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A Skeptical Engineer
NASA Explores Supersonic Airliner—Or Will It Be a Spy Plane?

NASA Explores Supersonic Airliner—Or Will It Be a Spy Plane?

Artist’s conception of the QueSST prototype.

NASA is making moves to start work on a new X-plane, a half-scale flying version of a supersonic airliner. Named the QueSST (for Quiet Supersonic Technology), it will be designed and built by engineers and technicians at Lockheed Martin, GE Aviation, and Tri Models Inc. The first steps will be to develop baseline requirements and a preliminary design, while aerospace engineers try to reduce the sonic boom and make sure the aircraft’s noise signature will be acceptable to communities. Prototypes won’t begin flying until around 2020.

It’s hard to believe that one of NASA’s top priorities is supersonic travel for the public and that it thinks spending $20 million, the cost of the preliminary design work, is the best use of taxpayer-provided funds. Surely if “quiet” supersonic airliners are possible, it’s up to the major aircraft makers to do the research and shoulder the costs. Then they can enjoy the profits, if there are any. (It’s said that the Concorde SST earned the French and British some returns during its 30-year life, but overall was a money loser.)

And how will they validate the community response to a, quieter supersonic design? Surely they would have to build a full-scale “quiet” plane, fly it at supersonic speeds across the country, and then take public comments. I can almost guarantee there will be many vehemently negative ones, unless the plane is totally quiet to those of us on the ground throughout its entire flight envelope.

It’s also hard to imagine the environmentalists among us would approve of burning more petroleum-based fuel and injecting more CO2 into the atmosphere. And are there really that many well-heeled folks who need to get somewhere really fast and are willing to pay the freight? There’s a reason the British and French haven’t built a follow-up to the Concorde.

All of this leads to the sneaking suspicion that the QueSST project will eventually disappear and soon thereafter the military will be secretly flying a new high-speed, manned spy plane, the successor to the SR-71, another aircraft designed and built by Lockheed. After all, a half-sized airliner would be capable of packing in a lot of recon gear, and hypersonic speeds would let it outrun most anti-aircraft missiles.

Rumors abound as to the mission of the NASA-built X-37. One of the most believable is that it now refuels and maintains spy satellites.

It reminds me of the X-37, a NASA X-plane built around 2001. Putatively, it was going to serve as an unmanned hypersonic testbed for reusable ways to put satellites in orbit, recover, and service them. It was launched like an X-15—dropped by a mothership, then it zoomed up into orbit where it could stay for up to 21 days powered by its solar cells, then return to Earth and land on a runway like a plane. In 2004, the program was ended when the aircraft was transferred to Darpa. Rumors abound as to its mission. One of the most believable is that it now refuels and maintains spy satellites. It’s also rumored that two more XC-37s have been built and are flying secret missions.

Of course, all this speculation might be just thatspeculation. And the X-37s are working on more palatable frozen food for a manned Mars mission and we’ll all be flying to Disneyland at Mach 2 in 10 years.

What do you think?

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