Nearly all of the teams trying to build a "pod" that will work in Elon Musk's futuristic hyperloop transportation tubes spent months toiling away together in university classrooms engineering their designs. One of the teams, however, only met each other for the first time a few hours before I met them.
In 2013, Musk, the SpaceX founder, pitched the "fifth mode of transportation," which creates a partial vacuum in a tube in order to shoot human-carrying pods down them at speeds of over 700 mph. In summer of 2015, SpaceX announced it would build a hyperloop test track at its Hawthorne, California headquarters and would hold a "pod design competition" for university students in order to spur research into the feasibility of the technology.
Immediately after that announcement, members of the SpaceX subreddit floated the idea of entering the competition themselves.
"There was a slow realization that we are professionals, or at least students in the field and that together we had the collective ability to actually create a competitive pod for this," Brent Lessard, an engineer from Toronto who is the project manager of the 140-member rLoop team, told me.
Team members quickly fell into roles—the leaders accepted applications for "jobs" managing the teams that would design several of the pod's subsystems—and soon the core members of the team were spending every moment not dedicated to their day jobs working on the pod's design.
"A lot of sleepless nights," Lessard said. "For me, it's every waking minute, basically. And then some—I have dreams about it, too."
"When I got that picture, I was tearing up almost"
The team's initial goal was to put together a pod proposal for the SpaceX design weekend, a precursor to a final competition at the test track. The design weekend was held last weekend at Texas A&M University, where SpaceX and Tesla employees judged the entries of 180 teams, most of them made up of university undergrad students. rLoop was one of 22 teams invited to the final competition, and it was the only non-university team that made it through. Now there's more work to do.
"So far, everything was doable over the internet using Google Docs or Slack or Trello," Thomas Lambot, a NASA Ames propulsion researcher and the team's engineering lead, told me. "Our strength, which was having a lot of brains from a lot of different countries has now become a weakness—how are we going to build this thing? Where are we going to do it?"
Seven months after rLoop formed, Eric Matzner, a nootropics entrepreneur from San Francisco, met Amir Hasan Khan, a simulations expert from New Delhi, India, at the Houston airport. It was the first time anyone on rLoop had ever seen each other in real life. Naturally, the two took a selfie and sent it to everyone else on the team.
"It was like herding cats trying to get people focused over the internet. But I can't take them by the shirt and threaten to fire them"
"When I got that picture, I was tearing up almost, like, 'Here we go,'" Lessard said. Lessard, Matzner, Khan, and six other members of the rLoop team rented an Airbnb in College Station, Texas to propose their design to SpaceX judges and to get to know each other.
"We've been going nonstop. We have the opportunity this weekend to show off what we've done, show how we've worked together," Lessard said. "I think we're going to go home and have some beer and not worry about the engineering related issues."
The team fell into an easy friendship thanks to all the time they spent talking online, and the fact that they had all met on Reddit was a constant source of conversation among the other teams at the competition.
"Even though we've never met before, we've spent so much time working late at night on reports and deadlines that it feels like we've known each other for a long time," Lambot said. "It feels really natural."
The team also quickly made friends with all the other competitors, who were intrigued by the fact that the team had met on Reddit. After the competition closed, rLoop threw a small gathering at their rented Airbnb. It quickly became a full-fledged party made up of other hyperloop teams—not a rager, but definitely a party, nonetheless. It was almost immediately busted by overzealous cops who apparently didn't realize—some of the partygoers joked—that they were interrupting some potentially world-changing engineering talk that was being fueled by a few beers.
"Now we're here and it's like 'Look, we exist in the real world too.'"
Getting to this point wasn't easy—most teams had, at most, a couple dozen members. rLoop has had more than 300 people sign up, with about 140 making some sort of contribution.
"No one was fighting, there were no power struggles, but there was a lot of confusion," Lambot said. "There are a lot of 'shooting stars,' as I call them. People who join excited, start doing great work and take on responsibilities. Within a week they say, 'I can't do that anymore, I got a girlfriend, work is crazy.' They just disappear. That happens all the time—people joining, helping, and disappearing. It was like herding cats trying to get people focused over the internet. But I can't take them by the shirt and say 'focus' or threaten to fire them."
Matzner, who is the team's livestreamer—a job that sound frivolous until you realize that, with only nine team members able to attend the design weekend at Texas A&M, most of rLoop relied on Matzner to keep up—says the team's open-source ethos has allowed it to roll with the punches.
"It's like a river—the water always changes but you still call it the same river," Matzner said. "We carry along the ideas and skills that have come through and keep going on."
The team calls itself "the world's first non-profit, open source, online think tank," and it's hard to argue with the fact that already it has done some very serious engineering work. Under Lambot's and Lessard's lead, the team managed to scrape together a 200-page pod proposal that sufficiently impressed SpaceX judges. It will be one of 22 teams that actually builds a pod for the June competition at SpaceX.
The team says it has managed to find members who have manufacturing experience, and have scored a manufacturing space in the Sacramento, California area. Still, there's not yet a firm plan for when it will actually build the pod or how it's going to pay for it (SpaceX is building the test track but isn't paying the schools to build pods). The tentative plan to fund it for now, of course, is to appeal to the Reddit community for help crowdfunding the $80,000 they suspect building the pod and getting it to Hawthorne will cost.
The team is hell bent on scraping together the money and says their friendship has really just begun.
"You spend all your time on the internet, and you meet these people and you look around and wonder, 'Are these your real friends?'" Matzner said. "Well now we're here and it's like 'Look, we exist in the real world too.' I like to think we're kind of an outgrowth of the internet."