rocket,” Peluso said.

And the fare could be around $100,000 if the launch cost is lowered to $5 million for flying 50 people and selling the flight at cost. But that scenario involves a willingness to break even on the flights as a way to promote a nascent industry and relying heavily on numerous optimistic assumptions about cost savings. “Never say never, but that’s a heavy lift,” Peluso said of the financial path toward affordable hypersonic fares.

(Adapted from Bloomberg) v


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