The following exchange is with junior and science student, Michael James Lukiman, captain of the NYU Shanghai Hyperloop team. The team recently returned from presenting in SpaceX’s Hyperloop Pod Design Weekend competition hosted by Texas A&M University.
Tell us a bit about Shanghai-per-loop and your team’s mission.
The mission was to design a capsule for high speed transportation. Think of a space capsule hurtling through a tunnel. Because of low drag and minimal friction, the velocity can be much greater. We had to engineer something that performs well at high speed and has redundant safety mechanisms. At all times, we had to think about the commercial viability of our project -- and all this in a very limited development time at that. There was no instruction manual. In other words, it was an open game with math and physics as the rules.That was really cool. We vowed to get the build down to the bolt hole. That is, we were serious about the engineering and physics; we had to be ambitious, but realistic.
And what did the team experience at the Design Weekend at Texas A&M University?
We had an awesome time in the company of brilliant teams. We've even snagged a software sponsorship. We received encouraging feedback from some of the world’s top engineers, and now have specific improvements in mind. The experience was out of this world -- with Tesla and SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk, showing up in person, it made it a weekend to remember for the rest of our lives. Additionally, we made many connections with those who also had the ambition and skillset to be a part of this endeavor -- I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those people there go on to do stuff we haven’t even thought of yet.
What were some odds the team was up against?
When the competition first began, our odds were low to get together and discuss forming an organization. It’s like a little kid who wants to be an astronaut writing a letter to NASA giving his qualifications. That’s how I felt at least. I was Argentina while others were in New York and Shanghai. So, we couldn’t shake hands on it or anything like that. Then came the challenge of running a team despite other obligations and submit in very little time an entire design briefing to the preliminaries.
Yet you collectively persevered and made it fairly far into the competition.
Remarkably, we kept going. It was hard for a lot of us. But what is doubting going to do than make you worried? Just do it, especially if it has the potential to provide for others. For us, the opportunities kept rising so we sort of went anaerobic. We were a set of undergraduates working remotely across the world, and I was in South America just trying to survive. On Thanksgiving Day we received the invitation to the Official Design Weekend. We went nuts. Over one thousand teams entered, but only around a tenth ended up passing through. If we had closed up shop when we first felt the heat of doubt, we would have never learned that we actually had something to offer.
Do you feel that you in part ‘won’ by progressing as far as you did? What was gained from the experience?
Indeed, we had fun working on something new and unknown. It’s good to hit the frontier and genuinely get better at something new, rather than secure successes within a small safety net of familiar things. That’s the spirit of our university to begin with, to challenge norms and diffuse cultural bounds. Escape our comfort zone, play a new octave. I hope people remember that.
There are many things that are now familiar to us that were not before; that’s the beauty of it. Our skills and mindset have expanded. Our team in Texas unanimously agreed that every time we hop onto the next airbus, we will think about how that plane works--the amount of precise science, engineering, and endeavoring that led us to meet in the first place. This competition gave an opportunity to amplify knowledge by many-fold, and is the starting block for a whole world that is the real deal.
I also know that none of this could have happened without the skills and will of Tristan Armitage, Omer Cohen, and Bradford Sunderland (the three division heads) as well as Sean Kelly, who met up with us in California for essential hands-on work. We are also grateful for the support of Keith Ross and David Fitch, allowing us to participate, and to our other dozen or so team members who did their part -- Haider, Richard, the other Richard, Siqing, Jennifer, Robert, Fernando, Darrell, Johan, David. These combined efforts led us to connect with some of the best from Tesla, SpaceX, Lockheed, and many brilliant people from universities all around the world.
To top it off, you met Elon Musk. What were the takeaways from him?
It was surreal to see this modern business giant up close. Humble and slouched over as always, he talked about how the Hyperloop was a simple idea he had in traffic, which he felt he needed to expand as it publically grew into something much larger. This is the same guy who spoke of his desire to cut the costs of space travel by a factor of 100, and introduced ambitious ideas for redefining car industry norms, points which were not believable to many.
Elon Musk was 24 when he started his first company. "When I was in college, I wanted to be involved in things that would change the world. Now I am,” he’s said. NYU Shanghai is filled with people around that age, younger. To me, that’s really exciting potential. Even if I’m 90 and that potential wasn’t fully fulfilled, I’d still enjoy the optimism. Some words of Musk’s that really apply to our experience here are, "When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor."
Any words of wisdom for your ambitious peers?
My advice is never give up on an ambition that might be possible, whatever it may be, as long as you’re willing to work at it with a mindset of continuous growth. Don’t put yourself in one category or another. My major is neuroscience because I love it, but you can love multiple things. Humans are naturally risk-averse; if we can become conscious of that, we might discover that many of those risks can serve us well in the times we live in today.
Watch how Brad Sunderland captured the Hyperloop Design Weekend here.