Geek Trivia: (Sonic) boom or bust

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?

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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