A Faster Horse. #72 #cong16

By Paul Killoran.

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

Henry Ford.

Every single day we put humans in pressurised tin cans, we elevate them to 35,000 feet and we suspend them there for 8 hours while they enjoy a transatlantic crossing. We give them limited legroom, recycled air and reheated processed food. 

If you treated a dog like this you’d be arrested. Yet 8 million humans pay for this experience every single day and nobody bats an eyelid.

In days gone by, Irish people travelled to the United States in a 3-week coffin ship. 

Today, our smug superiority scoffs at our ancient historical hardships. Instead we’re content that our barbarian ways are now solely confined to the history books.

My brother lives in Australia. My mother will never go and visit him because she could never face the 24-hour journey. Will someone tell me why it takes so long to get to Australia? Particularly when the International Space Station orbits the Earth 16 times a day?

We’re stuck in the past. We’re flying on technology that was originally derived in the 1960s and when you consider we’ve been to the moon and back since then, it begs the question:

Why does it take 8 hours to get to Boston?

Of course we witnessed Concorde’s first commercial flight in 1976 but we subsequently resigned that majestic bird to the history books in 2003. And today as an almost taunting embarrassment to our evolutionary dreams, one of her flock proudly serves as a visitor attraction at Manchester Airport’s conference center.

Concorde failed for two reasons. The first was that its sonic boom shattered windows and ultimately confined its top speed to trans-oceanic routes. The second was the public lost confidence in the aircraft after multiple safety issues and a fatal crash at Charles de Gaulle Airport. The first is an engineering problem. The second is a PR problem. Both of which are solvable.

So given all the progress we’ve made in science and engineering over the past 4 decades, why have we not built a new and improved supersonic domestic aircraft? Why have we given up on the dream of supersonic flight?

Looking the other way, it takes 260 days to travel to Mars from Earth. Leaving aside financial considerations, this sort of journey time makes interplanetary travel impractical for domestic passengers. 

Ultimately I believe that the human race is travelling at a sub-optimal velocity and we don’t appear to have any desire to change this. It’s hampering our evolution and its forcing global inaccessibility on 7 billion people.

It would be rude to write an article about accelerated human travel and not mention Elon Musk and the work being done at SpaceX and Hyperloop. Musk has unequivocally proven that accelerated human travel is possible and more attainable then we previously thought.

Now that supersonic travel is no longer a thing of science fiction, it raises another fundamental question: Do we care? Or are we happy to let our apathy and lack of ambition sustain our market of faster horses?

Then again, maybe velocity isn’t the problem at all. The laws of kinetic physics describe the relationship between velocity, distance and time. And let’s not forget Newton’s second law of force, mass and acceleration.

velocity = distance / time

force = mass x acceleration

Maybe we’re taking the long road? Could we dig tunnels through the Earth instead of going around the perimeter?  Imagine a subsea transatlantic Hyperloop.

What would happen if we increased human life expectancy to 170 years? Would 260 days to Mars be such a long time then? After all, time is relative. 

Or does our boredom threshold define the length of a trip? I have fond childhood memories of a 4-hour car journey to Cork that seemingly lasted an eternity (and required an endless supply of drinks, sweets and NOW17 tapes). 

Could we accelerate faster if we were lighter? An electron can travel at the speed of light. What if human beings weighed a tenth of what they do today?

Maybe we’re just afraid of change? How many people would be willing to walk away from the tried and tested 1960s aircraft technology to try out a new untested supersonic aircraft?

How many entrepreneurs and investors would be willing to take on a venture so ambitious that nobody would take them seriously? Are we too fixated on 3-5 year horizons to commit to a 20-year development plan?

At the end of the day there are lots of questions; more questions than answers. I don’t pretend to have any of these answers. Instead, over the past few years I’ve repeatedly asked myself these questions and at some point in the future I want to solve some of these questions. This is my starting point.

I believe that we’ve succumbed to a lethargic attitude of solving the immediate problems surround us and we’ve placed marketplaces like the AppStore at the center of our universe. 

I’m jealous of the ambition we had in the 1960s when we decided to land on the moon. Today we’re so fixated on global trade economics that I believe we’ve lost all appetite for evolutionary ambition. I think we need to raise our horizons, summon incredible courage and solve more problems that benefit the human race (and not just our investors).

Maybe that’s slightly utopian. But if we don’t dare to dream then we’ll be forever breeding faster horses.


© Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie