Jaxson Bonsall is a self-proclaimed Elon Musk superfan.

So as an incoming freshman at Virginia Tech, the Lumberton, New Jersey, native jumped at the chance to join the Hyperloop at Virginia Tech team. Hyperloop, envisioned by Musk in 2013, aims to be a new, fifth mode of transportation, consisting of underground vacuum tubes that can send passenger-filled pods racing to destinations at speeds of up to 700 mph.

Bonsall had no idea the extracurricular activity would bring him practically face-to-face with the larger-than-life SpaceX CEO himself when Musk showed up during the fourth Hyperloop Pod Competition, held in Hawthorne, California, July 20-21. 

“It’s like seeing your favorite superhero come to life,” Bonsall said.

Musk took questions and spoke to a crowd of hundreds of fellow engineering enthusiasts assembled on a street adjacent to SpaceX’s Hawthorne campus, where the company built a 1.25-kilometer-long hyperloop test track and held the competition.

“The goal is to have an exciting engineering competition that would, I think, draw people to engineering that might not otherwise have gone into engineering and to inspire people who are already in engineering,” Musk said.

Enthusiastic students from 21 invited universities, including Virginia Tech, all vied for one of four slots to put their unique pod designs to the test in the near-vacuum track — an opportunity sought after by hundreds of other teams worldwide throughout the four years of pod competitions.

For the Hokies, that meant a week full of late nights working to assemble a completed pod and pass SpaceX’s rigorous testing requirements. The team completed some tests but ultimately ran out of time.

That didn’t make the experience any less powerful for the team members, who said the week gave them an opportunity to turn a year-long vision into a reality.

“Everyone’s hard work and perseverance through the year makes me feel honored to be a part of something as special as this team,” said Payleigh Behan, a rising senior studying mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering from Middletown, New Jersey. “It gives me chills thinking about how far we came.”

Though the Hyperloop at Virginia Tech team has been involved in SpaceX’s pod competition from the beginning, last year the team endured a testing failure that left them unable to participate in the third competition. It was a devastating pause for a team that placed top 10 in all previous competitions.

But the team was determined to learn from past mistakes and build a better, more cost-effective pod.

“Giving up was never an option for us,” explained Bobby Smyth, a former engineering lead for Hyperloop at Virginia Tech who graduated with a mechanical engineering degree in May and now works at SpaceX.

After a year of designing and fabricating their pod, seven Hokies flew out to Los Angeles for the competition, including a recent graduate and two graduate students who served as advisors to the team. Two former team members who now work at SpaceX — Smyth and fellow recent mechanical engineering graduate Nicholas Brady — also came out to visit the team during the competition.

Regardless of the outcome, the Hokies were determined to see it through.

“I've been a part of Hyperloop at Virginia Tech for three years now. I joined my sophomore year and this was actually my first competition,” said Teja Sathi, who now works for materials science company W.L. Gore conducting new product development engineering for a medical device. “This is a really hard-working team, and I think they'll go far in the future as well.”

Sathi, who graduated in May with a degree in mechanical engineering, flew in from Phoenix to attend competition. “I wanted to see all the work that we put in come to fruition and see how we performed,” she said.

Ultimately, German team TUM Hyperloop was declared the winner of the competition. Their pod cruised to 299 miles per hour on the test track before suffering an anomaly that left parts of the pod shattered in the track and shocked the crowd — especially considering the pod cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to team members.

Hyperloop at Virginia Tech team members recognized the difficulty of preparing a cost-effective pod in a competition against teams investing millions of dollars in parts and labor, but they saw the silver lining.

“In the real world, if you can’t afford it, you can’t build it,” Smyth said. “When designing hyperloop pods, even at this reduced scale, you have to ensure that their mechanisms are safe and reliable, but also economical.”

It’s an approach the resourceful team will likely carry forward to the fifth competition, announced at the close of the fourth competition by Musk and met with cheers from the crowd.

“The team definitely took a lot of notes this year,” said Derick Whited, a graduate student in aerospace engineering who served as a graduate advisor to the team. “They're going to be lugging home lots of information in their heads and in notebooks about how to do things better for next year.”

Written and photographed by Erica Corder