Shanghai to NYC in 39 minutes but at what cost to our health?

Shanghai to New York in 39 minutes? Musk's BFR will get us there but how will high-speed travel effect the traveller’s physiology?

By 2035 the number of people travelling by air each year is expected to reach more than 7.2 billion – double the number in 2016, according to the International Air Transport Association. Put into content, there’s currently only 7.6 billion people on the planet. Many scientists think earth has a maximum carrying capacity of 9 billion to 10 billion people. So that’s why Elon Musk and Space X are obsessed with solving these problems. We’re running out of space.


With the blurring of boundaries between work and leisure travel, the world has become more nomadic - travelling is now the norm. For executives, online conference calls never replace the physical bonding and relationship building that face to face time develops. The importance of business travel is never going to diminish, if anything it’s increasing.

We’re going to need to travel faster and more frequently but how and will this affect our health?

Elon Musk and Space X hold the answer to the game changing way we’ll soon travel. A 39-minute journey from Shanghai to New York, travelling by rocket (not a conventional aeroplane) that temporarily leaves the earth’s atmosphere, could become the norm within a decade.

Whether you’re a sceptic or not, most of us struggle to contemplate how this is humanly logistically possible but what impact could leaving the earth’s atmosphere, even briefly, have on our bodies?

With today's technology Musk’s carbon fibre tank will be able to withstand the pressure changes, reduction in temperature, increase in friction on the surface of the rocket and the speed we’ll soon be travelling at. The rocket needs to be safe up to 75,000 feet, yes you heard right, not the 35,000 feet aircraft currently cruise at. The carbon fibre tank will need to be propelled to speeds of up to 10,000 miles per hour without breaking, versus commercial aircraft current speeds of 550 mph.

To put humans into this environment, they have to move from sea level to altitude, from normal gravity to a reduced G, from the temperature of the environment we are leaving, to an artificial environment for 40 minutes. This environment will have all the problems of controlling the temperature, humidity, oxygen levels and pressure for the travel period. A very comfortable seat will be needed, not the usual cramped, economy one on the back row; one that can make the traveller feel secure and safe with the increase in acceleration that will happen on take-off as the rocket reaches cruising speed.

We’re strapped in, ready to go. The rocket will take off vertically, accelerating for faster and longer than a modern aircraft. Those who flew on Concorde remember being pressed back in the seat as the aircraft reached 2,000 miles an hour. It will be a harder press for a little longer. Pressing on your heart and your lungs, might just for a few moments, take your breath away. You would have to be fit to fly this way, as the acceleration may cause heart problems if you had existing issues. By the time the rocket reaches cruising speed it will almost be time to start descending to land. A similar duration of time to that of a regular commute.

The rocket will have to climb to high altitude to travel very quickly, so travellers will experience a reduction in gravity. This reduction affects almost every system in our body as all the body fluids readjust to these changes, even if only for a short while. The changes in our body chemistry caused by this alteration may disturb the balance of salts, vitamins, and all the other biochemical/amino acids which make up our whole body composition. This may also be affected by the pressure changes, the reduction in the oxygen levels, the temperature and the humidity required for the short but dramatic flight.

Whenever your body undergoes these changes it requires energy. The energy these functions require is manufactured by all the fuel elements stored in our body. These get depleted as the day goes on and have to be replaced by eating the appropriate foods. Some researchers have shown this depletion varies during a normal day. If we transport a ground level TV watching person into a high speed travelling vehicle, alter the pressure, the temperature, the gravitational force and the oxygen levels, even for 40 minutes, they will need more energy. Every adjustment the body has to make for every physiological change, depletes fuel reserves even more, and these have to be continuously replaced. Mental and cognitive function also requires energy all from the same bodily resources. The brain tissue is a forest of nerve pathways and junctions. Energy, in this case, electrical energy, is required to drive the signals along these pathways and across the junctions to make your brain function.  This is particularly important for business travellers who need to cognitively perform on landing and can’t risk suffering effects of cognitive impairment. Vitamins that contribute to the growth of brain tissue and neurotransmitters and provide energy and oxygen to the brain will be critical. 

Change things around from the normal ground level pattern of behaviour and more fuel is required to be converted to energy, which is why you can feel tired even after watching TV at ground level for 3 hours. An exciting film is more tiring than a sedentary film as it excites and stimulates, using mental energy. Imagine the combined impact of watching in flight movies at 10,000 miles per hour.

Flying at high speed is elating, you feel invigorated, excited at arriving at your destination so quickly. This excitement never fades. Your whole body experiences all the physiological changes that have been described during the flight, plus the excitement factor. This all requires extra energy provided by the fuel systems in our body. This energy, muscular and electrical, mostly electrical (signalling from the brain to the nerves to make our muscles contract and to stimulate our emotions), needs to be constantly replaced.

What happens when we arrive at our final destination? 

The physiological changes experienced, even on the short high-speed flight, all need to be reversed quickly, requiring more internal energy and fuel. We also need to adapt to the environment we have just arrived into and quickly. The traveller will be straight into a large time zone change, which always takes an hour a day to correct, wherever we go, no matter how fast we travel, no matter what the mode of transport. From the northern to the southern hemisphere will have a marked temperature difference. This sudden change can take many people by surprise, and it will take some days to adjust. To leave London at 45F, and walk out 30 mins later in Sydney to 85F with no time for aircraft adaptation, can come as a shock to the system, bringing it with other health issues.

Travelling at speed is exciting. From travelling at 1500 mph on Concorde, or on a rocket to the Space Station at 17,000mph around the planet to the moon, we humans have taken it in our stride. It is not the speed, but the environmental changes we have to go through to get there, which our bodies have a price to pay for.

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