There is, technically, a less expensive way to reach orbit than an elevator ride, and it has the additional advantage of being the fastest way to reach orbit. However, I cannot recommend it to you for one simple reason: I’ve “ridden freight“, and it’s an experience best saved for when you have no alternative.
It’s inexpensive, in a nutshell, because you’re being squeezed into a gap in the freight schedule. And as you’re riding freight, the accommodations are very much suited for freight: you get a comfortable acceleration seat, certainly, but one fixed inside what remains unmistakably an intermodal freight container fitted with an aeroshell.
Most providers do, as a courtesy to keep their passengers entertained, equip the nose of such capsules with a sapphireglass window. This is less helpful than it might be.
After boarding, it provides you with a fine bullet’s-eye view – for the seconds of your loading slot – of what it’s like to be shoved into the breech of the Worlds’ largest gun. Then the gravomagnetics catch you up and hurl you forward. The featureless sides of the tube rush by, but you won’t be paying attention to them: being on the freight schedule means fitting in the fewest freight slots possible. Eyeballs in, folks, feel the elephant on your chest and watch your vision blue-shade out – it’s six standard gravities from here all the way up the gunspire.
(Unless you’re riding freight on Paltraeth. Then they fire you at the full twelve local gravities and take bets on whether you’ll be conscious at the top. There’s a barrel of the local booze in it for anyone who can climb out of the capsule on their own, starport legend says, just in case the trip upwell didn’t impair you enough.)
Then comes the fun part. In the old days, the brief glimpse you’d get out of the window would have been of the exceptionally solid iris holding out the attenuated atmosphere at the gunspire’s tip, opening for you with such fine calibration that it’s impossible to see. Now, there’s just a brief flash of blue as you pass the kinetic barrier, the sickening lurch – and eyeballs snapping back out – as you pass beyond the magnetics, and the end of the world coming to call.
You see, everything up until this point has been quiet as a moth’s whisper. A mass driver in an evacuated tube makes no noise – the switchgear and the pumps might, but they’re on the outside.
Once you hit the end, though – the air might be attenuated, but there’s still enough of it to hit like a granite cliff. One moment, silence. The next moment, the storm gods of every pantheon you’ve heard of and a few more besides have come to call, with a real urgent need to come in there.
And they brought some friends, it looks like, ’cause that convenient window is making it very clear that everything outside is on fire.
This, you might think, would be a good time to panic.
Well, you’ve got something under of a second before they start hitting you with the lasers, and it’s back to elephants, blue-outs, and now an angry giant whaling on the back of the capsule with a to-scale warhammer to add to the rest of the noise – with your eyeballs vibrating in time.
That’s the worst of it. It only gets quieter from there to orbit, and after the hammering you’ve taken on the way up, the eyeballs-out dangling-in-your-straps deceleration to match velocity with the highport comes as something of a relief.
But I trust you understand, gentle reader, why it is that I cannot recommend this mode of transport.
– Around the Worlds on ¤1,000 per Sol