When a Concorde jet on its way from Paris to New York crashed on July 25, 2000, killing all 109 people aboard and four on the ground, the event was not simply a tragedy -- it seemed a metaphor for the sorry state of supersonic air travel.
Since its glamorous debut in 1976, the Concorde has remained a symbol of wealth and power but has become a technological dinosaur. It's still the only commercial airplane that travels faster than the speed of sound, but it burns so much fuel, and its complex 1960s-era technology needs so much maintenance, that fares are absurdly high: $12,750 roundtrip from New York to London. And then there's its biggest drawback: the Concorde's sonic boom -- a thunderous double explosion that can shatter windows in the buildings below. This has restricted the Concorde to trips over water.
Recently, though, supersonic flight has been making a comeback. Gulfstream, a company best known for making planes that chauffeur celebrities and corporate execs across the skies, has been quietly hiring aviation specialists from NASA and Lockheed Martin. The company is especially interested in experts who understand the strange things that happen when air tries to flow around a supersonic airplane and who have experience with triangle-shaped delta wings and heat-resistant materials. People, in short, who may know how to silence the sonic boom. Gulfstream's goal: to make a passenger jet for the rich that can smash the sound barrier yet is quiet enough to fly anywhere, anytime. Imagine leaving New York at 7 a.m., flying to Moscow for a 2-hour meeting, and returning home in time for dinner. Or picture doing L.A. to New York in 2 hours, instead of the 51/2 it takes now.
Gulfstream's efforts coincide with the U.S. military's newfound interest in developing a next-generation supersonic plane. Since the end of the cold war, military engagements increasingly have been occurring in areas far from U.S. and Allied airfields, so getting there fast has become a more urgent issue. During the Gulf War, B-52 bombers took off from a U.S. military base on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean; it took them 7 hours to reach Iraq. Cutting flying time in half would have great strategic value. With that in mind, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency awarded close to $35 million in contracts last year to the big three U.S. aviation companies -- Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman -- for supersonic research. If DARPA gets more money from Congress, it will select one of the three to build a prototype low-boom supersonic plane -- a so-called X-plane -- to showcase the latest technologies.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.