All the way up, all the way down

5 May 2017

More rumblings from California as a SpaceX employee has posted a photo of Elon Musk’s newly acquired TBM to Instagram – before swiftly removing it. Before moving on, a quick glossary: SpaceX is the packleader of several companies that are vying to commercialise and reduce the cost of space travel; Elon Musk is its eccentric South African billionaire owner and Instagram is a social media platform for photographs that boasts 700 million users.

Musk, whose ambitions in electric cars, supersonic travel in vacuum tubes (‘Hyperloop’) and solar power all stem from his desire to die on Mars, announced at the start of this year that he was adding tunnelling to his eclectic list of endeavours.

He claimed that the idea to form ‘The Boring Company’ came while sitting in traffic. Initially the media assumed it was a joke and speculated over his naïveté regarding small details such as planning permission underneath public and private land. Musk then dug a test pit around 5m deep and 15m long at his SpaceX headquarters. Inexpertly judging from the limited photos online, this was at one end of the employee car park, and now he has acquired a TBM.

He spoken about his new-found interest in the use of underground space to technology publication Wired: “If you think of tunnels going 10, 20, 30 layers deep (or more), it is obvious that going 3D down will encompass the needs of any city’s transport of arbitrary size.”

He explained it isn’t possible for everyone to be using a “2D road network” but if you want to create more space you have to go up or down – with down being his preferred option. “Better tunnelling tech improves everything: road, subway, Hyperloop”.

I have heard it said that bringing outside expertise into industry with its new perspective and different experience can present radical solutions, sometimes to problems that were not even apparent.

It may be that Musk loses interest in what is, after all, a very mature industry compared to his other ventures, but he might be one to watch with interest. Around 15 years ago Musk and his competitors approached NASA and asked what they needed more than anything to develop space. The association replied “cheap flight to low Earth orbit”. In the last year his company won its first contracts to supply the International Space Station.

Maybe it is time to start thinking what you need