NASA Revisits Supersonic Passenger Travel

The return of supersonic passenger air travel has moved a step closer after NASA awarded a contract for the preliminary design of a ‘low boom’ flight demonstrator.

This will be the first in a series of ‘X-planes’ in the US Federal Government agency’s New Aviation Horizons initiative introduced in its 2017 budget.  The ten-year plan has ambitious goals of reducing fuel use, emissions and noise through innovations in aircraft design that departs from the conventional tube-and-wing aircraft shape.  The new X-planes will typically be half-scale of a production aircraft and are likely be piloted.  The design and build phase will take several years to complete with flight testing due to start around 2020, although this depends on future funding.

After conducting feasibility studies and working to better understand acceptable sound levels, NASA’s Commercial Supersonic Technology Project asked industry teams to submit design concepts for a piloted test aircraft that can fly beyond Mach 1, creating a supersonic ‘heartbeat’ – a soft thump rather than a disruptive sonic boom.  NASA has selected a team led by Lockheed Martin Aeronautics of Palmdale, California to complete a preliminary design for Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST).  The manufacturer will receive $20m over the next 17 months for QueSST preliminary design work which will see the company working with subcontractors including GE Aviation and Tri Models.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden remarked: “NASA is working hard to make flight greener, safer and quieter – all the while developing aircraft that travel faster, and building an aviation system that operates more efficiently.  To that end, it’s worth noting that it has been almost 70 years since Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1.  Now we’re continuing that supersonic X-plane legacy with this preliminary design award for a quieter supersonic jet with an aim towards passenger flight.”

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