- SpaceX founder Elon Musk plans to build and launch a
giant rocket that can take people to Mars.
- However, the system might also be able to transport
passengers anywhere on Earth in less than an hour.
- An astronaut says such a trip would “not be for the
faint of heart” and could trigger powerful nausea.
In late September, SpaceX founder Elon Musk debuted a new plan
colonizing Mars with 1 million people.
The centerpiece of Musk’s roughly 42-minute talk was the “Big
F—ing Rocket,” or BFR. Musk hopes to launch the first
35-story BFR toward the red planet by 2022.
But the billionaire tech mogul also teased a bonus use for the
BFR: flying people anywhere in the world in less than one
“If we’re building this thing to go to the moon and Mars, then
why not go to other places on Earth as well?” Musk said during
his presentation at the International Astronautical Congress.
The BFR design has two main sections: a rocket and a spaceship.
The 191-foot-tall rocket would push the spaceship into orbit
around Earth, then the 157-foot-long spaceship would fly about
100 people to Mars.
The BFR’s spaceship could fly more than 4.6 miles per second,
according to SpaceX — over 12 times as fast as the supersonic
Concorde jets of yesteryear.
At that speed, passengers could get from Los Angeles to New York
in just 25 minutes, Bangkok to Dubai in 27 minutes, London to New
York in 29 minutes, and Delhi to San Francisco in 40 minutes,
said a video Musk showed. (Watch the
full clip at the end of this story.)
To understand what it may feel like to ride on Musk’s giant
spaceship, we asked Leroy Chiao, a former NASA
What a BFR ride around the world would feel like
Chiao knows a thing or two about spaceflight — he has flown on
three NASA space shuttles, as well as a
Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station,
and he has lived nearly 230 days in space.
“What Elon Musk is describing would be a suborbital flight
halfway around the world,” Chiao told Business Insider in an
Suborbital vehicles don’t orbit Earth. Instead, they make a fast
and high arc through space and careen back toward the surface.
NASA has a long history of launching them, and
Virgin Galactic — Richard Branson’s aerospace company — is
now building and testing a suborbital vehicle called
SpaceShipTwo. So is
Blue Origin, run by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, with its
New Shepard spacecraft.
“Launch, insertion, and entry would be similar to a capsule
spacecraft” — like the Soyuz — “with the difference being in the
final phase of landing,” Chiao said. “During launch on a rocket
with liquid engines … the liftoff is very smooth, and one
really can’t feel it.”
After the BFR (also called a first stage) runs out of fuel, the
spaceship would separate from the rocket and fire its own
engines. Chiao said this moment would feel “a bit dynamic,”
describing the experience in terms of
G-force, the equivalent of gravity at Earth’s surface
multiplied by a certain amount.
“Ignition of the next stage engine(s) causes a momentary bump in
G-force,” he said. “As you get to the last part of ascent, you
feel some G’s come on through your chest, but it is not
When the spaceship’s engines cut off, though, Chiao said you’d
become “instantly weightless” as you temporarily coasted through
“You feel like you are tumbling, as your balance system struggles
to make sense of what is happening, and you are very dizzy,” he
added. “You feel the fluid shift [in your body], kind of like
laying heads-down on an incline, because there is no longer
gravity pulling your body fluids down into your legs. All this
can cause nausea.”
This feeling is familiar to anyone who has drifted over a hill on
a roller coaster or flown on a parabolic
“zero-gravity” flight — often referred to as a “vomit comet”
ride because of the intense nausea the experience can trigger.
“As you start to re-enter the atmosphere, you would feel the G’s
come on smoothly and start to build,” Chiao said.
As the spaceship nosed up and down to shed speed, he added, you’d
at points feel about 5 G’s, which would make you feel roughly
five times as heavy.
As the spaceship sped toward the ground, its engines would fire
to land it on a floating barge.
“You would both feel and hear” the engines, Chiao said. “As the
thrust builds, you would feel the G’s come on again, and then at
touchdown, you would feel a little bump.”
As exciting as such a trip might be — and the hours of aircraft
flying it’d save — Chiao said it wouldn’t be for everyone.
“This would not be for the faint of heart, and it is difficult to
see how this would be inexpensive,” he added. “But the one thing
I’ve learned from observing Elon is not to count him out.”