Pushing the Technology Faster and Faster

Saturday, while doing a daddy-daughter day, my daughter took me to her favorite used bookstore, Bargain Books in Van Nuys. There I found a copy of the first edition of “747 – The Story of the Boeing Super Jet“. I’ve been reading the book since then, and finding the history of the development of today’s modern jets fascinating. One clear fact that comes through in the story is how development for military and other government uses has clear benefit for the commercial side (a fact that many who decry government spending seem to forget — the technological leads often become very fruitful when reapplied). This is certainly clear in the Boeing story. Initial commercial plane development was driven by the Postal Service (in a similar way that the Census drove development of computers). Later attempts and successes on military programs led to the development of planes such as the 247, the 377, and the 707. Each was a leap forward in technology (as was the 747).

I mention this because I’ve been seeing a number of articles today on hypersonic flight. Today there will be a key test of a hypersonic flying system by the military–specifically, today will see the launch of the unmanned experimental aircraft X-51A WaveRider. The test will take the aircraft — attached to a B-52 bomber’s wing (also made by Boeing… in the era of the 707!) — from Edwards AFB to about 50,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean near Point Mugu. From there, its high-speed journey at Mach 6 is expected to last only 300 seconds, but that’s twice as long as it’s ever gone at that speed.

Supersonic and hypersonic flight has been fraught with problems. We all know the problems that doomed the Concorde (the only commercial SST; the Boeing 2407 never was commercial): high fuel costs, high operating costs due to limited passenger capacity, pollution, noise. The hypersonic approaches are working to overcome at least some of those problems. I’ve seen some articles that discuss bi-plane approaches for SST/HST travel that significantly limit noise; the double-wings cancel out the shock wave and improve fuel usage. There are also airframe stress problems (especially due to the temperature extremes), and of course the cost is commercially prohibitive.

Still, we need to keep working on the technology. The need to fly at stratospheric levels pushed development of pressurized cabins, building on the supercharging developed for engines. The development of jets and new wing shapes — as well as challenges to carry more passsengers and more cargo led to larger jet planes. Perhaps the SST/HST development will finally push the development of effective, efficient, and safe engines and airflow surfaces. I’m curious to see how this test goes.

ETA: Alas, the test failed even before the hypersonic engines were started.