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NASA: Supporting Innovation in Commercial Supersonic Aircraft

NASA's Aerospace Research Mission Directorate on NACA's 100th Anniversary

 

Few people today realize that supersonic research is actually represented in the familiar NASA insignia. The red chevron element on the NASA “meatball” logo is actually an artistic rendering of an arrow wing model that was developed for supersonic applications by Clinton E. Brown and F. Edward McLean, and wind-tunnel-tested in the late-1950s. A NASA historical monograph prepared by Joseph R. Chambers (NASA SP-2005-4539) notes that the model had been observed on display by James J. Modarelli from the NACA Lewis Laboratory, and Modarelli and his graphic artists later included it in the adopted NASA insignia.

The problems the SST had to overcome included pollution of the upper atmosphere and depletion of the ozone layer through jet emissions; sonic booms; and the noise levels generated by the types of engines needed for supersonic cruising speeds.

The arrow wing element was entirely appropriate for the agency that had been a key contributor to the breaking of the sound barrier by the Bell X-1 more than a decade earlier. In fact, at the time that new NASA insignia was adopted, the nation’s first satellites were orbiting the Earth, and the agency had a fleet of experimental aircraft that were pushing the envelope beyond Mach 3 and investigating myriad designs and concepts. The X-15, approaching its first powered flight, would soon fly four times faster than sound at the edge of space. A sky full of supersonic transports seemed inevitable.

“In the late-’50s, it’s just amazing how fast we got to thinking about ‘commercial aircraft flying supersonic,” said Project Manager for Commercial Supersonic Technology Peter Coen, offering the example of the Super Sonic Transport (SST) Study Group “that NACA and then NASA were participants in, eventually leading to the creation of the U.S. SST program, which was actually run by the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration].”

The SST program coincided with “an explosion of research and development related to bringing that U.S. SST aircraft program to flight,” Coen said.

Following the creation of that program, he said that NASA became “heavily involved in all of the development and evaluation of the SST concepts” from Lockheed, McDonnell Douglas, and Boeing.

Model of the Super Sonic Transport ( SST) variable sweep version (with wings in the low speed position) mounted prior to tests in the Full Scale Wind Tunnel. NASA image

Model of the Super Sonic Transport ( SST) variable sweep version (with wings in the low speed position) mounted prior to tests in the Full Scale Wind Tunnel. NASA image

“At that time, they were all contributing designs, and eventually Boeing was selected,” he explained, noting that some of the early research looked at sonic boom noise reduction for supersonic aircraft. In fact, some of NASA’s original sonic boom reduction research was conducted by Harry Carlson and none other than F. Edward McLean, whose wing it was on the NASA logo.

“By that point in time, NASA had a series of concept configurations that got the name SCAT – Supersonic Commercial Air Transport – that explored the application of high-performance wing configurations to supersonic air transport,” he added.

Dreams of an American supersonic transport were ultimately grounded, however, when the SST was cancelled in 1972, chiefly due to environmental and economic issues. The resources and effort needed to develop technologies to resolve those issues simply weren’t available at the time. The problems the SST had to overcome included pollution of the upper atmosphere and depletion of the ozone layer through jet emissions; sonic booms; and the noise levels generated by the types of engines needed for supersonic cruising speeds.

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Scott Gourley is a former U.S. Army officer and the author of more than 1,500...