The Lost Promise of Supersonic Travel

It’s 2020, where are my jetpacks?

Its the year 2020, we truly are living in the future. Alas, the science fiction predictions of the 50s and 60s would have us riding jetpacks to work, working 12 hour weeks, and serviced 24/7 by robotic maids…decades ago. What happened?

Nothing. Technological advancement didn’t stop. Future generations didn’t “fail” to live up to the hopes and dreams of the prior ones. These predictions just turned out to be completely wrong because they were based on flawed reasoning and, in many ways, defied the limitations of the physical world. Technological advancement marched forward, but the epicenter of progress shifted from the mechanical realm to the electronic one. While jetpacks and 12 hour work weeks didn’t pan out, computer and information technology did. Integrated circuits, which contained hundreds of transistors at the end of the 1960s, could fit about 10 million at the end of the 20th century. Today, a single chip might contain billions of transistor switches, enabling computing power that was unimaginable just decades before.

Electronics have been the epicenter of innovation since the 1970s.

The shift in progression from the mechanical realm to the electronic one is the reason that the smartphone in your pocket has immensely more computing power than the “supercomputer” in the Saturn V rocket that took us to the Moon, but the rockets of today are little improved from those of that same era.

But one technological promise, that of supersonic air travel, seemed a forgone conclusion in the mid-1960s but ultimately led its disciples to a dead end. At the time, no less than three separate airliners were under development that promised to shrink the world in ways that are unimaginable even today. The Tu-144 in the Soviet Union, The Boeing 2707 in the United States, and the Concorde in Europe.

The Tu-144

The Soviet Tu-144, although successful in the sense that it did run regular supersonic flights in the U.S.S.R, ultimately failed to establish a viable means of supersonic transport. The aircraft required its afterburners to maintain supersonic flight, meaning that fuel consumption was extremely high and range limited. Furthermore, the aircraft was so noisy inside the cabin that it is said that passengers had to pass notes to each other if they wanted to converse. This, combined with several crashes, ultimately doomed the jet.

The Concorde

The Concorde, while much better known, suffered similar issues. The aircraft flew regular flights across the Atlantic Ocean for decades. There are, however, questions as to whether those operations actually ever were profitable. Ultimately, much like the Tu-144, sonic booms limited the routes that the aircraft could fly and high fuel consumption and maintenance costs kept ticket prices out of reach for the common people.

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A mockup of the Boeing 2707

It may come as a surprise to know that Boeing was developing the 2707 at the same time that the Concorde and and Tu-144 were on the drawing boards. Boeing was also simultaneously developing the now famed 747. In fact, the belief that the future of passenger flight would go supersonic was so firm that the 747 was never really intended to carry passengers; it was initially designed to be a freighter. The Boeing 2707 was cancelled before it flew, while the 747 would come to define air travel for the next few decades.

Today, there are small hints that interest in supersonic flight may be making a comeback. Boom Technologies is arguably on the front lines in a new race for faster-than-sound aircraft. Boom Technologies hopes to use modern materials, engines, and experience learned from the Concorde to make supersonic flight cheaper and more accessible, with routes possible across the world’s oceans.

I have high hopes for Boom, but if the plane ever does fly, at best it may only carve out a niche in the global air travel market. The aircraft will still create deafening sonic booms that make flights over populated areas problematic. Furthermore, since atmospheric drag increases rapidly with speed, all things being equal, it will always require more fuel to fly supersonic when compared to traditional subsonic jets. Given that fuel costs are an important factor in ticket prices, it does not seem likely that a supersonic jet could ever compete on price or profit margins with traditional jets.

The future of high speed transport, therefore, might lie in technology that step outside the atmosphere to overcome the drag problem entirely. It is here that SpaceX has proposed a radical idea; hyper-sonic Earth-to-Earth travel.

In my next article, we will take a look at this radical idea from SpaceX that could change the world as we know it. But if you can’t wait, check out my article on how a revolution in spaceflight is occurring in Boca Chica Texas.

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