Connecting Corners of the World in Minutes

Speed is the next frontier in flight.

How do we better connect the world and allow interactions on a more rapid scale? Can we get from point A to B in minutes instead of hours or days and save time, one of our most valuable commodities? Can red-eye flights be eliminated from our hectic lives?

In short, can we go faster?

In 1976, the Concorde started to pave the way, but money and technical limitations got in the way. Supersonic flights were just too expensive, and the plane was unpopular and could never reach its full potential because of the sonic boom it created. The last flight occurred in 2003. Can we do better today?

Much of the sonic boom problem is being mitigated thanks to decades of research and improved aircraft shaping. But solving that problem doesn’t get past one of the biggest barriers—informing the public about the design improvements that make the sonic boom weak enough to be acceptable. The AIAA community can play a key role in public outreach by working to share research in this realm and communicating progress to lawmakers.

The remaining problem is advancing supersonic and hypersonic technology to the point that it can cross the barrier from military applications to the commercial sector. Extensive research in the past decade is making hypersonic flight a reality for the military.

But how do we cross the barrier to commercial flight?

One piece of that puzzle is education, primarily workforce development. There is a current rise in hypersonic research interest and funding, but a dire shortage in qualified researchers for the work. This is a direct result of hypersonics funding, which has historically gone through many peaks and valleys, usually on a 15-year cycle. Much of our hypersonics expertise resulted from the Apollo program and the ballistic missile programs that were prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s. There was a resurgence in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the National Aerospace Plane, but that ended around the same time as the end of the Cold War. With each valley, many of the talented researchers moved on to other areas or retired. A few organizations and universities have maintained their hypersonic expertise and are now shouldering the burden of re-educating the workforce. The more young minds we can interest in hypersonics and have them invest their time in the field, the faster we will advance as a community. Again, AIAA can play a major role in encouraging young minds to pursue careers in high-speed flight by showing career opportunities and the exciting challenges of flying faster.

Hypersonic flight will also, of course, require financial investment in people, prediction codes, and test capabilities, but more importantly, the acceptance of failure. Initial tests might fail repeatedly, but we as a community should be OK with unmanned test flight failures. In fact, we should celebrate failure as an opportunity to push beyond our current limits. AIAA too can work to share this mentality with the lawmakers and the community at large. For example, look at the recent success of the SpaceX reusable launch system development program. SpaceX was willing to accept repeated losses of their first stage Falcon 9 rocket but now has demonstrated the ability to recover it. Without a cycle of testing, success and failure, feedback and learning, we as a society will not make commercial supersonic and hypersonic flight a reality.

Only by investing in public outreach and aerosciences education and by being willing to try and fail will we be quicker to succeed in going faster. ★

Connecting Corners of the World in Minutes