Getting a look at Hyperloop test track near North Las Vegas

Updated January 11, 2018 - 11:24 pm

Kevin Mock and his team tinker with the potential future of human travel on a remote stretch of desert about 20 miles northeast of Nellis Air Force Base.

Mock, one of the first Virgin Hyperloop One employees to staff the company’s test site, has seen about 200 runs within his employer’s 1,600 feet of steel tube.

Recruited to the Las Vegas area from Indianapolis almost two years ago, the senior test engineer acknowledges a lot of work remains.

The goal is to move humans and cargo in an experimental mode of transportation that could go from Las Vegas to Los Angeles in 30 minutes.

“I loved the project,” he said. “I wanted to be a part of this.”

Changes in two years

On Wednesday, Virgin Hyperloop One invited a small group of reporters for a rare public glimpse into its operations at Apex Industrial Park near North Las Vegas.

The last time the company opened up to the public was May 2016. It tested the acceleration of a sled, sending it to 100 mph in 1.1 seconds with more than twice the force of gravity.

Since then, the company has published promotional materials of its work. It has lost a chief technology officer and an executive chairman. It has announced Nevada isn’t likely to host the first commercial hyperloop track.

Virgin Hyperloop One also has built the line of tubes Mock showed reporters, tubes through which the company wants to prove its theories and calculations are not the stuff of science fiction.

In the summer, the company sent a pod about 192 mph inside the tubes. In December, the pod went about 240 mph.

CES displays

As part of CES this week, a company executive has taken the stage and the company has held demonstrations of the blue pod launched in tests, plus an app designed to show users a potential hyperloop route and compare it to the time taken flying or driving.

At the Los Angeles-based company’s test track outside North Las Vegas, representatives showed reporters one end of the tube test track.

They also showed the pump system that corrects the pressure inside the tube with four hours of jet engine-level noise and a control room that houses almost 30 computer monitors.

A hyperloop test only requires four to eight workers at a time depending on the test, said Mock. He works among 53 employees who work in and visit Las Vegas. Virgin Hyperloop One has 237 employees in California.

Mock previously worked for SpaceX, whose founder, Elon Musk, first published ideas about hyperloop travel in a 2013 white paper.

The desert environment has proven helpful for tests in various extreme weather conditions, he said. But the Las Vegas Valley has offered some surprises: July heat fried video cameras Virgin Hyperloop One wanted to use to shoot a promotional video.

“We just accommodate for it,” Mock said. “It’s something we have to identify and work with.”

Big-name recruits

The company’s plan to have operating systems by 2021 has attracted some big-name investors.

The company added Virgin to the Hyperloop One name after an investment from billionaire Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin conglomerate of media, travel and health care ventures.

Branson sits on the company’s board along with a Russian billionaire investor, former chief operating officers of Morgan Stanley and Snapchat and a one-time deputy chief of staff to former President Barack Obama.

In September, Virgin Hyperloop One recruited Anita Sengupta from NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory. Her nearly 20 years with NASA included work on the supersonic parachute decelerator for Mars’ Curiosity rover.

Visiting the test track Wednesday from the company’s Los Angeles headquarters, the senior vice president of systems engineering said the work to realize hyperloop reminds her of the work bringing spacecraft to life.

The difference, she believes, is hyperloop will come with more immediate benefits.

“Space is such a niche,” Sengupta said. “This is a way to help people.”

Contact Wade Tyler Millward at wmillward@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4602. Follow @wademillward on Twitter.

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