Flying faster than sound travels has been possible since the late 1940s. But the vibration and noise that accompany high-speed flight greatly limit its use. Could quieting sonic booms invite a resurgence of supersonic flight? Lockheed Martin and NASA hope so. An aircraft the two are jointly working on may reopen options for moving passengers faster than the speed of sound.
Researchers during World War II experimented with making aircraft faster. American Chuck Yeager flew the first documented manned vehicle to break the sound barrier in 1947.
Following this achievement, scientists continued improving supersonic (“beyond” + “sound”) aircraft. The first supersonic passenger jet was the 1970s-era Soviet Tu-144. But unreliability and other factors consigned it to carrying cargo.
The British-French supersonic passenger jet Concorde operated successfully from 1976-2003. It zoomed across the Atlantic Ocean at 1,354 mph and seated 128 passengers. But the Concorde was barred from most overland routes. Eventually, operating costs became too great, and the plane was retired.
Objects traveling faster than the speed of sound create sonic booms. NASA explains the phenomenon this way: “Air molecules cannot move out of the way of the airplane fast enough, so the pressure waves combine to generate a large shockwave.”
People describe the noise as sounding like an explosion or clap of thunder. Sonic booms can wake people, startle animals, and even cause minor damage to buildings. Booms led to banning most supersonic flight over populated areas in the 1970s.
God created the laws by which air molecules move and planes generate lift. “For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on Earth, visible and invisible.” (Colossians 1:16) He also created the laws that engineers hope to harness to overcome the sonic boom.
Lockheed Martin and NASA are developing the X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology (QueSST) that should reduce the troublesome sound. The aircraft features a relocated engine, “swept-back” wings, and an ultra-thin 30-foot-long nose. The shape helps spread out supersonic shockwaves.
Meanwhile, a company called Boom Supersonic is developing its own supersonic passenger jets. Its Overture airliner will cruise at 1,300 mph—twice the speed of today’s passenger planes. However, there are many technical and manufacturing hurdles to overcome before the aircraft becomes a real option.
In 2024, X-59 will begin U.S. flyovers. Boom Supersonic hopes to follow soon after.
During testing, NASA will invite public feedback about X-59’s noise. NASA claims, “All people will hear is a quiet ‘sonic thump’—if they hear anything at all.”
Why? As technology expands and changes, believers can marvel at human progress while they rest assured that the God who created all things—including the laws of physics and sonic booms—is still in control.