BFR Launch

A Better Connected World

Group 50

SpaceX’s recent development, the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), aims to revolutionise the civil aerospace industry by providing a reusable, two-stage rocket for commercial aviation, allowing passengers travel to “anywhere on Earth in under an hour”. Despite its potential, questions still surround whether we need a better connected world and if there is consumer demand for it. Can the BFR technology be applied elsewhere to benefit a wider collection of stakeholders and is the use of liquid methane (LCH4) an ethically responsible alternative aviation fuel?

A BETTER CONNECTED WORLD

The benefit of rapid Earth-to-Earth travel is a drastically reduced transport time, yielding large improvements for global businesses, whose main interests are organisational efficiency and profit. The BFR’s proposed travel time from New York to Shanghai is 45 times faster than a conventional flight, which would enhance the business opportunities offered by commercial aviation, as emphasised in a report by the Air Transport Action Group [3]. For example, faster air transport enables managers to meet face-to-face more quickly, which is essential for forming international client relationships, and attracts high quality, skilled labour regardless of geographical location.

BFR LaunchAside from acting as an Earth-to-Earth transportation system, the development of the technology from the BFR could also benefit other sectors. Primarily, Musk (the SpaceX founder) has penciled in plans to send over 4000 high speed internet satellites into low Earth orbit by 2024, offering connectivity to many remote areas. Musk aims to do this by modifying BFR technology, meaning the positive effects from the development could be felt by a wider audience than just those who use it for rapid travel. The utilitarian view, a school of consequentialist thought, is therefore that the BFR’s development is ethically justified as the additional benefits to less immediate stakeholders (resulting from the BFR’s technology crossing over into other sectors) acts to outweigh any negative aspects.

THE PROS OF LIQUID METHANE (LCH4)

The BFR’s chosen fuel, LCH4, yields environmental advantages that would help Musk achieve his end goals of transitioning the world away from traditional fossil fuels and combating global warming. Firstly, achieving commercial air transport with LCH4 rockets rather than kerosene fuelled civil aircrafts would delay the inevitable depletion of kerosene supplies, which the industry currently depends upon, by providing a suitable alternative aviation fuel. Secondly, LCH4 produces less carbon dioxide during combustion when compared to kerosene, emphasising that the choice of the BFR’s fuel is in the interests of environmental stakeholders, such as ACARE’s 2050 carbon dioxide reduction targets. These two arguments ethically justify the project, according to the utilitarian school of thought, because the consequence of using LCH4 is the realisation of Musk’s sustainability ambitions.

THE CONS OF LIQUID METHANE (LCH4)

However, have to consider that the use of LCH4 may not go far enough in addressing the environmental concerns surrounding commercial air travel since it can be considered a fossil fuel and still has negative environmental effects, especially when concentrated in the lower atmosphere. For example, 658.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide are produced per launch, which limits the success of using LCH4 in reaching Musk’s goal and undermines the utilitarian ethics of the project. Additionally, whilst SpaceX’s stakeholders would argue LCH4 could be sourced from renewable, biomass decomposition, this would reduce agricultural resources available for growing food in a world where 12% of people suffer from hunger. Therefore, from a Kantian, deontological viewpoint, the ethics of using LCH4 to fuel the BFR could be perceived as irresponsible. This is because, while the majority of humanity will not use the transport system, they would be disadvantaged in the attempt to achieve Musk’s goal, regardless of whether it is reached.

SONIC BOOM

The major selling point for Earth-to-Earth travel using the BFR is large reductions in duration time, which relies upon launch sites being situated close to cities, which introduces the issue of noise pollution. Research suggests that noise pollution from transport has links to health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment and increased stress. Rocket launches produce significantly higher decibel levels of sound compared to commercial aircraft take-offs, as well as sonic booms when they break the sound barrier, which exacerbates the health risk to millions of civilians in major cities. This alludes to the deontological argument that negative effects experienced by the surrounding civilians (who may never reap the benefits of the program) invalidates the positive ethics of achieving Earth-to-Earth transport in under an hour.

IS THE BFR THE BEST AND ONLY WAY FORWARD?

According to a survey from the IATA, civil aviation passengers prioritise onboard service and comfort, which would be lost with rocket travel. On top of this, dissatisfaction over travel time was not mentioned as an issue, raising the question of whether passengers desire such a rapid transport service enough to justify its expense. SpaceX as a stakeholder is primarily interested in organic growth and reaching Musk’s end goal of transitioning the world away from fossil fuels [8], yet the BFR project is not the only trick up Musk’s sleeve. Should investment be directed towards an alternative sustainability project that holds more appeal to a wider range of people, but still achieves Musk’s goals? If one considers that the means to achieving the goal is significant (deontological ethics), the BFR may not be an ethically responsible choice.

CONCLUSION

The development of a rapid Earth-to-Earth transport system would be ethically responsible, if its implementation was successful because Musk’s ultimate end goal of combating global warming through the use of LCH4 would be realised.

However, the unrealism of the project emphasises little thought may have been given to the means by which Musk’s end goal is reached, suggesting ethical irresponsibility. This indicates that the detrimental effects of using LCH4 as an alternative fuel; subjecting cities to severe noise pollution and concentrating resources on a project that few will benefit from, are significant enough to limit the ethical responsibility of this ambitious project.

53 thoughts on “A Better Connected World

  1. Ah, that’s what BFR stands for!

    Quote: “Will feel like a mild to moderate amusement park ride on ascent and then smooth, peaceful & silent in zero gravity for most of the trip until landing” – It’s the landing bit that bothers me most.

    This is a good article and I enjoyed reading. There was a good balance between technical and ethical considerations. Have you looked at both sides of the argument from the point of view of virtue ethics and care ethics too?

    I find your comment: “negative effects experienced by the surrounding civilians” to be good. It is probably true that those living near the rocket ports aren’t those who can afford it.

    1. Thanks for the response to our article. The quote is precisely why some potential BFR passengers may be put off by this rapid transport system. Perhaps people would prefer a longer flight time if that meant the ride was significantly more comfortable.

      Yes I think, as another comment suggested below, that considering other ethical schools of thought aside from deontism and utilitarianism would produce a more complex discussion. So, virtue and car ethics could certainly influence the final judgement to ensure all opinions and options have been taken into account.

      Yes, this is an argument that was touched upon in our article and emphasised in many of the comments: the general idea that this new transport system could only be beneficial to the rich, thus exacerbating inequality.

  2. Very interesting article. However, as stated towards the end, I agree that perhaps these plans are not too realistic. Given that it seems liquid methane is as environmentally harmful as kerosene, would it be better to spend time and resources on making current aviation fuels and planes more environmentally sustainable? Whilst it is accepted that this may mean slower travel than BFR offers, it would be interesting to consider how long it would take to develop liquid methane technology and whether commercial aviation developments (i.e now being able to fly from Perth to London non-stop) will continue to make progress in a way that impacts the viability of the liquid methane proposal.

    1. This is a good point – by the time that the LCH4 rocket engine technology will have been mastered, will the kerosene fuelled jet engine technology have advanced so much so that it is more environmentally friendly than the LCH4 engines? Very had to say!

      Perhaps, alternatively, the future of sustainable commercial air transport lies outside of SpaceX with new, emerging aero engine designs such as the SABRE being developed by Reaction Engines.

  3. It is interesting to think about whether a project that could combat global warming but may be unrealistic would be ethical. The impact of these ports on people living nearby would need to be carefully evaluated along with whether the aims are ultimately realistic or not.

    1. Yes, the negative effect on the people living near ports should perhaps carry more weight than the positive effects on the stakeholders that benefit from the implementation of the BFR. Something to think about!

      The project, at present, seems unrealistic considering the complete overhaul that would be required in the global commercial transport system. However, an ambitious goal is needed to drive this kind of space project. Even if the goals of the BFR Earth-to-Earth project are not completely realised, the technological advancements made along the way will surely be beneficial elsewhere.

  4. Definitely an interesting article, even to a non-engineer. I’d not heard of this type of travel before so it will be interesting to see whether it becomes a reality in the future. I’ve also not thought about the ethical considerations of such big projects either.
    I can’t help but feel like we should be investing into improving current modes of transportation by improving its efficiency and reducing the negative environmental impacts rather than this project. Improving the travel time is clearly a definite benefit of this technology, though it should not be done at the expense of the environment especially as liquid methane seems to be as harmful as current fuels. A project such as this can’t be justified on improving travel time alone, the negatives definitely appear to outweigh the positives.
    At least the rockets are reusable though!

    1. The problem is that improvements in emissions technology within the aerospace industry are incremental year-by-year nowadays. That is to say, technological advancements are simply evolutions from standard, conventional designs that have not changed significantly for decades. It could be argued that long term sustainable emissions solutions can only be achieved through revolutionary advancements, such as the BFR, which depart significantly from convention.

      So, in short, I believe that improving current modes of transport is useful I the short term, but a completely new mode of transport is needed to build a sustainable aviation industry in the future. The question remains whether the BFR is the design for the job?

  5. An interesting article that rightly points out the ethical concerns of a project such as this. While reduced travel time is clearly beneficial I rarely see people complain about the length of a flight. More often it is the comfortability of the flight itself that people complain about and BFR seems to prioritise aiding the former to the detriment of the latter. Often the quickest way of doing something isn’t the necessarily the best way of doing something. While it is admittedly cool to travel across the world at sonic speed, would it possible to find a way to also make that a journey people can enjoy as well.

    It would be interesting to know how much a flight on a BFR would cost in context to a regular commercial flight. If the costs are substantial more then is it really benefiting regular people or just large global businesses.
    The use of liquid methane as a fuel source is certainly interesting. While seemingly a better alternative than using kerosene, it doesn’t seem like it presents a long term option in reducing carbon emissions and the increase use of land to make the fuel only puts more pressure on agriculture farming which is already struggling to meet global food demands.

    1. Your first paragraph makes an important point that is echoed in some other comments below – the main concern for BFR passengers will likely be the comfort of the flight rather than the duration.

      Musk has previously stated, in the first hyperlink of the article, that they are aiming for the cost to be similar to a regular commercial flight. However, this seems a bit of a throwaway line/empty promise at the moment given the early stage that we are at with the project. An affordable ticket is definitely something that will influence the ethical responsibility of the project going forward.

      Thinking about the long term solution is the key with this project. If liquid methane is not the answer, then maybe SpaceX need to start from scratch with their designs and take time to develop something more radically different.

  6. This is an interesting article, which gives good insight into what is likely a complex topic.
    I think it important to give such emphasis to the ethical and human side of the debate, as this is so often neglected in regards to technological advancement. As is stated in the conclusion, it is the negative effect upon the majority of the population that does make this ‘ethically irresponsible’.

    I find the two different schools of thought compelling, but wonder whether adding a third school of thought would have made the narrative more complex?

    Furthermore, I am particularly intrigued by the global warming aspect of this, as LCH4 seems to have so much potential. I wonder whether using land for this, despite it taking away land for growing food, would be worth it as global warming will hit the worlds poorest first, as it does not seem like world travel is going to end anytime soon.

    1. Thanks for the comment! Whilst utilitarianism and deontism seem to contrast each other as schools of thought, they both seem to be very general and not consider the human side of ethics so much, which you mention is important.

      What if the exhausting of farmland to source LCH4 fuel results in starvation and even death in some of the poorer regions in the world. This may be worth it in the utilitarian sense because the combatting of global warming is benefitting more people than it is not. However, a more humane consideration may be that the extremity of the negative effects on the starved people is more important (i.e. sometimes the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many).

  7. I enjoyed reading the article and felt it offered a good insight into a topic that I only had a very brief knowledge of. Great thought has been put into the ethics surrounding the development of the BFR and I found myself agreeing with most of your opinions.

    It seems to me like the commercial aviation industry isn’t necessarily in need of a faster travel time, which you highlighted well in your article.

    The discussion about environmental impact is a very poignant one and one which you clearly thought about in great detail. It would be interesting to see how sustainable the fuel would be if used in mass.

    Hopefully Musk can realise the full potential of the project.

    1. Thanks for the comment Barry! Exactly, whether the industry needs a rapid service is ultimately down to the consumers like the people commenting on this article.

      I imagine consumer feedback would vary largely based on many factors. Does the consumer normally travel short distances within the EU, for example, or much longer flights to other continents? Does the consumer travel alone or do they need to think about their children and how comfortable they will feel on a rocket flying into space?

  8. I agree with most of the comments that suggest that faster earth to earth travel isn’t worth the environmental and noise pollution that is intrinsic to the use of LCH4, but I would be interested to read more about the other benefits of developing the BFR for different uses.

    I think the financial benefits of sending high speed internet satellites to connect remote areas would offer better global advancements, as well as local job opportunities, more than just replacing Skype meetings with face-to-face meetings at the expense of the health of the local community.

    If there were no environmental consequences, then I imagine this would be a lot simpler, but the article clearly defines the limitations of using the fuel in a clear way which I think is important when discussing a topic which affects so many people.

  9. This is a great alternative, one that could revolutionize the transportation world. Therefore, I think Ellon Musk and different scientist need to continue to develop it, to become it more environmentally friendly.
    Just like the current planes, they started flying with a technology that contaminated a lot, but they have now decreased their carbon footprint with the use of new technologies.

  10. A very interesting article! The article gives a very objective insight into the topic with both compelling rationales for and against the technology.

    Two further considerations I would reflect on. The first, a lot of the discussion surrounds the work undertaken by Elon Musk. Careful consideration will be necessary to ensure Space X do not monopolise on the technology, allowing them to dictate the tariffs and ultimately the cost to the consumer. Second, the possibility of substantially faster air travel is reminiscent of concorde; a faster but ultimately too costly technology to operate. Hopefully the technology can be implemented in such a way as to promote longevity and not only be a resource available to the wealthy.

  11. As someone who doesn’t particular know too much about engineering, when I heard of this idea from Elon Musk I was blown away by the technology side of the problem and had not really given any thoughts to the ethics involved. I think your article does a great job of portraying both sides while making it easy to understand. In terms of the advancement of technology the project seems like something that could be beneficial to many people, even if they aren’t the ones physically traveling on it, however it would be interesting to know how many people this would positively effect, something that is not easy to quantify. A potential solution to limit the effect of the noise pollution to civilians in the cities that these rockets take off from would be to move them further away and into more rural areas, however does that then counteract the main positive of the shortened travel time from city to city? It seems that the only way to eradicate the negatives of this project also remove the positives as well.

  12. I think the discussion about whether the BFR project is the only way forward is a valid point. If Elon Musk has the general goal of combatting global warming and transitioning the world away from fossil fuels, are there any other SpaceX or Tesla projects, in particular, that could achieve this end goal in a more ethically responsible way? Are there any concepts that other companies or government organisations are undertaking, which could also reach a similar goal in more ethically?

  13. I agree that the use of LCH4 to fuel rocket engines instead of using kerosene (jet fuel) to power civil aircrafts does not seem to be a universal solution to the aviation fuel crisis. Have you considered whether there are any other alternative fuels that do not contribute to global warming and can be produced, in sufficient amounts, from an ethically responsible source?

    Or perhaps finding an alternative fuel like this is an engineering fantasy. Maybe an entirely new power propulsion system is needed to achieve Elon Musk’s goal of Earth-to-Earth travel in under an hour as well as combatting global warming?

  14. I followed the first of your hyperlinks to the article that had reported on Elon Musk’s proposal of city to city travel in under an hour. I think reading this supports your conclusion that the project is unrealistic and seems as though it has not been thought through properly. The main purpose of the BFR seems to be the missions to Mars, in particular because LCH4 can be manufactured on the planet, and its use for city to city travel comes across as more of an afterthought with little pre planning.

    For decades, advances in the commercial aviation industry have been evolutionary, small incremental gains made gradually year by year. However, the implementation of the BFR would be a revolution. This means completely new infrastructure, job requirements, security systems, logistically considerations for passengers.These could take years to successfully establish, so much more planning is needed to ensure an ethically responsible project.

  15. With regards to your point about a faster travel time meaning face-to-face business meetings can be held more easily and quickly, is this necessary? How important are face to face meetings where you can connect two rooms of people instantaneously anywhere on Earth via technology such as Skype? As you alluded to in your final paragraph, I do think the significantly reduced travel time is not necessary enough to justify investing in the BFR so much, rather than the many other SpaceX/Tesla projects that exist. I personally have never been bothered by air travel times, however, I rarely travel outside Europe and can imagine there is a huge consumer demand or rapid travel between the US and England, for example.

  16. You talk about Musk’s own ideologies a lot in the article, but this in itself is troubling. It consistently references his ‘ambitions’ rather than any collective groups, companies, or even human desires and hopes. I would question whether the whole project is only held afloat by Musk’s ego, and with this it is good to ask – what happens to the development of this form of transport without him? Is a towering financial figure the right person to spearhead this kind of development? What are the dangers of personal agendas and beliefs in Space X (and project’s like it)’s progress?
    Additionally, you mention that the project ‘would reduce agricultural resource’. Again, I come to question Musk’s motives. Does his wealth and influence make stakeholder’s bypass these kinds of consequences? And is there the possibility of a scheme that combats both agricultural issues, whilst benefiting intercity travel? Could it be Musk’s ambition even to set up new super cities, built from the ground up and funded by Space X?
    One wonders if this kind of high speed transport is necessary in the ‘Digital Age’ we have entered. Is there any point in high speed travel, if we can simply pick up the phone, or dial into VR skype call, which require far less spend, and is more accessible to a wider audience. Intercity travel is currently elitist, and I cannot see a way how this can alter under Musk’s leadership.

    1. Thanks for the insightful response! Your question: “Is a towering financial figure the right person to spearhead this kind of development?” is thought provoking. If one subscribes to agent-based virtue ethical theory, the character of the person (Musk) undertaking the action (developing the BFR project) determines the morality of the act. Therefore, I believe, questioning Musk’s motive is a very important part of the ethical discussion and will be considered in future debate.

  17. Whilst in practice it seems a good idea to have much quicker commuting times which would no doubt be beneficial to economies and individual organisations alike, at the present time I am not sure there is the consumer demand for it and nor would it be entirely feasible especially on the scale that BFR is attempting. You’re right to say that the project could be construed as unethical with ill-thought out aspects especially in regards to cost, safety, government regulation and the environment. Having said that, as a visionary Musk who has already achieved outrageous feats in engineering and rocket science, I think he should be applauded for his efforts in attempting to propel mankind in to a brighter future especially acting with his own private wealth. For a government to attempt this would at the moment be irresponsible when current infrastructure between domestic cities needs improving before thinking about internationally. Well written and argued.

  18. What a great article! Really in depth!

    I think the issue here is the social implications that are currently about, if there is no need for the BFR then theoretically Earth to Earth won’t exist for the near future. However, if supersonic transport is the pinnacle of aviation that technology would trickle down to the potential commercial aviation sector or even military sector (maybe this does not help the case for ethics) but we all know that hydrocarbons are running out, any sustainable sources are always welcome to further other research too.

    Definitely a hard one, and I’m biased to the fact that I respect Musk a lot, but it does go down to searching for alternative fuels wherever possible which I’m all for.

  19. Impressive article, very informative – I’ve been left with a lot of food for thought.
    On the one hand, the BFR could change the way in which we travel and connect globally, and on the other, there is potential that the rocket could help to encourage and enrich the divide between rich and poor. Here, it seems that only the wealthiest would reap the rewards of Musk’s commercial aviation plan, however, those less-well off, particularly from the third-world, could be left with reduced food sources and jobs. Are there any other, more sustainable transportation technologies in the pipeline that would be accessible to the wider public?
    Will be interesting to see how this takes off (literally) – thanks for sharing.

  20. I thought the ways in which you portrayed Musk’s ideas in how to use his technology in ways to enhance the welfare of people in the future was very clear and easy to understand.

    I would have liked to see some other alternatives which could be implemented that would leave the same result, for example, using military aviation technology in civil aircraft as a means to reduce transport time. I also think it would have been useful to see an estimate of costs for the consumer in using BFR’s technology and whether this would be feasible, or if the cost would outweigh the benefit of reduced travel time.

    When talking f LCH4 it would be interesting to see if Liquid Methane would be a sustainable source of fuel in the west where hunger is not prominent and there is an increasing trends towards more meat free diets.

    Overall, I found this article interesting and eye-opening in how Musk’s BFR technology could be used in the future to improve the life of ordinary people.

  21. A very eye-opening article into the rationale behind developing the BFR. Would be interesting to know the cost of a purchasing a commercial flight with this technology, as I have a feeling the price would heavily outweigh the benefits of reduced air time. If only a small percentage of the population can reap the benefits, then it would arguably be a non-ethical project – as supported by the other arguments set forward in your article. Also found it compelling to read about the health effects of noise pollution, this would definitely need more consideration before Musk can implement the project world-wide. It seems like there are a lot of negatives, which I imagine would make it difficult to convince the general population that it is a good idea at this point.

  22. Interesting review. It would be good to understand more about the economic comparisons with alternative modes of transport. Given the cost of infrastructure and fuel, can this ever be a service that would be commercially viable? From an environmental perspective, although liquid methane may generate less carbon dioxide than kerosene, what is the comparison per person mile? Furthermore, what is the city centre to city centre flight time, given travel time to remote launch site, pre-flight checks etc. And risk of travel would have to feature in any comparison. I think a utilitarian ethical framework is appropriate to this sort of evaluation, which can compare the relative benefits of different transport modes in terms of overall “utility” for humanity. I suspect, however, that the BFR is a solution looking for a problem

  23. I thought that the contrast between the deontological and utilitarian schools of ethical thought presented well in the context of the BFR project. I agree with another comment further up that a consideration of more than two schools of thought would have added more depth to the article. Perhaps in the future, you could look at the debate from a pragmatic, hedonistic or virtue ethical viewpoint and see whether you arrive at the same conclusion as discussed on the article?

  24. Great article. With the increasing public interest in reducing food wastage, maybe this wasted / leftover food can be converted into Methane using the tried and tested Biomass Fermentation process and used in rocket transportation like the BFR?

    In any case, the BFR and associated ideas are exciting and I hope that in my lifetime I get to experience this form of travel!

  25. This article provides some very convincing arguments. I would be keen on a mode of transport that reduces long travel times. However, having read about the amount of carbon dioxide produced and the levels of noise pollution, I don’t think this is a viable option yet.

  26. This is an interesting article on a very modern technological subject. It’s clear that the main ethical issues with this project are focused around environmental issues, such as global warming and noise pollution. As sustainability is such a key focus in modern developments it shocks me that this is a direction that Musk wants to take, especially considering that his other companies (Tesla, SolarCity) are so focused on having positive environmental effects.

    The need for faster travel at an elevated cost is not something that I believe the consumer necessarily wants, take Concorde for example, especially not in sacrifice for reduced sustainability. It would be good to consider the effect that this would have on the relationship between SpaceX and the consumer, however this would be difficult as their current customers are of a corporate background and not really the general public.

  27. Cool article. This a really interesting ethical analysis of the use of BFR as an earth-to-earth transportation vehicle.

    Your comment on the noise pollution problem is v important as the Saturn V rocket (roughly half the size of the BFR) emitted over 200 decibels, a sound ~9 times louder than Concorde which got axed because of its excessive noise pollution.

    I think the sustainability of rocket transportation is also questionable as the BFR emits 650 tonnes of CO2 for 100 people, a 747 jet over a mid range flight emits 3 tonnes for 160 people.

  28. The argument made in the third paragraph is great. I feel that this point is often neglected in the debate as to whether government funding should be spent on huge aerospace engineering projects that do not seem to immediately benefit any immediate civilian stakeholders. For example, many would argue that concentrating so many resources on the Moon landing missions were a waste of time and the money should have been spent elsewhere. However, there are numerous other industries that have benefitted from the Apollo technology.

    The same can be said for the BFR technology. As you have said, this could cross into the communications industry to provide more internet access to remote areas. Are there any other sectors or specific stakeholders that could benefit from the BFR technology even if they had no intention of using the rapid transport service? Perhaps, the BFR could offer extremely quick aid relief to regions experiencing humanitarian crises?

  29. I agree with the arguments stated in the article. The ethical discussion is critical given that SpaceX is a private company, and can essentially avoid some of the more rigorous government hierarchy. The most important question I ask myself while reading this is who particularly benefits from implementation of this concept? The negative effects will be felt by hundreds of thousands of people for the benefit of a few. In modern aviation a turn has been made away from faster, more expensive travel to slower, cheaper, possibly even more environmentally friendly options. For example the discontinuation of the concorde and the huge success of the A380. As for the few people who have the funds and for flying on such technology, how will they feel about the uncomfortable flight, long baggage and security checks, flying in a giant missile? Those who have the funds look for luxury and great service in all aspects of their life which I believe is missing from this concept. I agree with your conclusion, I think this could be another of Musk’s pipe dreams. Part of his philosophy is to always attempt to master new technologies, sometimes they work and sometimes they fail but each time he learns something. I think this may be one of those situations.

  30. When discussing the pros of liquid methane the article mentions that less carbon dioxide is produced upon combustion of liquid methane than kerosene. However, in the following paragraph it is mentioned that each launch would produce around 650 tonnes of carbon dioxide, which is higher than the amount produced from a 747 in a trans-Atlantic flight. Surely this means that the BFR is not in fact ethically viable as it will not meet Space X’s target of reducing global warming? One might think that there are more ethical ways of travel, that could reduce global warming, which would benefit more from the resources currently devoted to the BFR.

  31. The article begins by by stating that the rapid transport time would form strong international relationships among clients. In the present era of computer technology does a FaceTime or Skype call not suffice? Could the transport of goods not be more effective than simply getting a business partner to a meeting? However I believe the benefits of introducing global BFR technology can have a much more ethically justified. Increasing the aid reaching undeveloped countries or areas effected by natural disasters seems a more worthy application in terms of utility for humanity as stated by your ethical framework. I think humanity should be reducing its fuel consumption however I don’t believe that a LCH4 fuel is an adequate replacement. Musk is a pioneer of electric transport and I think we should be using renewable energy sources to provide our transport rather than another carbon based emission. Although if a transition period is required away from kerosene LCH4 does have many advantages. A full breakdown from SpaceX for the application of each fuel into the rockets would have to be conducted before any such discussion can take place.

  32. This is a very informative article and a good read. The conclusion I would draw is that there is simply not enough commercial demand to put the BFR into practice, and the environmental benefits are too slim to justify the significant funding needed. It seems international businessmen would benefit from this project, but few others.

    The ‘sonic boom’ paragraph makes a particularly good point about needless noise pollution.

  33. A thought provoking article, offering insight into the ethical dilemmas facing today’s pioneering innovators. Although developing BFR Earth-to-Earth transportation appears an enormous undertaking for SpaceX, Musk’s previous success stories – affordable EV’s and reusable rockets – are already reaping commercial and societal value. The development of BFR Earth transportation needs to be considered in conjunction with SpaceX’s corporate vision to ‘colonise Mars’. In the scenario that smart cities develop, facilitated by SpaceX Satellite Internet and Hyperloop transit systems, BFR Earth transportation becomes commercially viable in rapidly transporting people to strategic (and remote) SpaceX Mars launch pads.

  34. Interesting read having never heard of BFR technology before! Like some of the other comments, I too would be interested in the affordability of this project as well as the benefits environmentally. I don’t feel that the decreased travel time is a sufficient reason to warrant the large costs that I imagine this would entail, however the enviromental impact the project could have holds much more gravity to me. It would be interesting to see how many tonnes of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere during the launch of standard airlines in comparison to that of a LCH4 launch.

  35. The article is interesting and well-balanced.

    When a third of the world doesn’t have access to a toilet, do we really need rocket-fueled air transport for the ultra rich? The engineering is undeniably impressive. Tech advances cannot be uninvented and there will be pioneers who drive the applications. For most people however, the concept will be unattractive – whatever happened to the joy of travel being the journey rather than the arrival? It’s also unlikely to be commercially viable; slower, higher capacity, lower cost variants will triumph, in the same way the Jumbo beat Concorde.

    As for all technological innovation, there will be spin-off to other sectors. Hopefully these will be more productive than filling the earth’s orbit with more space junk. Methane is a viable fuel but it’s not new, it’s still hydrocarbon and we should not use resources growing it from crops.

    BUT… this is not about fast city-to-city transport. It’s a phase development of the “multi-planet species” ie. ourselves. When we’ve wasted this planet, a chosen few will escape to begin wasting another one. Apart from a few unattractive options within our solar system, this will require innovative fuel and time travel.

  36. I like the idea of short travel times for long distances and we have to start somewhere. If this project would realise some benefits in the way of deploying communications in a more economical way then perhaps the experiment is ethically beneficial. However it is difficult to see how you could make an arguement to support the longterm goal if the only beneficiaries are the uber riche – which I think is where the market would be for this vehicle. Just like Concorde the average Joe would be priced out.

  37. An interesting read, although the engineering achievement should the BFR come to fruition cannot be argued. I fear it would become somewhat of a white elephant. Concorde comes to mind, despite offering to revolutionise the aero industry with travel times, it ended up overpriced and reserved for the super-rich.

    I agree with the view that while only a minority of people will access such a transport system, the majority will be disadvantaged due to environmental and noise pollution. It is of my opinion that we should invest resources in low cost methods to connect the masses either physically or virtually rather than the privileged few.

  38. A well presented article which identifies both sides of the argument. The use of LCH4 is interesting as this has environmental benefits as mentioned in the article. My question is is it possible to use this fuel in regular aeroplanes, thus helping Elon Musk reach his end goal of combating global warming without the need of introducing such an ambitious project?

    The noise pollution caused by the launch site would inevitably drive surrounding residents out of the area; what effect would this have on economic and social growth of that part of town? In general, I think the main benefits of reduced journey times and environmental damage would be outweighed by the harm the project would cause to society in the sense that a lot of people would not be able to use this service based on how expensive it would be and also the fact that residents are likely to move away from the areas where the launch sites are built, potentially against their will.

  39. A very insightful article which provides some very convincing arguments. I like the sound of a mode of transport that reduces long travel times. However I have concerns on how sustainable and renewable it actually is if it requires large amounts of crops to produce. The levels of noise pollution is another concern as this was one of the reasons that the concord didn’t succeed is that is could only go to max speed when away from cities over the ocean, I don’t think this is a viable option yet. I would be interested to know the economics of this new transport because at the end of the day that is what makes a business, if it can make money.

  40. Good article. I don’t know much about the technicalities of this, but on initial judgment, I cannot see this being feasible at all. The huge costs of building spaceports around the world, outrageous noise pollution, fuel requirements, and low passenger capacity makes it seem a very far-fetched plan for development. I don’t see the point of this, at least in our lifetimes.

  41. This article raises some really interesting ethical points concerning SpaceX’s future. The article discusses utilitarian and duty ethics but have you considered virtue ethics? From a virtue ethics perspective it could be argued that Space X, and Elon Musk himself, aren’t striving to become their best self. It is difficult to believe that such a large company with so many resources should solely be focused on this one project, which will seemingly only serve a small minority of humanity. Would it not be more virtuous for them to refocus their efforts towards solving more immediate engineering dilemas.
    My other concern is, when considering utilitarian ethics, if this product were to succeed what political consequences would it have. The USA already has a large monopoly over the space industry and surely the development of the BFR would exacerbate this, which could lead to a large socioeconomic abyss between the USA and other countries. Furthermore, have you considered what effect the BFR would have on current civil aviation companies? One could suspect that if the BFR is successful this would lead to the downfall of many long-haul flight companies which provide jobs to hundreds of thousands of people.

  42. Interesting article. I think a key question that was asked is whether this is needed as it seems like there would too many losers just for faster travel which only a few people would actually benefit from. I don’t think there are enough benefits to justify using the BFR

  43. This article gives a good balance between technical and ethical details. Although you have spoken well about the utilitarian and duty ethics, it would have been good to add another view point, such as care ethics or virtue ethics.

    I tend to agree that although this project could reduce CO2 production and kerosene depletion, it does seem very unrealistic. I would also question whether the customer actually needs this type of transportation system. It seems unnecessary for Elon Musk to focus his resources onto this, especially considering that he has so many other projects/companies which are already deemed to be ethical.

  44. Great article that represents all sides of the argument very well.
    However, I do not believe that there is enough information to justify labelling the project as unethical from a Kantian ethics point of view. The argument concerning the degree of utility of the technology assumes the majority of people will not use the technology which an assumption I am not sure we could make at this point.
    On the other hand, I agree with the concern about all sorts of pollution this could cause very near to cities. I would think though that SpaceX and Musk are already bearing this issue in mind and have a solution for it.
    Well done!

  45. This is a very interesting and balanced articles that presents a balanced approach to a complex technological dilemma whilst still ensuring that it is accessible to those who are not overly technologically minded. On the one hand the article explores the interesting and potentially ground breaking technological development that Elon Musk could potentially achieve with the development of the BFR, not only by significantly reducing flight times but also by reducing the planet’s reliance on the fact diminishing fossil fuels. However, I am inclined to agree with the overall conclusions of the article that whilst the technology is undoubtably impressive the question must be raised as to whether the unintended negative consequences of using LCH4 in fact outweigh the potential of such a project and indeed whether such a project could even be argued to be fulfilling public demand. What’s more, I find that the article further provokes the thought that given the rapid development of virtual reality, is there even a crying need for such a project, given the future of business could soon be conducted with the minimal possible need for travel.

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