NASA announced a new project that could bring the return of supersonic passenger air travel “one step closer to reality” through the design of an aircraft to demonstrate “low boom” supersonic flight.
Charles Bolden, NASA’s administrator, announced the award of a contract for the project, called the New Aviation Horizons Initiative, Feb. 29 at a media event at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
The preliminary design of the demonstration aircraft—the first in a new series of “X-planes” to be designed under the 10-year initiative—will be created by a team led by Lockheed Martin Aeronautics of Palmdale, California, under the contract included in NASA’s $790 million aeronautics budget for 2017.
Models of possible futuristic X-planes displayed at the media event dramatized the initiative’s goal of “reducing fuel use, emissions and noise through innovations in aircraft design that departs from the conventional tube-and-wing aircraft shape.”
“NASA is working hard to make flight greener, safer and quieter—all while developing aircraft that travel faster, and building an aviation system that operates more efficiently,” said Bolden in a news release. “To that end, it’s worth noting that it’s been almost 70 years since Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 as part of our predecessor agency’s high speed research. Now we’re continuing that supersonic X-plane legacy with this preliminary design award for a quieter supersonic jet with an aim toward passenger flight.”
NASA conducted feasibility studies and worked “to better understand acceptable sound levels across the country” before its Commercial Supersonic Technology Project requested design concepts from industry teams for a supersonic test aircraft capable of creating “a supersonic ‘heartbeat’—a soft thump rather than the disruptive boom currently associated with supersonic flight.”
“Developing, building and flight testing a quiet supersonic X-plane is the next logical step in our path to enabling the industry’s decision to open supersonic travel for the flying public,” said Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission.
If Congress approves NASA’s aeronautics budget request, which represents a 23-percent increase over the 2016 funding level, Lockheed Martin will receive about $20 million over 17 months for the preliminary design work by the team that includes GE Aviation of Cincinnati and Tri Models Inc. of Huntington Beach, California, as subcontractors.
The result should be development of “baseline aircraft requirements and a preliminary aircraft design, with specifications” to prepare for the detailed design and construction of the aircraft under a subsequent contract.
The New Aviation Horizons X-planes are likely to be built at half the scale of a production aircraft, with flights beginning around 2020, “depending on funding,” NASA said.
The “Low Boom Flight Demonstration … phase of the project also will include validation of community response to the new, quieter supersonic design,” the agency added.