NASA's $247.5 Million 'Quiet' Supersonic Passenger Jet to Launch First Flight in 2021

NASA's new "quiet" supersonic plane—which could make Concorde-style supersonic flights, allowing passengers to fly faster than the speed of sound a reality—has received a green light for construction.

The X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology (QueSST) aircraft got its final approval for assembly following a major project review known as Key Decision Point-D (KDP-D), putting the plane on track for construction by 2020 and its first flight in 2021, NASA announced this week.

"With the completion of KDP-D we've shown the project is on schedule, it's well planned and on track. We have everything in place to continue this historic research mission for the nation's air-traveling public," Bob Pearce, NASA's Associate Administrator for Aeronautics, said in a statement.

The new aircraft is designed to reduce the loudness of the deafening sonic boom noise normally associated with superfast planes to "that of a gentle thump, if it is heard at all," NASA said.

Its construction will be managed under NASA's Low Boom Flight Demonstrator (LBFD) project. Speaking to Newsweek, LBFD Associate Project Manager Heather Maliska said: "Supersonic flight has the potential to approximately cut flight times in half. The X-59 is a purpose-built aircraft that is being built with a near term focus of overcoming the technical and regulatory barriers to quiet supersonic flight overland."

The new plane will be flown over select U.S. communities to gather data from sensors and people on the ground.

"Our goal is to use the X-59 aircraft to collect and deliver data on community response to quiet overflight sounds to support the development of en route certification standards based on acceptable sound levels," Maliska told Newsweek.

Mark Mangelsdorf, X-59 Deputy Chief Engineer, also told Newsweek: "There is a whole host of technologies that contribute to this aircraft. The ability to accurately predict how the shape affects the sonic boom is the big technology advancement over the last decade. So, one of the primary technologies that contribute to making the sonic boom quieter is the outer shape of the aircraft."

The new plane would be a cut above the most recent supersonic passenger jet that was available for commercial travel—the Concorde, which was limited in the destinations to which it could travel due to the sound boom issue and engine noise problems.

The latest aircraft is NASA's first large-scale piloted X-plane—a series of experimental aircraft and rockets from NASA—in more than three decades, the space agency notes.

Its construction will be undertaken by global aerospace company Lockheed Martin, the world's largest defense contractor. Its revenue from the U.S. government alone is estimated to be more than the combined budgets of the Internal Revenue Service and the Environmental Protection Agency, according to USA Today.

The plane will be assembled over three major work areas, with the integration of its systems, including a new "cockpit eXternal Visibility System," and final assembly slated for completion by late 2020 when it will be reviewed for approval for its first flight in 2021.

The X-59 aircraft will be built under a $247.5 million contract plus incentive fees and will be assembled at the Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company's Skunk Works factory—also known as Lockheed Martin's Advanced Development Programs (ADP)—in Palmdale, California, NASA said.

It has yet to be determined which commercial airlines will be among the first carriers to operate supersonic aircraft, but "the interest is certainly there," Maliska told Newsweek.

"With the global demand for air travel growing, this places a demand on speed and opens a large potential market for supersonic flight for business aircraft and larger commercial aircraft. So the interest is certainly there. NASA plays a central role in developing the data needed for the regulation change that is essential to enabling this new market," Maliska noted to Newsweek.

"That said, the X-59, as a purpose-built aircraft, will be used to generate the quiet overflight sounds that will support the development of certification standards based on acceptable sound levels, but what happens beyond the science will be in the hands of the industry," she added.

Plans for the X-59 jet have been in the works since around 2017 but the latest announcement marks the first step toward its construction.

Back in 2017, Denver-based Boom Technology also unveiled plans to build new supersonic jets that would travel 2.2 times the speed of sound, with a view to operating supersonic commercial flights in partnership with Japan Airlines by the mid-2020s.

In 2016, Virgin also revealed it was working with Boom Technology to construct supersonic jets that would fly at speeds of up to 1,451 miles per hour, which is reportedly 10 percent faster than Concorde's top speed and fast enough to travel from New York to London in 3.5 hours.

Lockheed Martin’s Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST)
Lockheed Martin’s Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST) concept’s unique design would allow it to separate the shocks and expansions associated with supersonic flight, resulting in a soft thump rather than a disruptive bang. Lockheed Martin