On Nov. 26, 2003, a unique and complex era of civilian air transport came to a close when the Concorde retired from service, thereby grounding the last commercial supersonic airliner after 27 years of almost continuous operation. The fact that the Concorde flew at all, however, is still something of a minor political miracle.
In the late 1950s, the United States, the Soviet Union, and a British-French conglomerate each set out to develop a supersonic passenger airliner, believing that such a transport would prove invaluable not just to their respective economies, but also to their reputations in international technological circles. In some ways, it was a miniature counterpart to the space race, with the three factions each trying to best the others on the world stage by proving their superior engineering prowess in developing a supersonic transport (SST).
The three products of these efforts were the Anglo-French Concorde, the Soviet Tupolev Tu-144, and the U.S. Boeing 2707. Of this trio, the Concorde was the only long-term success, and even its credentials are somewhat suspect.
The Boeing SST never got much past the drawing board, with the project cancelled in 1971 before either of a pair of prototypes were finished. The Tu-144 did fly before the Concorde — and flew marginally faster — but its actual passenger service life was extremely brief, from November 1977 to June 1978.
What scuttled the Tu-144 were a series of spectacular and fatal crashes — including one at the 1973 Paris Air Show — which proved the design unsafe. What scuttled the Boeing 2707 was the population of Oklahoma City, OK.
For six months in 1964, the U.S. Air Force, Federal Aviation Administration, and NASA collectively subjected the residents of Oklahoma City to eight sonic booms per day — by virtue of supersonic overflights — to gauge the impact of large-scale supersonic transportation operating over the United States. The resoundingly negative public fallout from these tests effectively made supersonic passenger flights over the continental United States a political impossibility.
Concorde retired in 2003 after post-September 11 travel downturns pushed the already barely profitable jetliner too far into the red. In many ways, it was only government sponsorship that got any of these birds flying in the first place.
So without government support in the future, we can’t expect many civilian supersonic flights anytime soon, right? Wrong: Less than a month after the Concorde retired, a group of entrepreneurs undertook the first privately funded manned supersonic flight in history.
WHAT AIRCRAFT PERFORMED THE FIRST PRIVATELY FUNDED MANNED SUPERSONIC FLIGHT?
What aircraft undertook the first entirely privately funded manned supersonic flight in history — less than a month after the government-underwritten Concorde permanently retired from passenger air transit?
On Dec. 17, 2003 — three weeks after Concorde flew its last flight, and 100 years to the day after the Wright brothers inaugurated the era of powered human flight — SpaceShipOne conducted its famous flight 11P, becoming the first privately funded and developed aircraft to break the sound barrier. While this wasn’t one of SpaceShipOne’s qualifying flights for the Ansari X Prize — its maximum altitude on flight 11P was 67,800 feet, short of the required 100-kilometer (328,084-feet) altitude — it was historic nonetheless.
On May 13, 2004, SpaceShipOne became the first privately funded craft to exceed Mach 2, and on Oct. 4, 2004 — during the flight that won the craft the X Prize — SpaceShipOne became the first all-private, all-civilian vehicle to exceed Mach 3.
Of course, like the Concorde, SpaceShipOne has now retired, but that doesn’t mean the era of civilian supersonic transports is on permanent hiatus; you just won’t be using them to travel from two terrestrial destinations. While it may be economically infeasible to operate a conventional SST for old-fashioned airborne mass transit — the extra cost of supersonic flights make ticket costs too exorbitant, given how few places they can fly and how little time is actually gained — the premium of entering the edge of outer space is poised to bring supersonic transportation back into business.
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo fleet, scheduled to go into service in 2009, will take a group of seven passengers on a supersonic, suborbital flight that will include a few moments of microgravity — and a plush view of the curvature of the Earth — all from the edge of space. For a mere $200,000 (U.S.), you can arrange to be among the first 100 space tourists, though Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson promises that the fare will soon drop to a mere $20,000 (U.S.) after the initial rush.
That’s still almost an order of magnitude more expensive than a flight on the defunct Concorde. It’s that kind of math that makes for economic as well as sonic booms — and for some earsplitting Geek Trivia.
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