Remember the good old days of air travel when you could enjoy spacious seats, gourmet meals, and zip across the Atlantic in just a few hours? Unfortunately, those days became a thing of the past when the Concorde retired in 2003. Nowadays, if you’re flying between London and New York, you’re looking at a rather lengthy eight-hour journey, or about seven hours in the opposite direction. The fastest recorded flight time, just under five hours from New York to London, was only possible thanks to some favorable winds.
But don’t lose hope just yet because supersonic travel might be making a comeback, and this time, NASA is behind the idea of a lightning-fast 90-minute flight from New York to London.
In a recent blog post, NASA shared details about its “high-speed strategy,” revealing that they’ve been exploring the potential for commercial flights to travel at speeds exceeding Mach 4, which is over 3,000 miles per hour. Their study, conducted at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, indicated that there’s already a strong market for this kind of high-speed travel, primarily on well-established transoceanic routes like the North Atlantic and the Pacific. Unfortunately, supersonic flights over land are still a no-go in the US due to existing regulations, so these high-speed flights would have to stick to international waters.
But here’s where it gets interesting. NASA is actively working on developing “quiet” supersonic aircraft as part of their X-59 program, which is a key component of the Quesst mission. The idea behind these aircraft is to reduce the sonic booms that make supersonic flight so disruptive, potentially opening the door to faster air travel. These new aircraft might eventually convince regulators to reconsider the rules, allowing commercial planes to travel at speeds ranging from Mach 2 to Mach 4 (that’s 1,535 to 3,045 miles per hour). To put that in perspective, the Concorde’s top speed was Mach 2.04, or 1,354 miles per hour. A Mach 4 aircraft could, in theory, zip you across the Atlantic in just 90 minutes.
After conducting these studies, NASA’s Advanced Air Vehicles Program (AAV) is moving forward to the next research phase for high-speed travel. They’ll be teaming up with companies to design aircraft, explore the possibilities of high-speed air travel, identify any risks and challenges, and figure out the necessary technologies to make Mach 2-plus travel a reality. Two big players in the aerospace industry, Boeing and Northrop Grumman Aeronautics Systems, will be leading separate teams in developing these super-fast aircraft.
This forward-looking initiative builds upon similar studies conducted about a decade ago, which ultimately influenced the development of the X-59 aircraft. Lori Ozoroski, the project manager for NASA’s Commercial Supersonic Technology Project, points out that these new studies will refresh technology roadmaps and identify additional research needs to cover a broader range of high-speed travel.
The next phase of research will also consider crucial factors like safety, efficiency, economic viability, and how high-speed travel might impact society. Mary Jo Long-Davis, the manager of NASA’s Hypersonic Technology Project, emphasizes that innovation needs to be responsible.
As we eagerly await further developments, it’s worth noting that Lockheed Martin recently completed the construction of NASA’s X-59 test aircraft. This aircraft is designed to turn those thunderous sonic booms into mere ripples, which could potentially pave the way for supersonic flights over land. Ground tests and the first test flight are planned for later this year, and NASA aims to provide enough data to US regulators by 2027, opening up the exciting possibility of faster-than-ever air travel.