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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NASA Leads Supersonic Jet Plan

WASHINGTON ? A sleek, needle-nosed jetliner carrying 300 passengers taxis out of Los Angeles International Airport, rolls to a hushed takeoff over the Pacific Ocean, then accelerates like no commercial plane in history -- reaching 2.4 times the speed of sound nearly 19 kilometers above the earth. The titanium airplane with a cockpit that looks like a video arcade pulls into Tokyo in just over four hours, cutting six hours off the normal trip. Getting to Asia from Los Angeles is no more of a hassle than a hop to Chicago. Jet-lagged international travelers have been anticipating such an airplane for 20 years, since the U.S. Congress halted development of a first-generation supersonic jetliner and Europe produced the rival Concorde -- an economic flop. Advances in technology have raised hopes in the Clinton administration that the long-standing economic and environmental problems with supersonic jets can be overcome -- if the government puts in the seed money. Without much fanfare given the stakes, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, is poised to issue a $1.5 billion contract in coming weeks to a consortium of every major U.S. commercial airplane and jet engine company for an ambitious research program leading to a supersonic jet in regular service by 2005. NASA hopes Americans would dominate the effort, though it would likely include foreign suppliers and investors. It is the sort of colossal industrial project that would require enormous investments, carry huge technical risks and raise potentially serious environmental concerns. Some experts claim NASA is too optimistic about its ability to solve the environmental concerns. And the airlines, reeling from financial losses, have voiced little enthusiasm for buying new planes, particularly those a decade away. But there is a huge potential payoff if the skeptics are wrong, and the plane fulfills its promise of being far more fuel-efficient than Concorde -- and if it can fly without fouling the atmosphere. NASA touts the program as the most important industrial project in the nation's future and says it is a key to halting the erosion of American dominance of the world aircraft industry. At stake is a potential $200 billion in orders for between 500 and 1,000 of the supersonic aircraft that would support roughly 140,000 manufacturing jobs in such areas as Southern California and Seattle, said Wesley Harris, NASA's aeronautics chief. "We have growing confidence that this plane will be built by 2005 by either the U.S. or the Europeans," he said. "Who will build it? U.S. companies must be in the driver's seat." The strong advocacy reflects a changed attitude at NASA, which for years has sponsored aircraft research that often helped foreign competitors as much as Americans and often engaged in academic research with little commercial value. Since the Apollo moon missions, NASA's commitment to aeronautics has withered. Director Dan Goldin now wants to put more emphasis on helping the U.S. aircraft industry, drawing strong support from Congress. Last year, lawmakers gave the supersonic program $10 million more than the $187 million requested by NASA. Under the new supersonic program, known as the High Speed Civil Transport, NASA will play a central role in organizing the efforts of major U.S. aerospace companies and making the key decisions in the next four years about which technologies will be used. For the first time, the archrivals of the commercial aircraft industry will be partners under NASA's direction: Boeing and McDonnell Douglas for the jet's airframe and General Electric and Pratt & Whitney for the engines. By pooling America's best talents, NASA hopes to make the major breakthroughs needed to make a supersonic jetliner economically viable. That task alone is daunting. The program actually to develop the aircraft, including the detailed engineering of each of millions of parts and the building of thousands of production tools, would require a private-sector investment of $15 billion -- more than double the cost of past jetliner developments. Even if high sales volume defrayed the investment expense, the planes would cost between $180 million and $300 million each. (A Boeing 747 today costs roughly $150 million.) Proponents argue that the high price would be offset by the aircraft's ability to make two trips for every one that a subsonic plane makes. As a result, fares would be no more than 20 percent higher than current tickets, Boeing and McDonnell Douglas engineers say. "It would make this an airplane for everybody, not just high-paying passengers," said Bruce Bunin, McDonnell's manager for the program in Long Beach, California.