The sprint to SpaceX: Inside VCU’s dash to beat the clock — and the odds — at the Hyperloop finals

The frame and shell of the VCU Hyperloop team's pod.

An interdisciplinary team from VCU is attempting to design and build the best transport pod for Hyperloop, a high-speed ground transportation concept advanced by SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk.

At 6 p.m. on the most beautiful Saturday in June, five sleep-deprived students hunch silently around a table as a fluorescent light hums overhead. A wrench or drill occasionally cuts through the quiet. But there are few words. Like athletes or surgeons, they know the task — and each other’s rhythms — well enough to speak in the shorthand of nods, gestures and eye contact.

They have been here all day and will stay until coffee doesn’t work anymore. Would they rather be somewhere else? Not a chance. What’s a day at the beach compared with a shot at changing the world?

For the past 10 months, Hyperloop at Virginia Commonwealth University has been beating the odds and beating the clock in a dash to build the best high-speed pod vehicle to race at Elon Musk’s 2018 SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition in Hawthorne, California. A Hyperloop is a sealed tube free of air resistance or friction through which a pod vehicle travels at ultra-high speeds.

As SpaceX develops this proposed alternative to high-speed rail, student teams from universities worldwide compete for a slot in its annual pod competition. Hyperloop at VCU battled past challenges that eliminated hundreds of other hopefuls from around the globe. Now they are among the elites eyeing the finish line.

Last fall and winter, Hyperloop at VCU advanced through two preliminary rounds to become one of only 11 teams in the United States, and one of just 20 internationally, to earn a spot in the final round of SpaceX’s Hyperloop Competition on July 22. They’re working day and night in pursuit of maximum speed.

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