BANGKOK — Members of the 0.1 percent have long used their vast wealth to obtain yachts, armies of servants and even laws of their choosing. But the ability to bend space and time to their will has proven elusive.
In the not-so-distant future, the global elite will be able to zip between practically any major city — London to Sydney, New York to Beijing — in a mere two hours or less.
While common travelers bump knees in economy class, chugging along at a sluggish 500 miles per hour, the extremely wealthy will travel at eight times that speed. They will blast up through the thermosphere — an atmospheric layer where gravity is far weaker — and then plummet smoothly toward their far-flung destinations.
Called sub-orbital flight, this method of travel is poised to radically alter life for, well, an extremely tiny sliver of humanity.
A feature article gushing about sub-orbital flight appears in the latest "Wealth Report,” an annual analysis by the London consultancy Knight Frank, which monitors trends for “ultra-high net worth individuals.”
By their estimate: sub-orbital commuter flights will be tested by 2017 and on sale by 2020.
The upshot: Sub-orbital flight could revolutionize the way (very, very wealthy) people live. A banker could start off his Saturday with a bagel in Manhattan, blast off to China and have dumplings for lunch in Hong Kong. Silicon Valley tech billionaires might start buying up Tuscan villas or remote Pacific islands en masse. The flight time would be cut from 15 hours to roughly two.
Flying into the thermosphere won’t melt your brain and pop your lungs. You wouldn’t even have to be in great shape, said Stephen Collicott, a professor at Purdue University’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
“You definitely won’t have to be a Navy test pilot or Olympic athlete. The [gravity loads] aren’t enough to make you black out,” he said. “With liquid-fueled rockets, it’ll be pretty smooth. It’s still by no means the amount of power needed to get into orbit. So you won’t have the massive rumblings and thundering noises of a space shuttle launch.”
Commercial sub-orbital flights are already on sale. But the current iteration of flights will only launch passengers up and down — into the thermosphere and back down to the same launch site — and not from one location to another.
There are two major players: X-Cor, which charges $95,000 for single-passenger flights, and Virgin Galactic, which will charge $250,000 per person on a six-passenger aircraft. Both are expected to launch within the next two years.
That may seem like a prohibitively pricey airfare, until you consider that anyone with a billion dollars can earn a more than $30 million in interest each year just by stashing that money in safe, boring US government bonds.
Though there are no explicit plans for these aircraft to begin traveling “point-to-point” — launching on one continent, landing on another — this development is almost inevitable, Collicott said. Richard Branson, the aeronautics-obsessed British billionaire behind Virgin Galactic, has spoken of a “future version of our current spaceship which will make transcontinental travel clean and fast — London to Sydney in a couple of hours.”
“Going up and down is one thing,” Collicott said. “Going from LA to Tokyo, or Chicago to Frankfurt, you’d need to ascend higher and have much more horizontal speed.”
“You need more materials, more technology, and therefore more money,” he said. “But there is no terribly physical boundary we can’t cross. It’s an economics problem. Not a physics problem.”
The ultra-wealthy are already drooling over the possibilities. The “Wealth Report” notes that elite Arabs, Africans and Russians buy up London property simply because it’s closer to their homelands than, say, New York or Los Angeles.
But sub-orbital flight erases these rules. Anyone with gobs of cash could conceivably fly anywhere they please in just two hours — and nearly one in ten Americans spend two hours just getting back and forth to work each day.
Like today’s commuter jets, sub-orbital aircraft will take off and land from runways. But they’ll likely require dedicated “space ports” to avoid disrupting the constant flow of commuter jets into major airports.
Sub-orbital flight’s impact on humanity will be limited, the report said, if this is “technology for billionaires only.” But if the ticket price “drops to allow the merely wealthy to access sub-orbital flights, then we have to reconsider everything.”
Collicott notes that sub-orbital flights are already within the reach of the merely wealthy open to a one-time splurge. “X-Cor charges $95,000,” he said. “Compare that to a pack or two of cigarettes per day and you’ll see it’s a number a lot of people can afford.” He’s optimistic that ticket prices will eventually drop to levels the upper-middle class can pay for.