In 2003, the last supersonic commercial Concorde planes in operation touched down on the runway for the final time. The planes had made just shy of 50,000 flights over their 26 years in operation, but due to various reasons, both political and technical, the aluminum birds had come in to roost. Now, NASA is set to spend over $6 million on research into how to bring supersonic travel to the public once again, this time cheaper and greener than before.
Selected by NASA’s Commercial Supersonic Technology Project, eight research teams have each been awarded a slice of the funds. Their focus is on how turbulence affects the sonic boom, the environmental impact of the flights, and how to make the planes quieter. If all goes to plan, and we all know how tricky that is, NASA wants to see commercial supersonic flights available within 15 years.
The largest chunks of money are going to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Wyle Laboratories. Each will receive $1.2 million to investigate, respectively, the global environmental impact of supersonic travel on the stratosphere, and how sonic booms are shaped by turbulence.
Even though a supersonic plane might get to a destination in half the time of a standard flight, it would burn through massive amounts of fuel. Whilst this might not be a problem if there were only a few such planes whizzing around in the sky, with more than 87,000 flights traveling through the U.S. airspace in any one day, the impact on the environment needs to be taken into serious consideration before supersonic planes become commercial. As they also fly at a much higher altitude, how the emissions interact with the ozone layer also needs to be investigated.
If the planes were to be rolled out across the world, then they would also have to be made quieter. Concorde was notorious for the roar it made during take-off and landing, so NASA plans to continue investing in research on how to dampen the noise they make. And so far so good, as NASA told Quartz that they have already made progress in this area.
NASA would also have to try and find ways to make the flights more economical. Some suggest that this is the real reason that Concorde was shelved in the first place as it was simply too expensive, but the longest-serving Concorde pilot claims that the plane was always taking a profit and was binned on political grounds. If the latter is true, then the wrangling of getting the project off the ground and into the sky might not be a simple case of developing better tech.