For Sara Luchian, riding the hyperloop cemented her place in history.
The 37-year-old director of passenger experience at Virgin Hyperloop was one of the first people to ever publicly ride the high-speed pod transit system on November 8. She was accompanied by Josh Giegel, the company’s 35-year-old co-founder and chief technology officer.
Giegel is one of the visionaries bringing the hyperloop to life. In an exclusive interview, he reveals when regular passengers may ride the hyperloop, what comes next after November’s test, and how hyperloop could transform society. You’ll only read it in Musk Reads+.
Luchian's ride was a landmark moment for the hyperloop, an idea first outlined by Elon Musk in a 2013 white paper. His vision involved sending pods through vacuum-sealed tubes at speeds of up to 760 mph. A trip from Los Angeles and San Francisco would take around 35 minutes, all without generating carbon dioxide.
Giegel has spent the past six years publicly touting hyperloop’s benefits at punchy press conferences, but Luchian is new to the limelight.
“I’ve just been forging my own path throughout the years, moving forward, never really expecting that I’d be involved in anything like this!" Luchian tells Inverse.
The groundbreaking ride on the DevLoop, Virgin Hyperloop’s 500-meter (1,640 feet) tube in the Nevada desert. It used the XP–2, a two-seater pod designed by BIG.
It was “the most memorable 15 seconds of my life," Luchain says.
During those few seconds, the pod reached around 107 mph in the space of six seconds, an acceleration Luchian was told is “akin to flooring the gas on a high-end, performance sports car.”
Its predecessor, the seat-less XP–1, set Virgin Hyperloop’s 240 mph speed record in the DevLoop in December 2017.
“I know this sounds a little absurd, but for a moment, I actually considered the possibility that I was being transported into the future,” Luchian says. “Between the speed, and the lights, and the magnitude of the moment.”
Through the pod windows, Luchian watched as the ring lights whizzed past faster and faster, suffusing the cabin with a lavender glow.
“I really had this split second thought that maybe I was going to flicker out of visibility and reappear somewhere else entirely, like they do in science fiction shows,” Luchian says.
“But it’s not science fiction. Turns out, this is real.”
The plan for Luchian to ride the hyperloop started to form last year. The project was given the internal codename “Pegasus,” chosen for the Greek mythological horse. The company had 40 internal applicants for a seat in the pod.
“I wrote a couple of essays,” Luchian says, explaining that she focused on why the moment was important and why she wanted to be a part of it. “I keep saying, Oh, you know, I wrote essays just like everybody else. And other people have pointed out to me that they did not write essays.”
From the initial application round, the firm shortlisted a small group of people who then underwent basic physical and psychological fitness tests and further training to see how the participants would respond to different situations. Luchian and Geigel underwent two weeks of training in the buildup to the event, including one week of classroom work and another of practical in-pod emergency training.
In the months leading up to the event, Virgin Hyperloop also ran a series of dummy safety tests without the participants, too.
A few weeks before the ride, Luchian found out she would be one of four that would ride in the pod over two sessions. During the final training, Virgin Hyperloop released the order — Luchian and Giegel would be going first. She would be making history.
The team underwent final checks the day before the run on Saturday, November 7. Staff arrived on site during those checks, including company chairman Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem. The stage was set for the big event.
Luchian doesn't share big life news quickly — when she got into her first choice of college, she kept it secret for two weeks so she could surprise her mom with the acceptance letter under the Christmas tree. She sat on this news for a few days before telling her mom over video chat.
It was a moment that “felt special.” Her mom had grown up in Romania’s brutal communist dictatorship. She dreamed of being a cosmonaut, which drove her to study engineering. Just a few years before Sara was born, her mother and father — also an engineer — emigrated to the United States.
Sara, “much to the chagrin” of her parents, studied psychology at undergraduate. She then moved into international development working for nonprofits, but ended up going to Wharton Business School, a decision that “kind of came out of left field," she says. After reaching a "saturation point" working in management consulting, she applied on a “moon shot” to join what was then known as Hyperloop One in early 2017. Luchian had found her way to engineering, after all.
“My mom, she didn’t make it to the stars, but she did make it to America,” Luchian says. “It felt special to be able to say, in large part because of you, I’m here right now, having this pretty amazing first experience in transportation. And I wished that she could be there with me.”
Luchian may have been a first passenger, but she won't be the last. Luchian says the two-person XP–2 will be quite different to the 28-person final pod people will one day ride in. There likely won’t be any windows on the public version, too.
Luchian also says that, for everyday riders, the final pod will “need to be more comfortable” than XP–2.
The acceleration was also somewhere around two to three times higher than it will be on public tracks. The XP–2 felt “sporty” and “zippy,” but public riders are “barely going to feel the push back," she says. With a longer track the firm can accelerate at a much more gradual rate. That means a less intense ride despite a faster pod.
Having said that, many aspects felt remarkably normal. The pair wore regular everyday clothes, rather than flight suits or safety gear.
“It did feel a lot like a train going through a tunnel,” Luchian says. “My frame of reference, having grown up in the northeast, and taking the subway in New York City to my job every day and every evening for eight or 10 years, is it’s like a train or a subway.”
Virgin Hyperloop plans to build a certification center in West Virginia, complete with a six-mile-long test track. The goal is to get safety certification for the system, before moving onto building the first track.
Luchian’s job now is to make the hyperloop as comfortable as possible. The team is working on the interior of the final 28-person pod, with plans to share the design “quite soon.”
It may take decades to understand the significance of November 8, 2020. Hyperloop could burn out as an expensive flash in the pan with limited use, similar to past 1980s experiments with maglev. Or it could transform our ideas of time and place, reduce carbon emissions, and ultimately bring communities closer together.
“I mean, did the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk ever envision the Dreamliner?” Luchian says.